LIS service and social obligation

The values and ethics of Library and Information Science are enlightening because they show how contemporary libraries, even though they have needed to adapt to changing technologies, still mirror the principles laid down by their original founders, such as S. R. Ranganathan. Indeed, it is difficult to come up with another example of an institution that has not compromised its original values due to external pressures or agendas. One only needs to think of the federal government, or the health care industry and the debacle that is insurance companies, which limit what doctors you can see, or when and where you can be treated in hospital. What about public education and the adoption of the common core curriculum? Libraries, on the other hand, seem to hold their core values close to heart. There is an unwavering devotion to the core values in this profession, and while these values may tweak their definitions, they are relatively unchanged. This is why I think libraries will be the last vanguard of hope and reason if society devolves. They embody the ideals of libertarianism, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, altruism, and moral philosophy.

51pulhmlznl-_sx331_bo1204203200_All of the core values of Librarianship are interconnected, and each value seems to build on the principle that comes before it. This is why I think Service is listed first in Richard Rubin’s chapter on values and ethics in Foundations of Library and Information Science; a relatively new reinterpretation of the values outlined by the ALA and ACLR. I am therefore inclined to list service as the most important and enduring value. Of course, I think each core value is equally valid and meaningful. But all the other values seem to fall under this broader rubric of service to humanity. The political and philosophical ideals mentioned above imbue this service with a dedication to fight against corrupting influences, such as idealogical dogmatism, totalitarian attitudes, etc.

Perhaps two of the more important values right now are “respect for the individuality and diversity of all people” and “freedom for all people to form, to hold, and to express their own beliefs.” Taken in isolate, these are important ones, I think. Not to say there are any core values that are not important. But in order to be a successful and helpful LIS professional, those two tenets need to be fully understood. Diversity is important, because we live in a diverse society. While political figures may be attempting to build barriers to diversity, LIS professionals should be working to remove them. Suspending any cultural biases or ignorance is especially important, because LIS professionals need to be capable of serving multicultural needs. Especially today, when many minorities may be worried about their future, we need to be in a position to help them access information that will provide encouragement and empowerment. Of course, tied into this is the second value mentioned, which strongly echoes democratic values of free speech and freedom to assemble. Without knowledge or information, there can be no public voice or group unity. Indeed, the old adage “Knowledge is Power” is due for a conscious renewal.

Still, although the library’s aims are noble in promising privacy, inclusiveness, and unrestricted access to information, there are moments when corrupting influences are deemed to be cultivated in the library itself. These are usually the result of contextual misunderstandings. For instance, the library may circulate a section on Nazi propaganda, and someone may cry foul and come up against the library and say that a political faction in the community – let’s say a group aligned with the alt-right – has been circulating these materials and are becoming increasingly violent (although alt-right violence has thus far been rhetorical…). There is definitely the possibility of library materials being disseminated and resulting in public harm. And although these events do happen, the author Rubin seems to absolve LIS professionals of any guilt by simply stating that it is the library’s (and hence librarians’) duty to provide unrestricted access to any kind of information, regardless of its potential for harm. In fact, Rubin said that censoring library users “is its own harm.” While I agree with this statement in principle, I was hoping to see a discussion surrounding a case where public harm was directly tied to library activity, and how that situation was handled.

That discussion, however, is probably more fertile elsewhere. It seems like there is a current debate on this issue, with some LIS professionals considering closed-access systems or suggesting that potentially harmful knowledge should be granted only if there is a reasonable research request attached to the desired materials. It seems to be a balanced issue based on case-by-case specifics. In other words, where there is legitimate concern for public harm, there is the option to suspend professional ethics in favor of social obligation. But I believe this determination is still based in classical ideals, moral philosophy, and a service to humanity.


One thought on “LIS service and social obligation

  1. LIS Professionals and Social Justice – Digital Téchnē

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