Library Ethics and Personal Bias

So yesterday I encountered my first real challenge with library ethics. Not a BIG challenge, but moments where I had to step back and make sure that I was separating my personal biases from the task at hand.

Said task is ongoing throughout the summer, or as long as it takes me to get it done, and entails going through every book from Call number 200-399, weeding out materials that are misleading, ugly, superseded, trivial, irrelevant or available elsewhere, and shifting those that make it through the selection process to new shelves.

It’s a very interesting and informative process. How often do you sit and look at every single book in a section of the library? Not very often. The University of Illinois has a nice guide to the Dewey Decimal system (Which is nice for me since I’m out of practice with Dewey having used Library of Congress for the past 10 years).  The 200’s are Religion. Also look at the breakdown of each number, and see if you notice something. See it? Every number from 220 to 280 is a subcategory related to Christianity in general. Then from 281 to 289 we get the breakdown of the Christian denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist etc). And 290 to 299 covers ALL the other religions of the WORLD. Judaism and Islam get their own number, but Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and any number of other major world religions are all just lumped in together. WHOOPS. Granted, when Dewey made up the system, he probably didn’t anticipate that the world would become so globalized, and he lived in an even more ethnocentric age than we do now. But still, come on!!

Weeding also tells you a lot about donors to the library and past librarians. This library had been gifted every single book Elton Trueblood had ever written. Someone obviously thought he was saying good stuff. Which is cool, but since not a single of those books had been checked out even once since they were donated 30 years ago, they probably don’t need to be taking up space on the shelves. There was also a book containing a 35 year old religious argument against abortion– clearly biased. These decisions were easy, along with the supposition that the library probably didn’t need 4 copies of the King James Bible, as not a single had been checked out in the last 10 years. This is where judgment starts to come in, however. We don’t need 4 copies, but we do need 1– even if it hasn’t been checked out. A King James Bible is one of those things that a Library should just HAVE.

Before I talk about my little Ethics dilemma, I present the ALA Library Code of Ethics

  1. 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.
  2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  3. 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.
  4. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  5. 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.
  6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Okay, so back to things a library should have, even if they haven’t circulated much. So we should have a copy of the sacred text of all the major religions. Okay. We should also have a book about women in the bible. And one about women in religion. Do we need a book about a woman’s pursuit of the “sacred feminine” because it poses a different point of view and women are very underrepresented in this section? We have Do we need a book about Quakers? Amish? Every subsect of Christianity? If we do, do we need every subsect of every other major religion? Some representation yes– obviously– but every single subsect? It’s a tiny bit tricky.

Which brings me to yesterday. I came across a book published by the Mormons outlining their beliefs. It hadn’t been checked out in enough years to warrant weeding it. I had justification. But I’d kept a book about the Quakers and a book about the Amish, so if I withdrew this one and not those others simply because I have a lot (and I mean A LOT) of personal issue with the Mormon religion, was I being biased? The answer I came to was– yes, I would be acting on my own bias. I can recommend that the library purchase a book that criticizes the Mormon religion. That is within my professional duties to provide balanced and unbiased information. But I can’t just pull things that I don’t like.

As librarians we think a lot about censorship of Young Adult novels that parents think contain too much sex or violence or heavy content. Or we think of book burning bigots demanding that all books about evolution, or homosexuality be pulled from the shelves. I think it’s important to remember that censorship is as simple as a librarian making a choice. It’s a heavy power and responsibility we carry with us. It’s not any more okay for me to pull books that carry religious content I don’t agree with than it is for others to pull books that don’t carry the religious content they believe in. It has to go both ways.

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