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Librarians and ethics in use of technology

Chapter five: Ethics in use of technology
from Ethics in School Librarianship: A Reader edited by Carol Simpson Linworth, 2003
January 2003

At a recent workshop on technology ethics for students, I was (to put it mildly) surprised when one of the thoughtful, lively school librarians attending revealed that she did not realize that one should not publicly post lists that linked student names and titles of overdue materials. It seemed to me to be an issue that was, as our students put it, a “no-brainer” – librarians have an ethical duty to protect the privacy of their patrons. But apparently it is not.

Just how do school library media specialists learn about the ethics of their own professional practice? Sometime during my library school days, I am sure I was introduced to this issue, I learned what I needed to know for the test, and promptly forgot its existence. Administrators for whom I worked have never seemed to overly scrutinize my professional ethics as a librarian.

Had it not been for a series of editorials by Lillian Gerhardt (1990, 1991) that appeared in School Library Journal, I don’t think that I would have remembered that there is a code of ethics for librarians. In these short pieces, Gerhardt interpreted the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association in its application to the practice of school librarianship and service to children (as well as shaming the ALA into revising the code). This business of right and wrong was clarified, and she asked me to think about these issues in my daily work. Thank you, Ms. Gerhardt.

The sweeping impact that information technologies have had on school library media programs suggests that we take some time as a profession to look at the Library Code of Ethics yet again. We have accepted as part of our mission and charge the ethical education of our students and, to some degree, our fellow educators and parents. But in order for us to do this with understanding and without hypocrisy, we need to look at the ethics of our own professional practice as it relates to use of information technologies.

While it is impossible to visit every ethical issue that technology touches, I have tried to comment on those that are the most significant or most confusing for the practitioner. We need a continuing dialog in our profession about our own ethical practices. Perhaps this reexamination of the ALA’s Library Code of Ethics is a beginning.

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association
As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.

Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment.

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.
I.    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.
II.    We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
III.    We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
IV.    We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.
V.    We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
VI.    We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
VII.    We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
VIII.    We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

Adopted by the ALA Council
June 28, 1995
© Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, American Library Association.

The American Library Association is providing information and services on the World Wide Web in furtherance of its non-profit and tax-exempt status. Permission to use, copy and distribute documents delivered from this World Wide Web server and related graphics is hereby granted for private, non-commercial and education purposes only, and not for resale, provided that the above copyright notice appears in all copies and that both that copyright notice and this permission notice appear. All other rights reserved.

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement I: 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.
Information technologies – the automated catalog, electronic databases, and access to the Internet – have allowed even the most humble school library to offer services even research libraries could only dream only a few years ago. But, our jobs have become increasingly complex as a result. As Gerhardt suggests in her comments about this statement, it should go without saying that the ethical, or just plain competent, librarian should provide the highest level of service. Let’s look at each of these qualities of service in turn to see what issues are emerging as a result of new technologies.

School budgeting is a “zero sum” game: there is a finite, and usually inadequate, number of dollars that can be spent by a school district in any one year on the total educational program including class size, basketballs, toilet paper, staff development, and superintendent’s transportation allowance. What this means is that every dollar spent on technology or library resources is a dollar that cannot be spent for other potentially worthwhile purposes. Ethically, we must spend every dollar in ways that will do the most good for our staff and students, keeping the entire school funding picture in perspective.
As informational resources become available in both in print and digitally, we need to carefully appraise which format best suits curricular purposes and our budgets. Collection development strategies are more important than ever as our scarce resources need to be stretched to cover ever higher demands. Materials purchased “just in case” or for a “well-rounded collection” that remain untouched by human hands are not just unwisely, but unethically, acquired.

It is ethically irresponsible not to have a budget. Too often we confuse having a budget with having a fully funded budget. Every library needs to have a written, goal-oriented, specific proposed budget. If students are to have access to the resources necessary for an effective educational program, all school library media specialists (SLMSs) must accurately inform decision-makers of the cost of those resources. The greater outlays necessary for technology in schools, among other things, makes this more critical than ever.

The use and abuse of technology resources requires that the SLMS must be able to create good policies and rules related to their use. While we are rightfully expected to enforce board adopted policies such as the Acceptable Use Policy, each individual library has its own set of expected rules and consequences for their infractions that are set by the SLMS and library committee.

Since technology is a more or less unfamiliar resource for many adults, our policies tend to be overly harsh in proportion to the importance of the act committed. I too often hear a student losing “Internet privileges” for an entire year or semester for a minor or first infraction of a rule. When formulating consequences for rule or policy infractions, SLMSs need to:

  1. Examine the existing consequences for other similar improper activities. If a student sends a harassing email, for example, the consequences for harassment already in place should apply.
  2. Graduate the penalties. Students should not be denied access to the Internet for an extended period of time for a first infraction of the rules. One might ask, “Should a child be banned from reading if he/she was caught reading something inappropriate?” If the inappropriate behavior repeats itself, the penalties can be increased.
  3. Bring parents in on any ethical use violation.
  4. Allow and encourage student personal use the Internet. If the Internetworked computers are not being used for curricular purposes, students should be allowed to research topics of personal interest (that are not dangerous or pornographic, of course), chat, or send email to friends. One reason for allowing this is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if it means losing access to things that they enjoy.
  5. Make sure all rules are clearly stated, available, taught as part of library orientation, and consistently enforced.
  6. Develop school-wide ownership of the rules. Having a site-based leadership team or library committee that helps set the rules of technology for a school keeps the librarian from having to be the “heavy” and results in rules that more accurately reflect the culture of the school.

The SLMS has an ethical duty to advocate for liberal access to electronic resources for all students in a school. Home access and public library access to information technologies alone will not close the “digital divide.” This means serving on building technology teams and advocating for:

1.    Access to technology for all students. Too often technologies have been acquired and sequestered by certain departments, grade levels or individual teachers within schools. SLMSs need voice the need for non-departmental (library) access to information technologies that are available before, during and after school hours. Our “whole-school” view puts us in a unique position of knowing which children are getting technology skills and access in our buildings.

Adaptive technologies have made more resources available to the physically challenged than ever before. The SLMS needs to be the voice for awareness and adoption of such technologies. We also need to help schools understand and be in compliance with ADA regulations such as the mandate that all school webpages be machine readable by providing alternate text descriptions of all visuals.

2.    The least restrictive use of information technologies. The pursuit of information by students to meet personal needs should be encouraged in schools. Life-long learning strategies, practice in information evaluation, and experiences in building effective communication strategies are all reinforced when students use information technologies to meet personal goals.

As library media specialists and technologists, we need to lighten up a little in regard to what students are doing with the Internet in our libraries and classrooms as well. The Internet has vast resources that are not directly related to the curriculum but are of high interest to students at all grade levels. Information about sports, fashion, movies, games, celebrities, and music in bright and exciting formats abounds.

The use of the Internet for class work of course must be given priority, but computer terminals should never sit empty. And there are some good reasons to allow students personal use of the Internet:

  • It gives kids a chance to practice skills. After all that’s why we have “recreational” reading materials in our libraries. Do we really subscribe to Hot Rod or Seventeen because they’re used for research? If we want kids who can do an effective Internet search, read fluently, and love to learn, does it make much difference if they are learning by finding and reading webpages on the Civil War or Civil War games?
  • It gives weight to the penalty of having Internet access taken away. The penalty for misuse of the Internet is often a suspension of Internet use privileges. As a student, if I were restricted to only school work uses of the Internet and had my Internet rights revoked, I’d pretty much say, “So what?” and wonder what I had to do to get my textbooks taken away as well. But if I am accustomed to using the Internet each morning before school to check on how my favorite sports team was faring, the loss of Internet access as a consequence of misbehavior would be far more serious.
  • It makes the library media center a place kids want to be. Many of our students love the library for the simple reason that it is often the only place that allows them to read books of personal interest, work on projects that are meaningful, and explore interests that fall outside the curriculum in an atmosphere of relative freedom. Kids need a place like that, and we should provide it – even at the Internet terminals.

3.    The greatest range of electronic resources. Email, chat rooms, and instant messages are often banned by schools, fearing their misuse by students. Yet such resources can put learners in touch with one of the best primary resources – the human expert. The ability to access sound and video files and computer programs is also often banned, even when there is demonstrated instructional need.

Accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests
One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons has Calvin on the phone asking, if the library has any books on “why girls are so weird.” Frustrated when his need goes unmet, he concludes: “I’ll bet the library just doesn’t want anyone to know.” For some requests it is genuinely difficult to give an “accurate, unbiased and courteous” response.

Anyone who has worked with children and young adults knows that they have probably as wide a range of interests and information needs as adults. While giving priority to requests for help meet academic needs, we need to honor all information requests, keeping in mind that we do have a responsibility for providing guidance to our young charges as well. Personal interests can motivate reluctant readers to read, reluctant technology users to use the Internet, and library-shy students to use our resources.

And I sincerely hope we never forget that courtesy is a part of our ethical code. Opinions about libraries and librarians are formed at a young age and are often life-long. The kids we serve today will be our school board members and legislators of tomorrow.
ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement II: We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
Technology has opened floodgates of information into schools, primarily by way of the Internet. Along with marvelous resources on topics of curricular and personal interest, the flotsam and sewage of the Internet has become readily available as well. Materials and ideas that had been in the past physically inaccessible to students now can be viewed at the click of mouse button.

The potential of student access to unsavory and possibly unsafe materials on the Internet has made the support of intellectual freedom both more challenging and more important. It is difficult to justify a resource that allows the accidental viewing of graphic sexual acts by second-graders searching for information on “beavers” or communications by an anorexic teen with fellow anorexics who encourage the continuation of the disorder. Defending unfiltered Internet access seems quite different from defending The Catcher in Rye.

Yet the concept of intellectual freedom as expressed in both ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights” and “Freedom to Read”  statements is as relevant to information in electronic formats as it is in print:

We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they need the help of censors to assist them in this task.

As expressed in “Access to Resources and Services in the School Library Media Program: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Although the educational level and program of the school necessarily shapes the resources and services of a school library media program, the principles of the Library Bill of Rights apply equally to all libraries, including school library media programs.

While it must be recognized that preventing access to pornographic or unsafe materials is the reason given by those who advocate restricted access to the Internet in schools, there are political motivations behind such attempts to require blocking and monitoring software as well. The fight for intellectual freedom in schools is more important today than ever.

To a degree, CIPA (the Children’s Internet Protection Act) has taken the decision to use or not use Internet filters out of the hands of local decision makers. Districts who receive federal funding, including E-rate telecommunications discounts, must install and use an Internet filtering device to be in compliance. Yet a strong commitment to intellectual freedom on the part of the SLMS is possible even in a filtered environment.

Internet filtering can have a wide range of restrictiveness. Depending on the product, the product’s settings, and the ability to override the filter to permit access to individual sites, filters can either block a high percentage of the Internet resources (specific websites, email, chat rooms, etc.) or a relatively small number of sites. In our role as proponents of intellectual freedom, we need to strongly advocate for the least restrictive settings and generous use of override lists in our Internet filters. We need to make sure that at least one machine that is completely unblocked is available to the SLMS so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful.
SLMS also have the ethical responsibility to help ensure patrons use the Internet in acceptable ways by:

  • Helping write and enforce the district’s Acceptable Use Policy
  • Developing and teaching the values needed to be self-regulating Internet users
  • Supervising, and possibly limiting, computers with Internet access and making sure all adults who monitor networked computers are knowledgeable about the Internet
  • Educating and informing parents and the public about school Internet uses and issues
  • Creating a learning environment that promotes the use of the Internet for accomplishing resource-based activities to meet curricular objectives

I have to admit that after crusading for nearly six years for filter-free Internet access for my school district and then being forced by CIPA to install a filter, the sun still rises. And in some sense, I believe our schools are more ethically responsible for using a limited filtering system that keeps the little ones from accidentally accessing inappropriate websites. When configured and monitored as accurately as possible, our filter becomes a selection, rather than censorship tool. But I am watching it very closely.

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement III: We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
Privacy issues are a hot-button topic as citizens become more aware of how easily technology can gather, hold and analyze personal data and how increasingly their own online activities can be monitored. As a society, we are weighing our individual need for privacy against our need for security and convenience. Schools reflect the societal concerns and the SLMS is often placed in a decision-making position regarding privacy issues.

State and national laws are specific about the confidentiality of some forms of student information, including grades, health, and attendance records. Laws for 48 states and the District of Columbia that address the confidentiality of library records can be found on ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom website. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that addresses student educational privacy rights. School board policies address student privacy rights and these policies should be in compliance with federal and state laws.

While the SLMS needs to be aware of the general laws and board policies regarding student data privacy issues, the ethical choices we must make about giving student library usage information may fall outside the parameters of legally or policy defined “education records.” Circulation records, Internet use logs, and other professional observations generally do not fit the description of an “education record.” State laws referring to library records may not be interpreted as applicable to school library media center records. (Please remember, I am not a lawyer although I sometimes play one in chat rooms.)

Adding complexity to ethical choices that must be made in interpreting the general statement about a library patron’s right to privacy, minors have traditionally been accorded fewer privacy rights than adults. To what extent do we as SLMSs reveal the information-seeking and reading habits of an individual student to other adults who have a custodial (and ethical) responsibility for the well being of that student? Do I let a child’s parent, teacher, or school counselor know if one of my students has been accessing “how-to” suicide materials on the web? Do I give information to an authority on a child’s Internet use if it appears that the authority is just on a “fishing trip” with little probable cause for needing this data?
There are often legitimate pedagogical reasons to share with a child’s teachers information about that child’s library resource use. Is the child selecting reading materials at a level that allows that child to practice his or her reading skills? Is the child using the online resources to complete a classroom assignment?

While most of us can agree that violating the privacy of our students for our own convenience (displaying overdue lists that link student names with specific materials on the library bulletin board, school website, or sending such information to parents directly) or blindly supplying information about student reading or browsing habits to any adult who requests such information is unethical, finer guidelines need to be established if we are to act ethically in the broader context of student and school welfare.

I would suggest we ask ourselves as SLMSs when making decisions about student privacy issues:

  • What are my school’s policies and state and federal laws regarding the confidentiality of student information? Have I consulted with and can I expect support from my administration regarding decisions I make regarding student privacy? Is there recourse to the school’s legal counsel regarding difficult or contentious issues?
  • What is the legitimate custodial responsibility of the person or group asking for information about a student?
  • How accurately and specifically can I provide that information?
  • By providing such information is there a reasonable chance the information may prevent some harm to either the individual or to others in the school or community?
  • Is there a legitimate pedagogical reason to share student information with a teacher? Am I sharing information about materials that students are using for curricular purposes or for personal use?
  • Have I clearly stated to my students what the library guidelines are on the release of personal information? If the computers in the library are or can be remotely monitored, is there a clear statement of that fact readily posted?
  • If student activity on a computer is logged, are students aware of this record, how long the log is kept, how the log may be used, and by whom?

As SLMSs, we of course need to help students be aware of technology issues related to privacy both so that they can protect their own privacy and honor the privacy of others. Students need to understand that businesses and organizations use information to market products, and that information is often gathered electronically, both overtly and covertly. Students need to know that a stranger is a stranger, whether met on the playground or on the Internet and that personal information shared with a stranger may put themselves and their families at risk. Students need to know that schools have the right to search their files when created and stored on school owned computer hardware. Students need to be taught to respect the privacy of others: that because information is displayed on a computer screen doesn’t make it public; that information inadvertently left accessible does not mean that it is appropriate to access it.

We need to help the school set good guidelines. Helen Adam’s (2002b) booklet The Internet Invasion: Is Privacy at Risk lists six specific school topics related to privacy, and the SLMS should understand the privacy issues surrounding each and be able to help make good school policy related to them:

  1. Addressing Privacy in an Acceptable Use Policy
  2. Privacy Policies or Statements on District Websites
  3. Identifying Students on District Websites
  4. Making Student Records Available Electronically
  5. Conducting Market Research on Students
  6. Students Providing Personal Information About Themselves

As Adams (2002a) reminds us, “This is one of the gray areas for thinking individuals to ponder.”
ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement IV: We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.
It’s hard to remember, but intellectual property theft existed prior to electronic cutting and pasting, peer-to-peer music sharing services, and free term paper sites. It’s just that the speed, availability, and ease with which property can be copied have all led to greater instances of piracy, plagiarism, and even disdain for copyright laws.

The SLMS has an ethical responsibility to help students understand that property is a two-sided issue: they need to respect the property of others as well as protect their own property from the abuses of others. Students need to know about the unethical practices of others and how to protect themselves from those practices. Students need to know that their own original work is protected by copyright laws and that they have a right to give or not give permission for others to use it. Students need to know that passwords must be kept confidential to prevent the unauthorized access to a student’s data, as well as to help insure a student’s privacy.

But the major challenge for the SLMS is helping teachers stem the tide of plagiarism washing through our schools that has been exacerbated by new technologies. One study reports that more than half of those high school students surveyed acknowledged downloading a paper from the Internet or copying text without proper attribution. (eSchool News 2002)
While we need to acknowledge this is a serious problem, too much effort is being expended by teachers and librarians trying to “catch” plagiarism in student work. Using various web services such as Turnitin.comTM  and techniques using search engines to determine if or how much of student writing is lifted from online sources is a primary means of addressing plagiarism issue.

Ethically, we need to spend the greatest share of our time in preventing plagiarism before it happens. And this can and should be done in a number of ways:

  • By teaching:
    • what plagiarism is
    • when and why to paraphrase
    • when using another’s words is appropriate
    • how to cite all formats of sources
  • By having a school or district-wide “cheating” policy that includes the definition and consequences for plagiarism
  • By creating “assignments worth doing”

Our time as SLMSs and educators is best spent in creating assignments that minimize the likelihood of plagiarism. Rather than making assignments that can be easily plagiarized and then contriving methods for detecting or reducing copying, we should be spending our time with teachers planning projects that require original, thoughtful research. Some attributes of research assignments that authentically reduce the likelihood of plagiarism include:

  1. They have a clarity of educational purpose readily shared with and understood by the student.
  2. The students themselves have a choice of research topic or research emphasis.
  3. They are related to topics relevant to students’ lives and experiences or to the community in which the students live.
  4. The results of the research may be shared in a narrative rather than expository style of writing style, and the results include observations about the research process as well as the research conclusions.
  5. They stress higher level thinking skills of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation and promote creative solutions to problems
  6. The research answers real questions or helps solve genuine problems.
  7. The completion of the information seeking project requires a variety of information finding activities including primary research for a complete response.
  8. Research units include “hands-on” activities such as using technology to communicate the findings or allowing a multi-sensory approach to communicating the findings.
  9. Projects require cooperation or collaboration by teams of students.
  10. The results of students’ research are shared with an audience beyond the teacher and the classroom.
  11. The projects have clearly stated assessment criteria that are given at the time of the assignment. The criteria address creativity and originality as quality indicators.
  12. The units are structured and monitored in such a way that students are given the opportunity to review, revise, reflect, and improve on the product throughout the research process.

We need to acknowledge that when students plagiarize, they are not just violating the ethical principles of intellectual property, but they also are not learning the skills needed to successfully solve problems and answer questions. If those critical skills are not taught and practiced, the SLMS may have violated an even greater professional ethic.

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement V: We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
The introduction of technology into our libraries and schools has given an interesting twist to our collegial relationships. We have one role that has grown in importance, staff trainer, and another that has grown in complexity, staff watchdog.

As among the first in schools to make productive use of technologies, our role that Information Power describes as “Instructional Partner” has increased in importance. For many SLMSs, we are expected to teach not just students, but staff members the productive uses of technology. We have a responsibility to our co-workers to teach safe and ethical technology use along with simple “how-to’s” – just like with our students. Protecting one’s privacy, guarding one’s property, and stressing the safe use of technologies, especially the Internet, is now one of the most important ways we “safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.” Sharing our expertise in the ethical use of information and technology is how we treat other educators with “respect, fairness, and good faith.”

It has always been a part of our job to help ensure legal technology use by both staff and students in our district, not just through training, but by monitoring as well. This is not a task most of us would choose for ourselves, but one that is thrust upon us because of the resources we control. Being asked by a staff member to make unauthorized copies of print and audiovisual materials, to load software on more workstations than for which the licenses permit, or to set up a showing of a videotape that falls outside of public performance parameters is not an uncommon experience. In these cases, most of us have learned to quietly, politely and firmly just say “no” and explain how such an action violates not only the law, but our personal and professional ethical codes. A gentle reminder of how our own attitudes and examples as educators toward intellectual property set a powerful example for our students is also usually in order.

At some point, our knowledge of the violation of copyright or materials licensing by a colleague may become so egregious that we need to inform an administrator of the problem. We have an ethical duty to do so despite the uncomfortable position in which it places us. No district can guarantee that its staff is in perfect legal compliance with copyright, but a district and all of its employees do have the obligation to exercise due diligence in enforcing copyright laws by establishing policies, training staff, and taking disciplinary action when infractions are known. Large fines are given to districts that make no attempt or implicitly encourage copyright violation. Actions or inactions that lead to scarce school dollars spent on fines rather than student resources are unethical indeed.

Most schools’ Acceptable Use Policies also forbid the use of school resources for non-school uses. But more often than not, it may be best to turn a blind eye to personal use unless it is blatantly inappropriate and public. We need to strictly prohibit the use or distribution of pornography or any image that coworkers might regard as creating a hostile work environment.

The SLMS should not tolerate harassment or entrepreneurship conducted using school networks by anyone.

But we do need to recognize that teachers email their kids in college, explore possible vacation destinations, or place an online order to Land’s End now and again. We need to recognize that these folks are professionals and that lessons will be planned and homework graded whether at school during a prep time or at the kitchen table after supper. It’s the nature of professionals. And professionals need to be accorded professional respect.

So why not take the hard line approach to enforcing a school AUP? It has everything to do with climate. Unless it affects job performance, personal Internet use makes the school a more enjoyable place to work. Teachers have enough stress in their lives. A little humor lessens the stress, makes for a happier teacher, and this is a good thing. After all, would you want your child with an unhappy teacher?

We can’t throw out the rules. We have a professional, legal and ethical responsibility to enforce board adopted policies. We cannot tolerate Internet use in schools that involves harassment, encourages malingering, or supports a personal business.

But we can and should recognize that schools are comprised of human beings. And we need to do everything we can to make school a respectful, people-friendly place for both staff and students.

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement VI: We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
In a school setting, I can’t say that I’ve had much chance to violate this sixth standard. I’ve never been offered a huge sum of cash or an exotic vacation in exchange for purchasing a grossly inferior encyclopedia instead of the World Book or Groliers. Probably just as well.

Gerhardt in her comments on this statement asks if accepting vendor purchased meals at conferences, adding vacation days to out-of-town conferences, or working on professional organization duties during school time violates this ethical standard. These infractions seem to be small potatoes in a world of political “contributions” and school boards being wined-and-dined in luxurious settings by big technology companies. My own conscience is not troubled doing any of these things in moderation.

Regardless of the amount of discretionary funds at our disposal, we do have an ethical obligation to practice open service and equipment procurement practices, accurate curriculum mapping, review-driven material selection practices, and detailed budgeting. When budgets are tight, the selection of resources for their specific value to students and the educational program becomes even more critical. Convenience, charm of salespersons, or the lure of that free calendar simply should not enter into the choice of one product over another. And I am genuinely distressed by seeing long rows of gourmet cookbooks on the shelve of an elementary school library. And those were ordered for whom?

A combination of new and expensive technologies, modest pay in the teaching profession, and a national spirit of entrepreneurship has created an environment in which some educators, including librarians, may be tempted to use school resources for personal gain. Establishing a website for a personal business on the school server, using school email to close a deal, or using computer equipment to do non-school or projects for pay certainly qualify as advancing “private interests at the expense of … our employing institutions.” We need to carefully separate the time, equipment and supplies we use as school employees from those we use for any private business or non-school volunteer activities we may undertake.

Our time is also a resource. Ethically we are bound to use the time we are at work in the service of our school, our staff and our students. We need to conscientiously eliminate what Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People would identify as Quadrant III or Quadrant IV activities toward Quadrant II activities: those that are not urgent, but are important such as long-term planning, relationship building, and communications. We need to differentiate between our professional duties and those technical and clerical duties.

Most of us work in tax-supported institutions and have the obligation not just to be wise and honest in our expenditure of public funds, but avoid the appearance of any wrong-doing as well.
ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement VII: We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
Distinguishing between our personal convictions and professional duties is one of the narrower tight ropes we walk as SLMSs. And the addition of information technologies into schools and libraries has not made upholding this standard any easier. This statement should be addressed on two levels: policy and resources.

I hear many concerns and questions about information access policies, especially from teachers and librarians who believe their school guidelines are too restrictive. Should students have access to email? To chat rooms? To music and video files? How much printing should a student be able to do? For what purposes? Should students be able to use the Internet to play games? To check sports scores? To find jokes and pictures of questionable taste? Technology has made circulation rules (three books per student) seem quite simple.

As was stated earlier, good rules should reflect the philosophy of the institution and create ownership of the library program by staff, students and parents. A good advisory committee that has as one of its charges oversight of library rules can help do this. The technician or IT manager whose responsibility includes network maintenance and security is an important member of such a committee. When the lines of communication open up between those whose expertise is in technology and those whose expertise is in education, intelligent, workable rules for student and staff result. If a teacher, student or parent disagrees with a library policy, reconsideration of the policy by the advisory committee is an effective means of addressing such a difference.

We owe it to our students and staff to keep our personal feelings on issues from restricting their access to information, as well. (Remember Ethical Statement I? We provide the highest level of service to all library users through … accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.)

I have political biases. Ask me about gun control, abortion, immigration policies, homosexuality, mass transportation, global-warming or the President, I will happily give you my opinions – some more informed than others. But as a librarian, I have prided myself in not allowing my personal convictions about specific topics to dictate the range of materials I make available to users.

This seemed to be relatively easy when our libraries offered users a limited range of print resources. If I ordered the SIRS Research folders, Facts-On-File titles, and Opposing Viewpoints books along with both The Nation and The National Review magazines, I thought I had all sides of most controversial issues covered.

But the Internet and online services have given us access to an unimaginable spectrum of opinions, now readily available to students and staff in even the smallest of school library media centers. Scholars, pundits, wackos, and 7th-graders all can and do publish “information” online, undistinguishable by appearance or availability. The information presented by businesses, non-profits, “think-tanks,” and other sites maybe be accurate, but heavily biased. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is no “supported” belief that cannot be found on the Internet. (Want a recipe for spotted owls? It’s easily found.)

While the availability of misinformation or biased opinions is often confusing or can lead researchers to make choices or form opinions that are embarrassing, there is a profound and very serious dimension to this issue as well. Increasingly students are using the Internet to meet personal needs and for school assignments that ask them to solve genuine problems. Making good consumer choices, health decisions, and career choices are a part of many districts’ curricula. Gaining historical background and perspectives on social, scientific and political issues through research is a common task expected by many teachers.

Ethically, we cannot rely on the “free” Internet alone to meet the information needs of our patrons. The availability of resources that have been edited and selected for their authority is perhaps more essential than ever. It is our ethical duty to provide print reference and trade materials at reading levels accessible to the age of the student, a range of periodicals related to the curriculum and personal interests, and subscriptions to online resources such as content specific databases and full-text periodical databases. We also must teach students about and facilitate their access to materials that are available through interlibrary loan.

But even more importantly we need to teach our library users to be able to evaluate information for themselves. Were I the Grand Panjandrum of Libraries, I would instantly add Johnson’s IXth Statement to ALA’s Code of Ethics: We teach our library users to be critical users of information.

Some established guidelines for the accuracy and reliability of information seem relatively simple to teach:

  • Authority. Who compiled this information or offered this opinion and what is author’s expertise?
  • Age. How old is the information?
  • Verifiability. Is the information or opinion found similar to that in other information sources?
  • Bias. What is the reason the information has been compiled or opinion offered? Does the author have some vested interest in the reader sharing his or her opinion? Who sponsors this site and how might the sponsor profit from convincing a reader to form specific beliefs?

Establishing the “authority” of information sources dealing with controversial social issues can be challenging if the SLMS wishes to honor the religious or political views of a student’s family, especially when those views differ radically from one’s own. Commentaries on environmental issues, for example, offered on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and on the Rush Limbaugh Show may be seen by some parents, some teachers and by oneself as having differing degrees of value and reliability. This is compounded by the degree to which people at both ends of the political spectrum are more reliant on dogma or doctrine than on a thoughtful review of evidence to help them make decisions.

Yet as ethical educators, we need to ask students to support their conclusions and be able to defend the sources of the information with which they have chosen to do so. If parents are sufficiently uncomfortable with the spirit of open inquiry as a part of education, I believe they should consider enrolling their children in a non-public school that reflects their specific set of beliefs.

For countries like ours founded on democratic freedoms and individual choices, the ability to analyze information should be the most important goal of our schools.
ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement VIII: We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
While we do need to practice and help others practice the standards of ethical behaviors I-VII, statement VIII, for those of us in education, supercedes them all. Our primary ethical responsibility is promoting meaningful change in our institutions.
Technology is being used as a catalyst for change in education in the best and worst senses of the word. It has opened avenues toward previously undreamt of information and communication opportunities. It is spurring some teachers to be more creative, more constructivist-based, and more individualized in their instruction. But the chance of technology being used badly is also great as critics like The Alliance for Childhood, Jane Healy, Larry Cuban and Clifford Stoll suggest. Technology can depersonalize education, divert funds from more effective educational practices, and over-emphasize low-level skill attainment as the ultimate educational goal.

As SLMS we understand perhaps better than many in education that teaching is a moral pursuit. It is changing the world in a positive way through changing lives of our students in positive way. Technology we must recognize as simply a tool that will help us achieve those changes.

Too many of our schools lack effective leadership for the positive changes that technology can foster or accelerate. In such situations, a clear vision of what technology can and should be doing, well-articulated by the SLMS, can have a tremendous impact. We can and should help fill such a directional void. The SLMS makes an especially effective change agent because:

  • our programs affect the whole school climate
  • we advocate information skills and personalized learning for every child
  • we advocate for technology being used to promote problem-solving and higher level thinking
  • we have no subject area biases or territories to protect
  • we’re extremely charming

While often uncomfortable, the SLMS must challenge the system to be an effective agent for change. We do so by working on school governing committees, leading staff development activities, and exemplifying great teaching practices and technology use ourselves. We are involved in curriculum revision and fight for the effective integration of technology and information literacy skills. We write for district newsletters and talk to parent and community organizations. We hold offices in unions and other professional organizations. We write to legislators and attend political functions and school board meetings. We form strong networks with like-minded reformers inside and outside our profession. And throughout these efforts, we keep firmly in mind that technology’s purpose is to empower our students.

Our role as the “teacher of teachers” has never been greater as was alluded to in Statement V. We need to lead formal staff development activities, work on long-term staff development plans and serve as mentors and peer-coaches in our schools. The SLMS is especially effective in working with teachers on the meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum through instructional units that include information literacy skills and stress higher level thinking and by designing authentic assessments of performance-based units of instruction. We are the team players, the hand-holders, the encouragers, the cheerleaders, the resource-providers and the shoulders on which to cry. We help improve our institutions by helping to improve the performance of the people who work within them.

As the tools of our profession change with technology and our mission grows to encompass teacher-training and leadership, our ethical duty to upgrade our own professional skills takes on ever increasing importance. My formal education ended with a master’s degree in 1979 from an excellent ALA accredited program. This was before personal computers of any usefulness; before popular use of OPACs; before online databases; before the acceptance of the Internet by the bourgeoisie; before multimedia encyclopedias; before the printing press (well, not quite).     

It follows that our ethical duty also includes membership and participation in professional associations devoted to ongoing professional development and attend the conferences and workshops they offer. We must continue to read professional journals and books. We must take advantage of listservs and other forms of electronic communication that help us maintain virtual conversations about our practice.

As Statement VII concludes, we must foster “the aspirations of potential members of the profession.” A person recently commented to me that one must be mad to go into school librarianship. He’s right, of course, on a number of levels. You have to mad (passionate) for stories, computers, and especially working with kids. You have to be mad (angry) about how poorly our schools underserve too many vulnerable children. And finally, you have to be mad (crazy) enough to believe that you as one individual have the power to change your institution, your political systems, and especially, the lives of your students and teachers. It is a rightful part of our ethical code that we must recruit other madmen and madwomen to our profession.

We should all be on, as the Blues Brothers describe it, “a mission from God” everyday to make sure technology use in our schools is actually improving the lives of our students and staff. Heaven knows that nobody goes into the profession to make money. As educators, our satisfaction comes from actually believing we are doing something that will make the world a more humane place in which to live. The ultimate ethic of our practice is improving the lives of the children who attend out schools. The addition of technology to our schools does not change this; in fact, it may just make it more imperative. Minnesota writer, Frederick Manfred in his poem “What about you, boy?” says it far better than I ever could:

…Open up and let go.
Even if it’s only blowing. But blast.
And I say this loving my God.
Because we are all he has at last.
So what about it, boy?
Is your work going well?
Are you still lighting lamps
Against darkness and hell?

It is a dangerous thing to set oneself up as an “expert” about ethics. One is held to very high ethical standards by others and there always seem to be folks sniffing about for hypocritical behavior on the “expert’s” part. One runs the chance of appearing holier-than-thou and having folks feel uncomfortable in one’s presence. But probably the worst thing is that one quickly realizes there are few ethical absolutes, and one is regarded as an anal retentive or as a godless situational relativist depending on the audience. But ethics is an interesting and import topic which needs to be brought out into the sunshine and aired on a regular basis if we are to do our jobs well.

In the end the best thing we can do is to be thoughtful and listen to own consciences. As human beings we constantly make moral judgments, decide issues of right and wrong, and attempt to determine what behaviors are humane and inhumane. We want to feel both our professional and personal actions and attitudes:
    - promote the general health of society
    - maintain or increase individual rights and freedoms
    - protect individuals from harm
    - treat all human beings as having an inherent value and accord those beings respect
    - uphold religious, social, cultural, and government laws and mores
In other words, we want the decisions we make to not only not have a damaging impact on ourselves, on those we serve, or on our society, but improve our world as well.

I am proud to be a member of a profession that takes its ethical responsibilities seriously.  

Adams, H. (2002) “ALA Code of Ethics.” personal email, August 26.
Adams, H. (2002) The Internet Invasion: Is Privacy at Risk? Rev. ed. Follett’s Professional Development Series.
eSchool News Staff (2002) Kentucky school finds seniors lifted text from the internet. eSchool News, July 1. Retrieved September 5, 2002 from http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3824
Gerhardt, L. (1990, January) Ethical back talk: Chewing on ALA’s Code. School Library Journal, 36:1, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1990, February) Ethical back talk: I. School Library Journal, 36:2, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1990, April) Ethical back talk: II. School Library Journal, 36:4, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1990, June) Ethical back talk: III. School Library Journal, 36:6, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1990, August) Ethical back talk: IV. School Library Journal, 36:8, 4
Gerhardt, L. (1990, October) Ethical back talk: V. School Library Journal, 36:10, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1990, December) Ethical back talk: VI. School Library Journal, 36:12, 4.
Gerhardt, L. (1991, January) Ethical back talk: VI. School Library Journal, 37:1, 4.

Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 10:15PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

Your comments are timely and important. I would also recommend purhcasing "Privacy in the 21st Century: Issues for Public, School, and Academic Libraries" by Helen R. Adams, Rober F. Bocher, Carol A. Gordon, and Elizabeth Barry-Kessler published by Libraries Unlimited.

September 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHilda K. Weisburg

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