Educating Information Professionals: A Comparative Approach to Codes of Ethics

Cheryl Knott Malone


This paper will analyze the implications of having several ethical codes operating in an evolving system of library and information science (LIS) professions and suggest a comparative approach for introducing graduate students to the sometimes conflicting ethical expectations they will face as information professionals.

Master’s degree programs in LIS prepare students to work as professionals in public and private libraries, archives, museums, knowledge management divisions of corporations, and other information settings. The ethical issues LIS graduates confront as information professionals are rooted in their responsibilities to their employers, their clientele, their profession, to themselves and to the society in which they live. But those issues are complicated by the competitive terrain of the information professions in an era characterized by ever-evolving communications and information technologies.

The mutability of librarianship and of the information professions in general poses problems for LIS faculty. As preparation for students’ entry into the unwieldy information sector, the educational process involves challenging students to examine stereotypes, assumptions, and expectations about the vocation they think they have chosen. It also requires at least an introduction to ethically responsible professional behavior. One of the functions of professional schools is to socialize students, to introduce to them the values and practices that characterize people in the profession. But the LIS professions manifest values and practices that change as the occupations and the people in them change. The situation confounds the presentation of ethics in the LIS curriculum. It is perhaps not surprising that the American Library Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics tried to create a syllabus for a course in LIS ethics but gave up on the grounds that “the subject is too all-encompassing.”

According to Mark Alfino and Linda Pierce, “. . . the process of articulating professional values reveals professional identity. . . .” A parallel assertion would hold that a useful method for beginning to socialize students into LIS would be to introduce them to the professional code. A typical teaching tactic in professional schools relies on introducing and explicating the profession’s recognized code of ethics, often through the mechanism of case studies. In LIS, however, no single code can convey the ethical expectations of the LIS professions. To learn about professional identities, students need to learn about the variety of ethical codes that apply in the various LIS fields. Such an approach can reveal how the different fields within LIS delimit their domains and express their similarities and differences through their claims on ethical practice. In the process, students also learn about the behavior that will be expected of them as professionals in their own chosen specialties. The resulting reflection on the moral roles of professionals as professionals can shape not only the ways in which LIS graduates go about their business but also the ways in which they understand the business of LIS. Such an approach also can help students and new professionals comprehend the ethical standpoints from which their mentors give advice. An exploration of ethical codes representing the belief systems that the information specialties endorse thus can help students begin to appreciate the sometimes subtle distinctions among the LIS subfields while at the same time surveying the professional conduct expected of practitioners within those subfields. To address the issues involved in educating information professionals for a deeper understanding of ethics and identity, this paper will compare various professional codes of ethics adopted by different LIS associations. Further, the paper will report on the implementation and evaluation of an assignment requiring students in a required graduate course on information, libraries, and society to compare the ethical codes of different LIS associations.