Reflection on Ethics and Professional Values in Librarianship

As part of my working my way through the Resources to Support the PKSB on the CILIP VLE, one of the suggestions for the Wider Organisational and Environmental Context reflection activity was that I write an entry in the Portfolio looking at how one of the Ethical dilemmas presented in Bawden and Robinson (2012) p. 238 (available through the VLE) and discuss how it relates to my work. In doing this I have found myself learning about digital privacy, and critical information literacy, so this blog post covers a fair bit of ground regarding my thoughts on this. 

Thornley et al (2011) define an ethical dilemma as “a scenario in which there are competing and irreconcilable duties or obligations in which the fulfilling of one duty will result in the neglect of another” (p. 548). I thought this quite pertinent given my recent reflective explorations into my values as a librarian, prompted by my (sadly unfinished) MOOC in library advocacy. I also was made to think about the values of librarianship through the brilliant article on what librarians are doing to protect the privacy of their users in April 2015’s edition of Update and the links to the various projects and heartfelt blog posts and videos librarians have made on the erosion of privacy.

I have also recently completed training within my workplace through the Police on the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, in particular the PREVENT element, which according to the website responds to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views”. This training explained how PREVENT officers look to provide practical support and advice to people vulnerable to the propaganda of extremism, as well as work with local institutions, such as schools, to spot signs of extremism and nip them in the bud. This, as was made very clear by the trainers, could include religious, as well as political extremism, and is not just threats from abroad but from groups such as Far Right hate groups in the UK.

This training led me to think about one of the ethical dilemmas presented by Bawden and Robinson; should librarians ever tell the police what a patron has been reading? As I work more on the enquiry desk side of the library I decided to relate this to my work- what would I do if was asked to find material that could be considered extreme or potentially harmful on the enquiry desk?

Unlikely as this may be in a modern context, considering that according to the PREVENT training the majority of extremist propaganda is encountered online, it is still something that librarians have to think about, and something that already has started much debate. CILIP’s Ethical Principles state libraries should have “Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users” and the associated Code of Professional Conduct cautions all practitioners to “protect the confidentiality of all matters relating to information users, including their enquiries”.

“CILIP’s User privacy in libraries: guidelines for the reflective practitioner” is a really useful document giving practical examples of digital privacy dilemmas in libraries I can really relate to-eg what do you do with your lost memory sticks. The guidelines state “Under the Data Protection Act the threshold of criteria that have to be satisfied before sensitive personal data can be collected is much higher and the need to ensure its security and privacy is also correspondingly higher as the damage and intrusion for the individual can be much greater” -sensitive data includes religious beliefs or political affiliations-which could be expressed through the reference interview. I know from experience that users will tell you pretty much anything-deeply personal information related to their lives, beliefs, and experiences. Having worked in education for many years this to my mind is firstly linked to safeguarding-being aware of who to pass on concerns in a professional way that follows the organisations safeguarding policies. This could in the same way relate to the ethical question mentioned-but is this passing the book of responsibility without considering the privacy of the user who has placed their trust in you as a professional?

Thornley et al compare the professional’s position of trust with regard to users to the duty of confidentiality held by doctors, lawyer and priests. However, they go on to say “The promotion of knowledge, unlike a doctor’s appeal to his or her primary role in saving life, is a far more ethically ambiguous role since it does rather depend on who has the knowledge, what their intentions (and powers) are, and what the knowledge is about” (Thornley et al, 2011, p. 550).

I believe this is the key thing to think about in this argument; librarians have to help people find things out-that is their job. To censor information, to disallow someone from accessing it based on assumptions or prejudice directly contravenes  Ranganathan’s Laws- “books are for use”, “every reader his book”. I’m not going to stop people reading chemistry books, or books on topics related to racism or eugenics, no matter how distasteful subjects I find them, because I am a librarian and asking about material is not the same as actively seeking to cause harm. So we on the enquiry desk should, to the best of our ability, answer enquiries fully. Give full reference interviews and make sure the users have all the information pertinent to the topics they are investigating. According to Thornley et al “librarians have a moral duty to allow them to access information which, even if it is potentially harmful, they should as adult users have the right to access if they so wish” (Thonley et al, 2011, p. 552) and this would be my standpoint in working with adult users of my services.

If I did believe there was a genuine safeguarding issue regarding vulnerable people or children, however,  then my duty would be first and foremost to follow the policies of my organisation. Working in FE for example I had a procedure to follow if anything was disclosed to me, and this led to be being able to remove myself from the ethical dilemma of protecting privacy as I was still acting within the values of my role.

Digital information, literacy, privacy, and critical thinking

Surely the best thing would be to also actively promote critical information literacy, to allow people to make their own minds up about what they read and watch, knowing that they have the tools to appraise it as a piece of propaganda. National policy aims to expand the information society through faster and better networks in rural areas, and provide wifi in public libraries, and yet at the same time also censor information and prevent extremist views being shared. Why, instead of promoting monitoring of information (which I would argue is another form of censorship, seeing researching in privacy is more likely to promote knowledge than researching “with one’s mind on who is looking over one’s shoulder” (Thornley et al, 2011, 550) do we not invest in the education of evaluation of resources and critical thinking?

Of course, having your wifi and associated training provided by a corporate body is a a cheap and effective means of keeping your promises of expanding information provision, but the ethical choice would be to have librarians providing an enquiry service that also included help using the Internet, as librarians could use their values of privacy, and their legacy of trust, whilst also promoting critically thinking about resources encountered through the Internet.

Near the end of the Cold War, FBI agents asked New York City librarians to watch for patrons who might be diplomats from foreign hostile powers trying to recruit intelligence agents or gathering intelligence. Nancy Lian, then head of the New York Library Association, is quoted as saying “These things are so far removed from the professional duties of a librarian that I find it almost inconceivable that this whole thing is happening,” (Peterson, 2014). McCartyism in the 1950s led to what people read and researched being used to make assumptions about their politics, often with terrible consequences, both for the individual and the state (Thornley, 2011). The ALA’s response to the Patriot Act showed how seriously librarians take invasions of patrons’ privacy, even though this is occasionally misunderstood by non-librarians, or even librarians who do not value this-see the comments under the brilliantly passionate video by Sarah Houghton on the Overdrive/Amazon issue in American public libraries from 2011 for examples of this.

Now librarians are under a different sort of pressure; to maintain these values and professional duties whilst working in a world that sees data as a commodity.  “Privacy is a core value of librarianship, but librarians enter into agreements with suppliers who do not have the same set of ethical principles and values guiding their actions. Indeed they could well be under pressure to monetise the inherent values in the date that they have gathered about users’ reading habits.” (Pedley, 2015, p. 42). Some libraries are decreasing the amount of data stored on their users. In HE, using third party Access Management Systems also means that vendors do not know the background details of the individual users logging on to resources.

This relates to the #uklibchat discussion on data and statistics on the 5 May 2015, which I caught the tail end of and looked like a very interesting and detailed discussion, which I would encourage readers to look at.

On reflection, this is an ever growing area of concern within libraries. We are the gatekeepers of information-both for users to access, and about the users themselves. We must act responsibly, and I believe maintain our values as professionals. Information is a commodity, but the most important thing is to give people options and advice about how their information is gathered, and what it could be used for. This links back to my earlier point of critical information literacy being a vital tool that should be taught-and not just in libraries but in life in general. One of my biggest concerns at the moment is just how free people I know are with their personal details-in booking taxis for example, they allow a company to know where they live, where they go the most often, how long they stay there, where they go on the way back home, what they are like as people, and allow complete strangers to ‘rate’ them based on ten minutes in the same space. This information gives an amazing amount of incite in people’s lives and could be used erroneously on so many levels.

I support campaigns such as the Library Freedom Project, and would argue this debate needs to extend outside of libraries and really show people what the information society means for them. Librarians need better training in this issue, and I would love to see a series of documentaries similar to those about what goes into food about what happens with all that personal information gathered through store cards, money saving apps, and other ‘life-hacks’ that actually give people power over everything you do.

Further reading – either OA or available through CILIP VLE

Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. (2012). Introduction to Information Science. London: Facet Publishing

CILIP (2011) ‘User Privacy in Libraries’. Available at: (Accessed 7 May 2015).

Peterson, A. (2014) ‘Librarians won’t stay quiet about government surveillance’, Washington Post. Available at: (Accessed 7 May 2015).

Podley, P.(2015)”What are librarians doing to protect the privacy of their users?” Update. April. pp. 42-43.

Thornley, C. (2011) ‘Do RFIDs provide new ethical dilemmas for librarians and information professionals?’ International Journal of Information Management. 31, pp. 546-555.


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