Knowledge of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics Among Illinois Public Library Directors; A Study
John A. Moorman
Professional ethics deals with the standard of conduct employed by a profession and the moral judgment used by practitioners of that profession in their daily work. In a profession such as librarianship, with its history of defending the freedom of the individual to read what they desire, and in defending the right of the librarian to acquire, house, display and make available to the general public materials dealing with all points of view—a high standard of ethics should be one of the cornerstones of professional knowledge and practice. Since its formation, the American Library Association has worked on a Code of Ethics for its membership. In 1903, 1929, 1938, 1975, 1981 and since 1992, special attention has been given to either formulating, revising or revisiting the American Library Association Code of Ethics. The Association's Code of Ethics Committee was first noted in 1928 and was established as an ALA Council standing committee in 1975. The first code of ethics for the American Library Association was adopted in 1939. The last major revision of the code was accomplished in 1981. At the 1995 mid-winter meeting of the American Library Association, the ALA Committee on Professional Ethics discussed and passed on for ALA Council action at the 1995 Annual Conference a proposed revision of the Code of Ethics.
Researching literature since the late 1970s, has shown no evidence of any scientific study of how practicing librarians viewed the ALA Code of Ethics and/or employed the code in their institutions. There are articles in major library publications such as American Libraries, Library journal and Wilson Library Bulletin, dealing with ethical situations and outlining or requesting suggestions from readers for possible solutions. Journals such as North Carolina Libraries have presented questionnaires on ethical solutions and requested reader responses and comments. However, nowhere is there a report on a scientifically constructed survey of library practitioners dealing with either their knowledge of the code or how it is employed in their institution.
Recent discussion on the revision of the Code of Ethics has not come out of any apparent groundswell of membership dissatisfaction with the Code, or of any overwhelming concern with its use or non-use. Instead, it has been through discussion by a few individuals in the library press that this issue has come to the attention of the profession. Lillian N. Gerhardt, editor-in-chief of the School Library Journal, stated in the January 1990 issue, editorial column "We're too quiet about ethics in library service. The Librarians' Code of Ethics, adopted in 1939 and last revised in 1981 by the American Library Association, is far less well-known and much less fussed over than the Library Bill of Rights-and that's too bad."1 Later in her column she states a determination to break the silence and shake up the complacency about the code by discussing in future months each section of the code and indicate its inadequacies. This series, which began in February 1990 and continued until February 1991, spurred the discussion which has resulted in the proposed code revision currently before the ALA Council.
In his article in American Libraries in the January 1991 issue. Lee W. Finks discusses criticism of the ALA Code of Ethics and asserts; "Librarians should consider adopting a new code of ethics that will serve our profession better than ALA's inadequate Code of Ethics."2 The article further notes an unpublished dissertation by Johan Bekker, "Professional Ethics and its Application to Librarianship," Case Western Reserve, 1976, detailing at length what components a new code of ethics should have, using examples from other professions. Finks states "that it was Beeker's vision of a better code, developed in his doctoral research, that inspired this article."3
Richard N. Stichler in his article "On Reforming ALA's Code of Ethics," which appeared in the January 1992 issue of American Libraries, discusses at length the question of whether librarianship is a profession or a trade and uses the ethical code of the American Association of University Professors as a good example for librarians to follow if we are indeed a profession.
Sue Stroyan, in her president's column in the spring 1993 issue of Library Administration and Management, touches on the flurry of activity concerning the ALA Code of Ethics and indicates that her "informal, unscientific survey of working librarians ... found NONE that even know we had a Code of Ethics."4 Harry Tuchmayer, in the spring 1993 issue of North Carolina Libraries, states that the problem of why librarians do not think more about the Code of Ethics is that "we like to think of ourselves as somehow different, or even better, than other professions ... We as a profession have become too complacent with regards to ethical concerns because we no longer believe they apply to us."5 He believes that librarians are not perfect and are quite capable of committing all the wrongs we should be struggling to avoid as any other profession. Thus, we do not need to revise the current Code, but rather come out from hiding behind it and live up to the values delineated within it.
As indicated, the literature is personal viewpoint oriented with little or no discussion of how the rest of the profession feels about the Code. This literature review only points out the need for this study. There is simply no empirical data on what librarians know about the ALA Code of Ethics and how, if at all, they use it in their work situation.
To correct this situation I decided to survey Illinois Public Library Directors as to their knowledge of and use of the ALA Code of Ethics. This group was selected because it is a population easily defined and located, and a mailed survey to a sample of the population was within the financial and time resources of the researcher.
Illinois Public Library Statistics: A Guide for Librarians and Trustees 1992-1993; Prepared for the Illinois State Library, published by the Library Research Center of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was used in determining the sample for the survey. This book indicated that there were 623 public libraries in Illinois, of which 616 submitted annual reports for the publication. Sample results would have to be accurate within + or -4% at a 95% confidence level, it was determined that a return sample size of at least 160 library directors be obtained. Anticipating that a two-stage return process would be necessary, consisting of an initial questionnaire mailout and a follow-up reminder card, a sample size of 252 was obtained using a random number table against the list of public libraries in the above mentioned book. As the following tables indicate, the sample obtained was representative of the Illinois Public Library Universe.
The next step was to prepare the mailed questionnaire document. This document was prepared with input from Dr. Brett Sutton of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Edward Lakner of the Library Research Center at the Library School. The survey questionnaire was divided into three parts. The first part asked for information such as sex, age, years in library work, membership in both ALA and ILA and the size of library in which the respondent is employed. The second part inquires about whether the respondent had prior knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics and if so where that knowledge was acquired, and to what use the Code is put by the
individual and the institution with which they are affiliated. The third part takes each of the six units of the current ALA Code of Ethics and requests that the respondent indicate his/her degree of disagreement with each unit on a five-point interval scale. The respondent is then asked how they feel abut the adequacy of the current Code of Ethics as a statement about the principles and work practices necessary for the practicing librarian. They are further asked in what other settings are ethics employed. A complete copy of the questionnaire is found in the appendix.
The initial questionnaire was pretested by 25 Illinois Public Library Directors, selected by the researcher to represent all sizes of public libraries. Their input was an important part of the development of the final questionnaire document.
Upon return of the mailed questionnaires to the researcher, they were checked off the master list and kept until the questionnaire return period had expired. Then they were delivered to the Library Research Center at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where staff inputted the data into a computer using the SPSS statistical program. Data sets were returned to the researcher for analysis.
Time frame for this survey was January 1995 through April 1995. As table 3 indicates, the returned questionnaires were representative of the Illinois Public Library Universe.
Of the 180 questionnaires returned, females constituted 150 or 83.3 percent of the respondents. The 29 male respondents accounted for 16.1 percent. As 66.67 percent of the responding Public Library directors were from libraries serving populations of less than 10,000 and 84.45 percent of the respondents were from libraries serving populations of less than 25,000, this gender representation is not surprising.
Table 4 indicates the age of the respondents according to the size of library. For the survey a slightly different population grouping was used than used in the public library survey. This was to cut down the response groups from 9 to 7 for ease of handling, especially as no library in the 250,000 population grouping was selected for this survey.
The chart indicates that the majority of Illinois Public Library directors surveyed are in the 40 to 60 age grouping (75.4%) and that only one respondent under the age of 40 years is a director of a library serving a population of 25,000 or more.
Membership in the Illinois Library Association was held by 134 public library directors or 74.4 percent of the respondents. Ninety-two respondents or 51.1 percent held membership in the American Library Association.
When asked if they knew that the American Library Association had a Code of Ethics, 56.1 percent, or 101 respondents, indicated that they knew that ALA had a Code of Ethics, while 79 respondents, or 43.9 percent indicated that they did not. This is a higher percentage than had been anticipated given Sue Stroyan's article and recent literature. However, given that 51.1 percent of the respondents indicated membership in ALA and that the ALA Code of Ethics is printed on the material sent out with the membership card, it shows that librarians tend to read what is sent them. It is noteworthy that membership in either the American Library Association or the Illinois Library Association does make a difference in knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics. When membership in ALA was compared with knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics, 76.1 percent of the ALA members knew that there was a code of ethics, while only 34.9 percent of the non-members
knew. When membership in ILA was compared with knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics, 64.2 percent of the ILA members knew that there was a code of ethics while only 33.3 percent of the non-members knew. Thus, membership in either professional organization tends to make an individual more aware of the ALA Code of Ethics. What is interesting is that 23.9 percent of ALA members did not know about the ALA Code of Ethics when it is printed for them on their membership information.
Respondents who had indicated that they had a knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics were then asked how they obtained this knowledge. There were multiple responses to this question. The most common response was through ALA publications. Fifty-three individuals (52.48%) of the 101 respondents with code knowledge indicated that this was a source of their knowledge. The next most popular response was in the work setting, with 19 individuals (18.81%) responding. Other responses included 16 individuals (15.84%) learning from peers in the profession and 14 individuals (13.86%) learning from course work taken at ALA accredited graduate programs. ALA and ILA conference attendance and other library publications lagged behind with 7.92 percent, 1.98 percent and 9.9 percent response respectively. The survey suggests that the best source for knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics were the publications of the American Library Association.
When the 101 respondents who indicated they knew of the ALA Code of Ethics were asked if they had a copy of the Code at their work place, 48 individuals (49%) of the respondents indicated they did. When asked if they had specifically referred to the ALA Code of Ethics for a work-related situation in the past year, only 13 library directors (13.1%) of the respondents indicated that they had. This indicates that while more than half of the respondents were aware of the ALA Code of Ethics, less than a quarter of all respondents had a copy of the Code at their work place, and only 7.2 percent of all respondents had referred to the Code of Ethics for a work-related situation in the past year. This latter figure suggest that either the Code is used little in library work situations
or that librarians operate on such an high ethical level that the Code is seldom needed.
When asked, "Does the institution to which you are affiliated have the ALA Code of Ethics as a part of its policy and/or procedure manual?" 30 responded "yes." This was another unexpected finding in that the figure was higher than anticipated. Thus, in 30 percent of the Illinois public libraries whose directors knew of the ALA Code of Ethics, or 16.6 percent of all survey respondents, the document is a part of their policy and/or procedure documentation.
The remaining questionnaire dealt with current statements contained in the ALA Code of Ethics, whether the question of ethical behavior entered into their thinking in other areas and their view as to the adequacy of the ALA Code of Ethics as a statement of the principles, and work practices which must be employed by the practicing librarian. These parts of the questionnaire were to be answered by all respondents regardless of their prior knowledge of the Code.
As Table 5 indicates, respondents were clear on their feelings about the six statements of the current Code. On the average, 76.68 percent of the respondents strongly agreed with each of the six Code statements. Coupling responses circled four and five the average agreement for the six code statements was 93.57 percent. This indicates that when presented with the code statements as individual items, most public library directors give them overwhelming support regardless of their prior knowledge of the Code.
It is interesting that the least amount of support was given the statement concerning censorship and the obligation of all librarians to resist any attempts to censor library materials. When the responses were examined by age and gender of the respondent, several interesting developments occurred. Whereas 72.7 percent of the women responding strongly agreed with the statement, only 41.4 percent of the men did, and 20.7 percent of the men gave the statement a 3 or a neutral response while only 6.7 percent of the women gave the statement a 3. When age was considered, 11.5 percent of the male 40-49 age group and 8.3 percent of the male 50-59 age group gave the statement a 3. What does this tell us? Possibly that middle-aged male library administrators have had enough experience with problems relating to material selection to be unwilling to give total support to an absolutist position.
Using age and gender comparisons on the six code statements, statement 4 is the only area where any significant difference between age and gender groupings were observed. Here, 75.9% of the males strongly agreed with the statement as opposed to 69.3 percent of the females. Additionally, 6.9 percent of the males and 6 percent of the females indicated a 3 or basically neutral position on the statement. While the numbers indicating a three are a small minority, they do indicate that some Illinois public library directors have problems with equality of opportunity and due process in an important aspect of their work setting.
The responses to the ALA Code of Ethics statements were examined according to size of library served by the library director. There were no differences in significant population groupings to report.
The next question concerned whether ethical behavior entered into their thinking in other areas. The response here was as anticipated: 169 library directors (93.9%) of those surveyed indicated that ethical behavior did enter into their thinking in other areas. It is interesting that when this question is examined according to response by gender, 100 percent of the males indicated that ethical behavior entered into their thinking in other areas, while only 93.3 percent of the females did.
As Table 6 indicates, each of these areas was a choice of a large majority of the respondents. The percentage of total are computed against the number of library directors (169) indicating that ethical behavior entered into their thinking in non-working areas. When the above responses were examined by age and gender, one statistic stood out. Only 44.8 percent of the male respondents indicated that civic clubs were a place where ethical behavior enters into their thinking as opposed 88.4% of the female respondents.
Also to that question, nearly a quarter of all respondents gave other choices. When listing other places where ethical behavior enters into their thinking the most common choice mentioned was all aspects of life. Twenty-seven responses were basically this comment. To quote from several responses, "One is either ethical or one is not, I can't imagine applying ethics to one realm of life and not to others, although I know many people do feel this way." "All of life
involves ethical contemplation and decisions." "I try to live that way always/ I don't need a code." "All areas of life, at least in an informal sense." "I try to live my life ethically, so ethical thinking enters into all phases of my existence." "Ethics should be a part of everyday life—a habit that influences our everyday behavior."
The quotes indicate the predominate belief of those who responded to the other option on the question that ethical behavior is a part of all aspects of their lives. Additional places mentioned in the other category included the Boy Scouts of America, personal business dealings, when anything political or involving government is concerned, their publishing interests, school, leisure activities, sports, as a parent and school committees.
The closing question asked if the current ALA Code of Ethics is an adequate statement of the principles and work practices which must be employed by the practicing librarian. All respondents were given the opportunity to answer this question regardless of whether they knew of the ALA Code of Ethics prior to receiving the questionnaire. 156 public library directors (86.7%) indicated that the Code is an adequate statement and only 10 (5.6%) indicated that it was not. This question also had the highest non-response rate for the questionnaire, as 7.8 percent did not respond. When the responses to this question were examined according to the population served, it was interesting to note that library directors in communities with populations of 501 to 5,000 were unanimous in their support of the code, library directors in communities of 5,001 to 75,000 supported the adequacy of the Code at the 92-93.9 percent level, and library directors in communities of 75,000 and above were unanimous that the Code was an inadequate statement of the principles and practices that must be employed in the work setting. When the gender of respondents was considered, female library directors were more likely to be supportive of the current code document than males, as 96.4 percent of female public library directors felt the code was an adequate professional statement as opposed to only 81.5 percent of the male public library directors.
The questionnaire ended with, "Please make any other comments appropriate to this questionnaire." Thirty-nine respondents availed themselves of this opportunity. The fact that 21.6 percent of all respondents took the time to write additional comments is of itself an indication of the importance of ethics to the library profession. It is also an indication that librarians are not hesitant to express themselves.
The comments were varied. One expressed thanks for the stamped return envelope stating, "It is the first time one has come with a graduate student survey." Another respondent thanked the researcher for making them aware of such a high code of ethics promoted by ALA. Several questioned parts of the survey and one expressed concern with the question about ethical behavior entering into thinking in other areas.
One respondent indicated the difficulty of living up to the standards of the Code, "The older I get the more gray areas seem to be in the continuum from "right" to "wrong." It is tough to live up to these standards in the 'real world' and be employed." Several addressed the ALA Code of Ethics itself. Most comments expressed either a disagreement with the Code or a feeling that it was insufficient as an expression of a librarian's professional standards. Examples included:
"An adequate statement, but perhaps not specific enough or complete." "Somehow it doesn't address our ethics in relation to being true public servants: keepers of the public's information and responsible for public moneys." This last quote was echoed by several respondents. Another respondent noted that "they should make provisions for non-librarians who are involved in the library—Board, Friends, Volunteers, non MLS staff etc." This was seconded by this comment, "Code of Ethics should be extended to and incumbent upon elected and appointed trustees."
Several comments echoed responses made in the body of the questionnaire concerning the need for ethical behavior to be at the core of our being. One respondent said, "If a librarian is not ethical, how can he/she direct an ethical environment ... A person should be ethical at all times and those beliefs should motivate your existence and your relationships—personally and professionally." As another respondent indicated," Actually, I feel "ethical behavior" is Christian principles in action and don't we try to live by them at all times and in all situations?"
One respondent commented, "I feel that the current ALA agenda violates these statements. ALA has grown too politically correct without concern for the profession. It is too politically active in areas that do not pertain to the profession." Another dealt with the question of technology and its possible effect on the profession's ethical code "I think the electronics age is going to bring new complexities to the definition of what is ethical in terms of resource allocation, access equity and confidentiality. Progress in developing electronic interfaces and remote access may require fees and yielding on confidentiality. Does this mean that the library should not participate? We may have
to choose at some point and the Code will not be helpful as it deals only in absolutes."
This survey sought to provide empirical data on what librarians know about the ALA Code of Ethics and how, if at all, they use it in their work situation. As such, it was successful. For now there is data that indicates that 56.1 percent of Illinois public library directors know that the American Library Association has a Code of Ethics. We also know that the ALA Code of Ethics is not heavily referred to or employed in the work setting as only 49 percent of those knowing about the ALA Code of Ethics actually had a copy at their work place and only 7.2 percent of them had referred to it within the past year. This also indicates that either Illinois public library directors are not active within ALA, or do not read the ALA Handbook. The Code of Ethics appears in this book, which is mailed to all ALA members who serve on Association committees.
The second important conclusion is that when confronted with the statements in the current ALA Code of Ethics, there is overwhelming support for them by Illinois public library directors regardless of gender, age or size of public library. When agreement with of higher than 90 percent for each of the six statements of the ALA Code is received and support for the Code as an adequate document is at the 86.7 percent level, this suggests an unequivocal statement of belief by this segment of the library community.
Another conclusion that can be drawn from this survey is that membership in a professional library organization is important to knowledge of the ALA Code of Ethics as both ALA and ILA members had a significantly higher knowledge of the Code than did non-members. This is not surprising and was expected.
What was surprising that female library directors strongly supported the statement on censorship and the obligation of all librarians to resist any attempts to censor library materials at a much higher percentage (72.2%) than did male library directors (41.4%).
This survey was the first/ via a statistically determined sample population, to determine what librarians know and feel about the ALA Code of Ethics and how the Code effects their work and private lives. It was limited in scope to a small universe, that of Illinois public library directors, and comes at a time when the Code is up for revision by the American Library Association. The proposed revision, however, is not a major rewrite of the Code of Ethics, but rather a reworking of its language to reflect the 1990s and professional concerns, such as intellectual property, that were not highlighted in the 1981 revision upon which this study was based.
Thus, this study still has validity, even if a revised Code document is adopted in Chicago in June 1995. It indicates that a segment of the library profession is aware of the ALA Code of Ethics and is strongly supportive of the statements therein. Further research is needed among other types of librarians and on a national basis to determine if the views of Illinois public library directors are representative of librarians as a whole. This survey can be used as a starting point in that effort.
1. Gerhardt, Lillian N., "Ethical Back Talk," School Library Journal, January 1990, p. 4.
2. Finks, Lee W., "Librarianship Needs A New Code of Ethics," American Libraries, January 1991, p. 84.
3. Ibid. Included in the Finks article is Bekker's guidelines of occupational conduct for librarians.
4. Stroyan, Sue, "ALA Code of Ethics: Is It Time For Revision?" Library Administration and Management, Spring 1992, p. 58.
5. Tuchmayer, Harry, "Is It Code or Is It Conduct?," North Carolina Libraries, Spring 1993, p. 37.
Bailey, Kenneth D. Methods of Research. Third Edition. New York: The Free Press, 1982.
Brown, R. Gene and Lawrence L. Vance, Sampling Tables for Estimating Error Rates or Other Proportions. Berkeley: Institute of Business and Economic Research University of California, 1961.
Converse, Jean M. and Stanley Presser. Survey Questions; Handcrafting the Standardized Questionnaire. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1986.
Finks, Lee W., "A New Ethical Code; Its Time Has Come," North Carolina Libraries, Spring 1993, p. 36.
Ibid., "Librarianship Needs A New Code of Ethics," American Libraries, pp. 84-92.
Gerhardt, Lillian N., "Ethical Back Talk," School Library Journal, January 1990, p. 4.
Illinois State Library, Illinois Public Library Statistics: A Guide For Librarians and Trustees 1992-93. Champaign-Urbana: Library Research Center Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1994.
Powell, Ronald R. Basic Research Methods For Librarians. Second Edition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Company, 1982.
Smith, Martha M., "The Ethics Quiz," North Carolina Libraries Spring 1993, pp. 28-30.
Stichler, Richard N., "On Reforming ALA's Code of Ethics," American Libraries, January 1992, pp. 40-44.
Stroyan, Sue, "President's Message: ALA Code of Ethics: Is It Time For Revision," Library Administration and Management, Spring 1992, p. 58.
Sudman, Seymour. Applied Sampling. San Diego: Academic Press, 1976.
Sudman, Seymour and Norman Blackburn. Asking Questions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.
Tuchmayer, Harry, "Is It Code Or Is It Conduct?," North Carolina Libraries, Spring 1993, p. 37.
* John A. Moorman,City Librarian, Decatur Public Library. This project was done as a seminar paper as part pf the Ph. D program in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illnois at Urbana-Champaign.
Directory, Illinois State Library
(Printed by the Authority of the State of Illinois)
Opinions expressed in signed articles are not necessarily those of the editors or the Illinois State Library
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