Library Ethics

Finnish guidelines for library ethics protect the freedom of speech and promote media literacy.

Tuula Haavisto
Director of Libraries, City of Tampere
Chair of the Finnish Working Group for Library Ethics (2008–2010)

Tuula Haavisto, photograph by Pirjo Sallmén
hat to do, when public library computers display material that bothers other patrons or is seen by children? Who does library space belong to? Can research library be a part of rooting out plagiarism? Do the libraries have the responsibility to teach online ethics? These were the questions that inspired Finnish library associations to create a code of ethics for library professionals.

The first broadly defined ethical principles for library work were accepted in library organisations only two years ago. The public debate on the matter had been limited. The debate has not spread outside libraries even though there has been public discussion, for example, on the library fees.

Inspired by other Nordic countries, ethical guidelines were formulated in 1989 but they were not integrated properly. Fair Culture report in 2006 included a proposal for ethical guidelines for public libraries but it didn’t lead to any action. Furthermore, online discussion on library ethics emerged a couple of times in the late 2000’s.

Internet highlights ethics
In my view, the reasons for limited debate on library ethics in Finland are two-fold. In our country matters are often dealt with practical and administrative way and not from an ethical or otherwise political point of view. In addition, we have not had any social pressure to improve the role of libraries as an advocate for freedom of speech. Opposite examples are plentiful as, for instance, in the US local lobbies have occasionally attacked the material selection of libraries. In those circumstances library organisations are forced to both educate and support their membership in the battle for promoting access to diverse information and culture-related material.

In the 1990’s the situation changed. Internet generated challenges and a new social climate that made ethical reflections more urgent also in Finnish libraries. To answer this obvious need The Finnish Library Association, The Finnish Swedish Library Association and The Finnish Research Library Association established a joint ethical working group in the autumn of 2007. The group finished its work in 2010.

When the working group started its task they were confronted by the fact that most of the ethical guidelines were from the time before the Internet. Those guidelines had not taken any stand on the professional challenges caused by the Internet and the emphasis lied elsewhere. Therefore, the focus was on the online material and the libraries’ relation with it especially from the point of view of freedom of speech and protecting children. Another concern was plagiarism, the most difficult ethical problem of the research libraries.

Inspiration from abroad
The working group found other countries’ ethical principles very useful. The history of ethical codes in the Anglo-American countries is long. Especially American Library Association ALA has produced versatile material. It has specialiced in defending freedom of speech and open access to information. ALA connects its operations directly to the Constitution of the US.

Canada and Australia have also produced interesting and pragmatic thinking on library ethics. Our Nordic colleagues also discuss freedom of speech actively. As the political situation changed in the Middle and Eastern European countries in the 1990’s, the ethical codes were formulated in abundance the essential message being obviously freedom of speech.

In 1997 IFLA established the FAIFE group and office for freedom of speech, which has developed good policy. The Finnish working group considered the Guidelines document of The IFLA Internet Manifesto as the most practical one to discuss the challenges posed by the Internet.

Freedom of speech as core value
The ethical working group began its task by reviewing the international documents and thoroughly analysing online debate on ethics. The group also used scholarly formulations, for example the four approaches to ethical problems related to libraries by Doctor of Philosophy Vesa Suominen. The formulation suggests that the approaches are not preclusive of each other but, in fact, may be analogous.
  • Pragmatism in freedom of speech — to incorporate freedom of speech and the rights of children or other sensitive issues.
  • Minimisation of censorship — to minimise censorship as much as possible.
  • Relativism in freedom of speech — other valuable issues may be limiting.
  • Legalism in freedom of speech — only limited by the law.
The principles were designed to guide the library professionals working in libraries and information services, not for library as an institution. The group agreed to include four values: cultural and information equality, freedom of speech, civil liberties, and caring for the weak. The document also entails comments on individual principles and some background information which help opening discussion and resolving situations in the work place.

While preparing the ethical principles, the group organised wiki-discussions and several seminars round the country. Commenting on the online material in libraries was especially lively. The comments were typically divided between two opinions: some emphasised freedom of speech, others the protection of children.

The ethical working group and later on the library associations decided to hold freedom of speech as the primary value. Protecting children is also important but the most effective results are made by focusing on improving media literacy and recommending relevant materials. Libraries cannot tackle the negative aspects of the media by prohibiting and restricting information. The common means of using blocking and filtering software is not a viable way to promote media literacy. Software solutions were also proved to be technically flawed. Finnish language and its conjugated word stems further restrict these solutions.

The group reached a conclusion which captured the spirit of the debate: we need to grow filters in the minds of both children and adults. In other words, we need diverse support on media literacy. In fact, it may well be the most profound justification for the social role of the library in the future as online services begin to challenge the more traditional functions of the library.

Our 16 principles are divided in to groups:
  • Duties of library professionals
  • Impartiality
  • Libraries for a good life
  • Work community
The principles and the relevant background information include guidelines also on how to share the educational task between library and parents and on the rights and duties of employees.

From paper to practice
Ethical principles are reduced to paper unless they are discussed robustly. We will reach great impact when principles are brought into meetings and coffee tables. In addition, it is easier to resolve disagreements when there is a widely agreed and discussed point of view.

The principles will have to be changed in order to keep up with the changes in society. Next, improved edition will only be achieved together. Discussing ethics within libraries and with relevant professionals is essential to that process.

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