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258 A g r e e m e n t s u p p l e m e n t s ethiCs mAp loCAtion H, 3 threAD loCAtion Page 124 sCApe Core Values Ethics is seen in Author R. David Lankes Agreement DesCription It was 1999, and the AskA consortium was meeting at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The panel of librarians, library instructors, AskA services, and government officials were discussing a set of quality standards in virtual reference (Kasowitz et al., 2000). When the standard stating that services should be without bias was brought up, an interesting discussion ensued. Joseph Janes observed that the biases of a given AskA service were in many ways the strength of the service. Take AskShamu (, for example. AskShamu was a service of SeaWorld that answered questions on marine biology and was considered an exemplary service. “What kind of answer do you think they will give when asked whether keeping animals in captivity is a good thing or bad?” asked Joe. Likewise, one could ask a library about the benefits of fair use. The point was not that these services were without bias, but whether their biases were obvious, and more important for the consideration of a virtual reference consortium, whether the network of all the services achieved a neutral stance. This may seem like a fine distinction , but it highlights an inherent struggle in the ethics of a profession that is situational but seeks universal approaches. Take the ALA code of Ethics (American Library Association, 1995). The first code states, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies ; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Here the professional librarian should be neutral and unbiased. Yet in the sixth code, librarians “…do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.” So, as in the case of AskShamu, what happens if the employing institution has a bias? I argue that all organizations and all individuals have inescapable biases. The best one can do, from an ethical perspective, is to disclose those biases as much as possible. At the least, this allows our patrons to be aware of potential distortions in service. Such a disclosure is an essential part of conversation. Conversation Theory and later theories on discourse and communication talk about a sometimes subtle negotiation process that takes place between parties in a conversation. Issues of status, language, and experience all factor into an interaction. These interactions and negotiations ultimately end up in a series of agreements that form the basis of knowledge creation. The library profession is quick to point out such biases in service populations —the public thinks books are all the library offers, the patrons think the library is stuffy, and so on. Sometimes these biases are elicited through research and found in data, but often they are actually perceptions /biases the professional holds about the public. Figure 126 A g r e e m e n t s u p p l e m e n t s 259 With this more situational approach to ethics, where biases and ethical constraints are negotiated as part of knowledge creation, it also becomes clear that the inevitable biases of librarians will shape the conversations of the community. This is far from a bad thing. Librarianship is a principled profession. That is to say, it is a profession that has taken the time and effort to make explicit its principles and ethics . As such, it is seen as an honest broker in many conversations and information-seeking processes. It has become a respected and credible voice because it is so forthright about its ethics and principles. However, such a principled approach can degenerate into a sort of paternalism when not guided by adherence to some larger goal. In librarianship, this ultimate goal is service, and it should prevent paternalism . Without this drive to serve and be part of a community, the library can seek to shape the community based on a narrow and elite view. This can easily be seen in the early American library movement when the promotion of literacy became the promotion of the “right” literacy as defined by the library (most often Christian white men). One can still see such paternalism in reactions to the rise in gaming programs at the library. Stocking public library shelves with science fiction...


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