The Ethical Librarian

omar-the-wireMy Westlaw/iPod experience has reminded me of yet another Something I Didn’t Learn In Library School – Librarian Ethics.

Sure, we covered the basics, like “don’t give out patron information” and…um…actually, that’s the only one I really remember talking about.  There must have been others (something about whether or not you can let a teenager have a book on how to commit suicide, maybe?), but I’m positive I was never confronted with a hypothetical of the sort I just experienced in real life.

As the comments on my iPod post (and ones I’ve received privately) have shown me, this is clearly an issue that librarians feel strongly about.  It is also an issue open to wide interpretation – ranging from  “So, hot damn, enjoy who you are, and all the benefits that come from it.” to “Accepting such gifts certainly clouds our ability to evaluate a product fairly and anyone who says otherwise is most likely kidding themselves.”

I can’t say what the right action is for others.  I do want to make it clear that I don’t judge the librarians that went to Eagan or the ones that are keeping the iPods.  (Or take pens or gift cards or stuffed animals, etc.)  Counted among that group are some people that I consider good friends and I trust that their judgment is not clouded by vendor swag.  I can only do what my gut tells me feels right, and for me that means not accepting any gifts from vendors.

The guy you see pictured here is one of my favorite fictional characters ever.  His name is Omar Little and he is a thief, murderer and perjurer, amongst other things.  He also has a personal code of honor that he upholds no matter what. (Apparently if you are involved in a drug war in Baltimore, you never, ever, EVER fight on Sundays.  Nice.)   While my stance on vendor swag may appear to be smug and self-righteous, I am the first to admit that I am not a perfect person.  I haven’t publicly been called on it yet, but  I do want to admit that when I was in Boston for ALA Midwinter, yes I took several free books from publishers in the exhibit hall…because I never do business with those vendors.  I also take candy that they leave in Tech Services during the holidays and will eat the meals our reps bring when they demonstrate a new product.

I am also at any one time committing at least 4 of the 7 deadly sins.

So, no, I’m not perfect.  I do, however, feel strongly that the librarian profession is more than just a job.  Librarians are the gatekeepers to the world’s knowledge.  This profession is an important one that has a greater duty to society, on par with doctors and teachers and, yes get your giggles out now, lawyers.  So, yes, I do take these things seriously, perhaps a little more seriously than others. (In addition to this iPod dustup, this week I found myself harping on a nascent librarian friend on FriendFeed for talking about a celebrity patron publicly.)  Maybe I do need to just chill out, just a little.

While I’ve been waiting to see what the legal department at MPOW has to say about how I can dispose of the iPod, I thought I’d check to see what my professional organizations have suggested with regards to ethics and to specifically see if they have any guidance to offer librarians when presented with gifts.   Guess what?  THEY DON’T.

Ethical Roundup:

  1. AALL has a code of ethics that hasn’t been updated in over 10 years. It states: ” We have a duty to avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or significant benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.” which I guess is the most applicable. The Committee on Vendor Relations, near as I can tell, is silent on the swag issue.
  2. SLA doesn’t have a code of ethics (???!!!???) , but instead refers people to ASIS&T and AIIP, among others.
  3. ALA code of ethics

I can’t believe I’m actually suggesting this, but perhaps we need a committee for hashing out this issue and coming up with a more explicit policy?  Or maybe also an ethical hotline where librarians can ask for opinions when confronted by the many sticky wickets of modern librarianship?  Just a thought…


  12 comments for “The Ethical Librarian

  1. February 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I agree on needing some sort of hotline or community where librarians can work out the stickier points of ethics in the workplace. Then again, I find that librarians usually don’t think about the ethics of vendor swag and gifts. Several of my staff members were confused about why I refuse to eat the bagels that the “Unnamed Company 1” sales rep brings once every other month when he gives his usual sales pitch to the librarians. Some folks think that I’m making too much of a fuss about it, but I’m with you – gifts like this do indeed cause conflict of interest!

  2. Ryan
    February 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Ethical considerations don’t generally prohibit one from accepting gifts–even elected officials are simply required to disclose the gifts received. I think any committee is likely to create a similar standard.

    You and others have the simple option of accepting the gift, disclosing it on your site, and blogging your merry little heart out about all things West related, leaving it up to us to see if your judgment has been clouded.

    Of course, you’re not really talking about a general standard though (as your appeal to Omar indicates), are you? You’re working out your own. I think you should do what you clearly want to do; ignore MPOW, return the gift, and continue eating candy from vendors you’ve never heard of.

  3. February 4, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    As I’ve watched (and participated in) the ongoing #lawlibswag conversation, it’s occurred to me that this is a different issue than it was 10 years ago. The difference has to do with a change in the relationship between information sources (and hence vendors), librarians, and patron/clients.

    Serious competition for WEXIS is a relatively recent development, and IMNSHO is not yet taken seriously enough, particularly by those who teach legal research. Nevertheless, few would argue against the idea that sources for legal researchers are much more competitive than formerly — a churning pool and not a static puddle. That’s important, because it places additional weight on the librarian’s role as information broker/adviser. It argues against the past practice of passively accepting whatever vendors chose to offer (yes, I know that librarians have always groused about vendors among themselves. But that rarely occurred in public, and never rose to the level of Consumer Reports). This changed environment argues for a more developed sense of information-broker ethics among librarians.

    I suspect that, consciously or not, it was easier for the profession to grapple with ethical issues when the inevitability of WEXIS overwhelmed any sense of individual responsibility for the consequences inherent in giving advice to clients about the sources they should use. You need not worry about what one is recommending, and why, if the person you’re advising has very limited choices.

    Svengalis was the first to point out that perhaps those choices are not so limited after all — minimally, they include an option not to accept vendor recommendations unquestioningly. Certainly now the client or patron faces much a much wider range of choices at a much wider range of price points. And librarians, it seems to me, have a need for their own guideposts when it comes to offering responsible advice to those clients.

  4. stephanie
    February 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Ryan: I’m not sure what “ethical considerations” are, unless you mean the ethical guidelines of professional associations, but state ethics and gift ban laws are quite another.

    Illinois, for example, has a complicated set of rules and exceptions and remedies for gifts from potential sources of business with the state, and in none of the contemplated scenarios does mere disclosure of a gift get you off the hook. See, e.g., We all grouse about the annual Ethics Testing and how little power librarians have in securing large state contracts, but it’s not just about purchasing decisions (as Sarah and others have said so well).

  5. Alex Grigg
    February 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    I think SLA is groping their way towards real ethical support for members, but just hasn’t been very successful at it so far. I think the Information Ethics Advisory Council ( may be relatively new and I know for sure that the “Ethics Ambassadors” that each chapter and division can appoint have only been around for a few years. Unfortunately, the Ambassadors are a nice idea as a local contact for ethics questions, but I don’t think they were ever given a clear set of guidelines or any training. Our chapter hasn’t had one since they were first instituted, partly because nobody’s sure what the duties of the Ethics Ambassadors are.

    In general, I find it hard to be unduly influenced by vendor swag because most of it is so crappy. Some of it is just cute which is why I have some flying and/or stuffed pigs in a bag at home somewhere. I do keep a look out for decent writing utensils so that I will have some that I don’t mind losing. Even your iPod Nano which is towards the upper end give aways, and would usual tends to be part of a prize package for a drawing or something would not be something I would purchase for myself. So basically I’m too snobby to be influenced much by vendor swag?

    The underlying question still stands, though. Unfortunately, I think one of the answers is that people are very bad at determining which sorts of gifts will unduly influence them, particularly until they get something that does start to cross the line. Unless you’ve thought about it in advance this sort of thing can sneak up on you. I certainly haven’t given it much thought up until now, but I’m probably going to have to start laying down some ground rules. It may actually be easiest if your institution does have some guidelines already in place, to simply follow them. Not all workplaces do have stated guidelines about these sorts of things, though. If you’re creating your own maximum gift limit, I’d try to stick to a simple dollar amount and not let any gifts exceed it. Some “swag” is just not going to have a clear price, like that vendor karaoke party with drinks at whatever conference, but keep in mind that nothing is free and there is a reason that vendors are willing to spend money on this stuff. Just like any advertiser, they are paying for a piece of your attention.

  6. Leslie
    February 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Look, I don’t think that every single person that accepts a free pen from a vendor is forever tainted and cannot make independent judgments on the quality of that vendor’s products. However, I think that there is a cost cut off point, and if what is being offered is over a specified dollar amount then an ethical librarian shouldn’t take it. Free trips and iPods definitely are over that amount, particular when it is done for promotional purposes for a particular product’s release.

    Most government jurisdictions, have similar laws about not being able to accept gifts over a particular amount, and I think those laws are entirely reasonable and just. Ryan, I think you are mistaken in saying that disclosure is enough for elected officials. That may be true in some jurisdictions, but it isn’t in the jurisdictions that I am most familiar with. The recent Supreme Court ruling that allows for corporate campaign ads before an election may say that disclosure is enough, but that is an entirely different situation. Disclosure may work tell a television audience who produced an advertisement they just watched, but how do you disclose to a patron that Westlaw paid for a trip or an iPod for you? Sure, you can disclose it to other librarians, but what about to the people for whom you are supposed to be providing a service? Furthermore, what is a patron supposed to do with that information? People come to librarians because they expect us to direct them to the most relevant, authoritative and reliable information. If we tell patrons that that we are accepting gifts from companies, and therefore, opening ourselves up to at least the appearance of bias, then what does that do to our profession as a whole? Can people feel like they can then rely on us to lead them to the best information or do we just become some other form of a corporate/political hack? Why then, do people even need us as librarians?

    I am glad that the people who went to the all expenses trip paid for by West have told us who they are in at least one respect, because now I know that I probably should look to other people to more fairly evaluate the product after a more deliberative and interactive look at the product. I myself could end up loving it for all I know, but I would want to be sure that my love for it is based on the fact that I love how it works, not because I love all the things Thomson Reuters has given me. I may think of myself as an ethical person, but I am subject to the same human foibles as any politician is who is considering what kind of relationship to have with an industry lobbyist. So just as I would hope that my elected officials wouldn’t accept those things and then be trusted to govern impartially, I have to expect that other people would expect the same of me in my professional sphere.

    Two other points and then I will shutup: AALL isn’t a professional licensing organization, like a bar association, so it makes ethical canons more tricky. However, I do think AALL could do one of two things. First, they could put up a set of advisory ethical considerations when dealing with vendors. Or two, they could make signing some kind of ethical statement (for example, like stating “I will not accept gifts from vendors with a redeemable value of over $30” or something similar)a condition for membership in the organization.

    Final point, now. I don’t begrudge Thomson Reuters for doing this. The fact is, they are a corporation and they owe no fiduciary duty to you or me as a librarian, but rather to their shareholders to maximize their return on investment. It is our responsibility as librarians to refuse to participate in or accept things that could give the appearance of bias, whether real or not. You are right to take this seriously, Sarah. All librarians should. We owe it to the people who come to us seeking information.

  7. February 4, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Sarah: Thanks for raising these important issues. Georgia Briscoe wrote a fine article about this topic: The Dilemma of Publisher Giveaways, Against the Grain, Feb. 2001, at 24.

  8. Ryan
    February 4, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Hi Stephanie, looks like you’re right that many states have this prohibition in place against legislators. And most that don’t prohibit gifts outright do so at a certain financial threshold (with certain exceptions). Personally I like the Florida floral exception the most. (I’ll also note that IL itself has a financial exception, so you apparently could legally receive an ipod shuffle…).

    But we aren’t really talking about legislators, so I’m sorry to have brought it up. While the IL gift ban clearly applies to you, KY’s doesn’t appear to apply to Sarah, and CT’s certainly doesn’t apply to me as a private employee.

    Maybe Sarah’s right that it would be beneficial to have a consistent standard that all Law Librarians (and vendors) can look to, but I don’t know that it would really resolve much because we all have internal standards.

    FWIW, I think the iPod is preposterous because it has no legitimate connection to Westlaw’s business. On the other hand, I don’t consider the MN trip a gift because that sounded like a legitimate business trip to a company HQ. (I’d take a different position if they all went to Hawaii, and yet ANOTHER position if they all went to Hawaii, but that’s where TR’s HQ’s were). While my own code is clear to me, it would be easily manipulated if it were a written policy. The same would occur if there were a dollar amount attached to gifts.

    Right now I like and prefer that we have to struggle with this as individuals.

  9. February 4, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    My only fleeting thought is that I would curious if there is overlap between people who said “You can’t take this kind of gift” versus those who collect freebies from the vendors at conference (aka. the so-called #totebag people). If there is any overlap at all, that is.

  10. October 12, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I enjoyed waincthg the video, interesting to hear views of the students as well as librarians. I totally agree with your views about not fighting against Google, we have a federated search but I have to admit I find it easier to find articles via Google Scholar which then link to our resources.

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