Professional Values Paper
April 26, 2011
I have been wrestling with the notion of my own professional values since last semester in LIS650. In that class, students were asked to write a paper which included a section on professional values and it occurred to me then that I hadn’t really sat down and written out what I value in my current profession: teaching. Certain readings in LIS600 have been very influential with regard to my current thoughts on professional values (which really aren’t a stretch from my personal values) and have helped me define with more clarity a value set which I believe will be crucial for success in my future career as a librarian. I will commit to stating that I feel like a poacher; there are those who have come before us whose statements of values are succinct, truthful and practical—Ranganathan and Michael Gorman come to mind.
For this paper I have chosen to present my thoughts on, responses to and reasons for believing what certain writers, philosophers and librarians have already spelled out. The 8 core values set forth by Michael Gorman in his book Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century (2000) will serve as my springboard to thought. I admit forthwith that I have only spent a modest amount of time with Gorman’s principles and I have read that there have been challenges to his 8 core values. I can only hope that in my responses to these values I don’t take too narrow a view and support my belief with my own reasoning. One other note worth mentioning: I have really become familiar with the 8 core values of librarianship through Gorman’s book The Enduring Library: Technology, Tradition and the Quest for Balance (2003) in which the 8 core values are relayed in the context of the jobs/duties of the reference librarian. As such, some of the quotes may specify reference librarians; however, I think that one can certainly extrapolate from the instances of reference librarianship spoken of in the book to other kinds of librarians.
Gorman states that “(l)ibrarians and archivists must ensure that the human record survives and grows and must be stewards of our profession and its useful policies and practices.” (Gorman, 2003) I agree with this statement and am fearful that, even if best practices are utilized, there will still be data loss of untold amounts of information now that digitization and digital creation are so prevalent in librarianship. We must be proactive in helping the development of hardware and software which will last more than two years and which will be easily integrated if new systems are required. Moreover, we have to advocate for budgets to include the frequent backing up and maintaining of the systems used in our libraries. If we don’t, much of our information will be lost irretrievably. As Gorman acknowledges, “(g)ood reference librarians are aware of and value the whole world of recorded knowledge and information—from books to maps, videos, electronic resources, and everything in between. They are concerned for all resources of all kinds and their onward transmission to posterity.” (Gorman, 2003) I think that preservation and transmission of information and knowledge is an important value to uphold in our profession, and although there are new discoveries that may seem to make old information irrelevant, I believe that there is merit in knowing (or being able to know through the preservation of materials which carry information) the evolving chain of information and knowledge which continues to shape our societies and cultures.
I am a service-oriented person. There is a kind of warmth in helping someone acquire something for which they wish. Having worked in restaurants, I know that service to the public is crucial to the success of a business and I believe the same is true of any business; one must take care of their suppliers, their employees and their end users to move forward. There is no place more suited to having top-notch customer service than in a library. People seeking information are wary enough of asking questions for which they believe they may be judged, so it is up to the librarian to put them at ease and help them find answers to their questions. I see daily in my classroom children who are afraid to risk asking a question for fear of being thought ridiculous or ignorant, and I hope that anyone observing me would rate me as having tact and empathy for the students in my room. They are the next generation, the people who will make decisions in our society (or not) who will either be well-informed or not. Gorman says that “(s)ervice to individuals, society, and humanity as a whole is central to all library work.” (Gorman, 2003) I have felt this way for years in my teaching career and hope that I will have further comfort in helping users when I become a librarian. I also hope that I have or can attain a level of service which “treats a child’s inquiry as being as important as a Nobel Prize winner’s; a relevant book or electronic source as being more important than a marginally relevant electronic source or book; and makes no value judgments when it comes to either questions or answers.” (Gorman, 2003)
John Stuart Mill, in his book On Liberty, stated that if there is a wealth of rational opinions and conduct in society “it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone,” for one must have facts and arguments, whether false or not, brought before their minds in order to correct one’s thinking about a subject. (Mill, 1869) Again, I firmly believe that this statement is right and true. I shudder to think that I may one day have to field reference questions from someone looking for neo-Nazi propaganda or Holocaust denial literature. But that feeling is based upon a presupposition that I project onto a situation which has not occurred yet, and, further, a situation which I must keep free from any personal bias because I have read neo-Nazi literature and Holocaust denial literature myself to see what kinds of ideas it contains. When we begin, as librarians, to let our personal biases interfere with someone else’s desire for a particular set of information, we are acting a censors. As Charlene Cain states, “Some people have a difficult time distinguishing the literal from the literary. Our interpretation of what we read is grounded in previous experience, whether that experience is active or vicarious. The meaning we bring to what we hear/read/view is at least as important to our final impression as what the author intended. Misguided, though well-meaning, individuals consider that their reactions to any given material might be universal. The tastes and backgrounds of our population are far too diverse to validate this belief.” (Cain, 2006) I think being a teacher for 8 years makes me feel as though I need to converse with people to get them to see all sides of an issue and take a critical stance to what they hear/read/view. As a librarian, I feel that I need to take a cue from J.S. Mill and let the false and arbitrary arguments play themselves out in the minds of listeners/readers/viewers so that they can determine for themselves what is true.
I am still on the fence regarding cataloging items and assigning metadata by which they are retrieved which inform the user as to the type or kind of materials they are viewing if it involves a value judgment. As Kristina L. Nelson concludes in her article on the cataloging and shelving of Holocaust denial literature, “(f)luctuations and discrepancies abound among academic libraries, and in the wake of an ever-growing lack of tolerance in this world, educators and students should study and observe other cultures, races and religions. To that end, Holocaust studies and revisionist texts complement one another within a research-based curriculum.” (Nelson, 1998) I think J.S. Mill would disagree, as would Gorman when he writes, “Instead of fearing what is unfamiliar, distasteful, or not congruent with our beliefs, we should always remember that our only allegiance as librarians is to the absolute right to free inquiry. We must let time and the tides of thought take care of that which we do not care for and, in doing so, liberate ourselves from the role of arbiters of taste or propriety and the presumption to judge, sift, and eliminate.” (Gorman, 2003) Gorman’s statement seems more true to me; I hear in these lines echoes J.S. Mill.
“Reason and the rational approach lie at the heart of all library practice and philosophy. Idealism tempered by pragmatism is the hallmark of the mind of a true librarian. We yearn to do the right thing, but we also yearn to get things done and to deliver the best service of which we are capable.” (Gorman, 2003) I quite agree with this as it is the way I operated within the teaching profession for many years. My switching to librarianship has been precipitated by a faltering of my idealism within the public school system, and I can’t get back to the place where I once was which said that anything is possible. One of my hopes is that I can find a way to attain the feeling of idealism even in practical matters that arise daily. I long for days when attending to even routine tasks brings me closer to the ideal of what a library should be and fulfilling my role within that sphere. I don’t feel this in the classroom right now. I am bankrupt on the educational testing which occurs in our public schools and my former idealism has not kept pace with my rationality or reason. Hopefully, I can regain some of that idealistic feeling pursuing my new career path.
Literacy and Learning
If ever there was a value which I hold dear it is literacy and learning. I became a teacher after volunteering at The READ Center, a non-profit, volunteer-based, adult literacy center in Richmond, Virginia. I was not always fond of books, but I have always valued knowing how to read in order to discern answers to things I did not know or did not understand. Working with people twice my age who had little knowledge of reading taught me a great deal about my community and my self. I realized while working at The READ Center that one doesn’t need to know how to read to make it through a life, but that a great many of the illiterate men and women with whom I worked were unhappy with their lives, their jobs, their dependence upon other people for anything from transportation to writing a rent check. So, it was then that I decided I would become a teacher and help children learn to read before they missed out on the opportunities it opened up for them. I have taught many economically or emotionally disadvantaged children in my 8 years of teaching. Some learned to read better with my tutelage and some did not. Yet, I still believe that knowing how to read the written word is a skill which invaluably enriches people’s lives. It allows them access to the decoding of information which might otherwise be cut off from them and, to me, not being able to answer one’s own gnawing questions by research and study makes one as poor as a man can be. I feel that Gorman is a kindred spirit when he states, “Illiteracy and aliteracy are the chief enemies of learning in modern society. People who can read but do not are as shrouded in the darkness of ignorance as the truly illiterate.” (Gorman, 2003) It is the idealist which thinks that I will be able to keep advocating for those who can’t read and will be able to win over those who simply don’t through programming within my new sphere of the library. Literacy and learning are values about which I don’t think I’ll ever change my mind.
Equity of Access
Equity of access to information is an issue for which librarians must advocate in the 21st Century and beyond. Although much of the digitization which is now occurring seems to be implemented on half-formed thoughts with improper budgetary means to maintain the information very far into the future, there are projects which are digitizing materials with preservation and access in mind. I believe that everyone should have the ability to access information across a wide spectrum of types and kinds of data, but socioeconomic means, the pure, dumb luck of being born in the “wrong” geographical region, or the choice to attend a community college are just a few of the obstacles to overcome during the next few decades. Digitization can play a part in equitable access to information, but once digitized (if, in fact, the information wasn’t digital born) the issue of having the means to access electronic information may still be a concern. Gorman speaks of the utility of electronic information in helping information seekers by “the leveling of access to electronic resources. The users of the Yale University Library have access to print and other tangible collections of untold richness. The users of a junior college in a small town in central California are lucky if they have access to one five-hundredth of those resources. The difference between the number and range of electronic resources (and assistance in their use) available to these two groups is probably still great, but it is orders of magnitude less than with “traditional” resources.” (Gorman, 2003) So, there is still a gap to be bridged, but with persistence and advocacy for equal access for all members of our communities by librarians and other information specialists we should be able to significantly cut this gap down to size. I am hopeful that I may have the chance to be a part of the push for more equitable access to all types and kinds of information.
In our class readings for LIS600, I was taken with the statement made by Fred Cate that “privacy is a tool needed to achieve some result. A society’s interest in protecting privacy reflects that society’s interest in the result, not in privacy.” (Cate, 1997) Cate goes on to cite Alan Westin’s list of four values of privacy and elaborates upon each at some length; they are:
- Release from Public Roles
- Self-evaluation and Decsionmaking
- Limited and Protected Communications
These four values that are the foundation of the value of privacy for Westin and, by extension, Cate, really made me stop and think about how much I truly believe in each of them. Who doesn’t want to be released from a public role? I try to take off my “Mr.-Bell-teacher-hat” as close to 3:35 (when my students are dismissed from school) as possible, and I still need to be mindful of how I am perceived by my students and their families when I am in public. Self-evaluation and decisionmaking are, to me, essential for anyone’s mental health. When I think of this value, I think of meditation, time away to let life’s stresses roll away from one’s self, allowing an individual to ask questions about their levels of satisfaction in all aspects of their own life. Autonomy is crucial to the other three values because it “recognizes that privacy is vital to the development of each individual.” (Cate, 1997) In a professional setting, Gorman’s example of computer screens for searching and retrieving information being open for just about anyone to see calls a library’s claim that privacy is important into question:
We believe that people are entitled to read and view what they wish without others knowing what it is they have read or viewed. For that reason, we ensure that circulation records are not revealed to others and that libraries are furnished with places in which people can read, view videos, and listen to sound recordings in privacy. (The aberration is the way we make computer screens visible to the casual passerby—partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because we do not trust people’s use of such a “hot” medium. The small handheld computer linked to wireless networks may well be the instrument that restores privacy in the electronic arena.) (Gorman, 2003)
Perhaps it is not the questioning of the belief that privacy is important, rather it is a question of creating a system by which patrons have access to computers whose screens are not viewable by other patrons. I certainly value my own privacy and in my career as a librarian, I will esteem other’s privacy just as highly as my own.
As Gorman states with regard to librarianship and democracy, “Librariesare supremely democratic institutions. They stand for freedom, equality and the rights of humankind.” (Gorman, 2003) I agree that libraries can play a vital role in our society today. I hold the system of democracy dear, but I know that for a society to be truly democratic, the populace needs to be informed. As a librarian, I will do my best to further the democratic goals of our nation by upholding all of the values stated in this paper previously. Service to the public through librarianship is, I believe, a civic-minded endeavor from which society can truly benefit. I close on a last quote from Gorman which states, “We need to examine and affirm the core values of our profession if we are to flourish in a time of change and maintain the ethic of service to individuals and society that distinguishes our profession.” (Gorman, 2003)
Cain, Charlene C. “Librarians and Censorship: The Ethical Imperative”
Louisiana Libraries 68 no3 Winter 2006
Gorman, M (2003). “The enduring library: technology, tradition and the quest for balance.” Washington: ALA
Kate, Fred. (1997). Privacy in the Information Age. Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institute Press.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/130/. [Date of Printout].
Nelson, Kristina L. (1998). “Erasing the Horror: Revisionism and Library Access.” Current Studies in Librarianship, Spring/Fall pages 12-19