Student Snippets A Window Into The Daily Life & Thoughts of SLIS Students

Ethics in the Library and the Archives

Megan Ondricek

I’ve been enjoying some very engaging readings and discussion in both of my classes the past few weeks, as our units on ethics happened to coincide. According to my professors, the ethics lesson is always everyone’s favorite, and I soon found out why. Believe it or not, the archives and library professions are veritable minefields of fascinating ethical quandaries!

As we discussed these topics in class on Saturday, I realized that library ethics are essentially about protecting and enabling people’s right and freedom of choice. We believe that everyone has the right to choose what to read, what to think, what to do, and what to say. We might not agree with their choice, and other people in the library or the community might not agree with their choice, but it is not our place to restrict or pass judgement on that choice. It is important to remember that we cannot know what use a patron intends for a particular book, or what reaction they may have to any given piece of information. Of course, some lines have to be drawn to make sure a person’s choice or action does not infringe on the rights of others, and this is where things can get tricky. And what do you do when the profession demands a certain kind of behavior, but your employer demands another? What if it’s the U.S. government asking you to act contrary to your professional ethics?

In the archives, ethics largely involves the balancing act between the needs and rights of many different stakeholders: the institution/repository, the users and researchers, the donors, the creators and subjects of records, the materials themselves, and society at large. Archivists serve as mediators between all these different groups and attempt to resolve the conflicts that result when the rights or wishes of one group conflict with those of another group. As with libraries, copyright and privacy present ongoing and recurring challenges.

Professional codes of ethics and values statements can provide useful frameworks for making ethical decisions, but every situation is unique and the possible scenarios are endless. This means that most ethics questions are handled on a case-by-case basis and it often comes down to the individual making the decision and their own inner guidance system. Of all the parties involved, perhaps the most important one to answer to is yourself.  

If you’ve never seen or read these documents, you should definitely check out the Library Bill of Rights, the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, and the Core Values and Ethics statement from the Society of American Archivists. If these declarations resonate with you and/or provoke feelings of conviction with some trepidation, then you have probably chosen the right profession!