Value-Neutrality, Professional Ethics, and the Dissemination of Information – by David Sherman

Value-Neutrality, Professional Ethics, and the Dissemination of Information

David Sherman

In the post-9/11, post-PATRIOT Act cultural environment, some institutions have come under criticism by people who feel their openness and accessibility contribute to a vulnerability that terrorists could exploit in order to cause harm. Legislative and regulatory action have sought to limit both access to information and individual privacy, and public opinion seems to have become more accepting of these limits. Libraries, as the most open of cultural institutions, have become a focal point in this controversy. The desire to restrict potentially harmful information is hardly new, however, and questions on whether legitimate restrictions can be placed on the provision of information by librarians involves issues of professional ethics, social policy, and long-standing cultural traditions.

Traditional role of libraries, the Enlightenment tradition, and value-neutrality

The social role of the library has traditionally been envisioned as a place where people can find whatever information they need; libraries are, after all, “storehouses of knowledge from which each reader can draw as he requires” (Foskett 1962, p.10). Since people have complex and varied roles in society and a wide range of informational needs, libraries need to own or have access to large amounts of information on a wide variety of topics. Librarians, as part of their professional function, should provide the information requested by the patron, and should not question the reason a patron is requesting particular information except insofar as necessary to clarify the request. Objectively providing requested information without making judgments on its value or appropriateness is called “value-neutrality”, and it requires dedication and self-awareness on the part of the librarian.

Foskett (1962, p.10) clearly expresses the idea of value-neutrality as it relates to reference service: “During reference service, the librarian ought virtually to vanish as an individual person, except in so far as his personality sheds light on the working of the library”; the librarian should have “no politics, no religion, no morals.” The American Library Association’s Code of Ethics also seems to advance this view, saying, “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,” and “we uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources” (American Library Association (ALA) 1995).

Value-neutrality has its intellectual roots in the ideas of Enlightenment Liberalism. Enlightenment thinkers thought that the fundamental attribute of human beings was their capacity to reason. If people are allowed to develop and exercise this central attribute, these thinkers argued, both individuals and society as a whole will improve, because individuals will ultimately be able to make greater contributions to society. Artificial limits to individual liberty, imposed by the state or other social institutions, would have the effect of stifling the progress of individual growth and depriving society of ideas and creativity necessary for progress to occur.

The concepts of human reason and individual liberty lead naturally to the view that society and individuals function best when they are allowed to express ideas freely. In order to properly fulfill its natural capacities, human nature requires intellectual freedom; in a sense, because of human nature, people have a right to ideas. To limit their access to ideas would be to neglect the central aspect of their humanity.

These views about human nature influenced and were eventually incorporated into democratic political systems that made individual liberty and intellectual freedom central concerns of government and society. Social systems and institutions that evolved under the new political systems also incorporated these views of human nature, and frequently acted to further the values and goals of individual liberty.

One particular social institution that has developed a special role in democratic systems is the library. Particularly with the development of tax-supported public libraries, libraries became a place for all people, regardless of their place in society, to gain knowledge and find information they need. Libraries act as “a place of education…the uplifter of the common person, and…[the] cultural center of the community” (Alfino 1997, p.91). Under this view, “librarians should rededicate themselves to the role of ‘public intellectuals’, leading their communities in the discussion of issues” of social importance (Alfino 2001, p.483).

Since the goal of Enlightenment Liberalism is to promote the progress of society by developing individuals capable of using reason, libraries have a responsibility as public institutions of cultivating self-governing individuals. The library’s resources should be available to educate and enlighten all members of society so that they can better govern themselves, and by extension, better govern society.

Further, the Enlightenment thinkers felt that as people gained knowledge, and became capable of self-governance, they would better be able to make moral judgments because they would have a better understanding of the world. Information, even potentially harmful information, should therefore not be censored, because it allows people to get a complete picture of the world from which to make responsible judgments.

Libraries, as democratic institutions, should be value-neutral in order that they might fulfill their social role as contributors to the development of self-governing individuals in a free society through the provision of information. Swan (qtd. in Wiener 1987, p.162) writes that limiting access to information based on a librarian’s personal judgment would amount to “denying another person’ right to the knowledge necessary for his/her own ethical decision.”

Challenges to the Enlightenment view of librarianship

The value-neutral Enlightenment Liberal view, however, encounters a problem if the patron has motives that are less than pure. Does value-neutrality continue to be valid if the library patron intends to use the information for harmful purposes; and should information be withheld from the patrons if the librarian believes this is the case? Enlightenment Liberalism tended to view human nature in a positive way: human beings were seen as rational, inquisitive, and, when properly educated, having a natural tendency to moral action. However, the intervening years from the Age of Enlightenment to the present day have shaken, many would say undermined, any faith in the power of human reason. World Wars, multiple genocides, psychological and literary exploration of human irrationality, behaviorist and geneticist views of humans as determined actors: all of these developments and others have made the idea of a moral human nature seem somewhat naïve, and provide a serious challenge to a value-neutral stance in reference service.

Hauptman’s analysis of his 1976 experiment reflects this loss of faith in the Enlightenment view. During a period when the United States experienced a number of bombings by extremist groups, Hauptman (1976, p.626) approached reference desks at six public and seven academic libraries and asked for information on constructing an explosive device capable of destroying “a normal suburban house”; he found the results shocking: none of the thirteen librarians he asked “refused to supply the information on ethical grounds.” He concluded that the librarians in the study were completely ignoring ethical concerns about sharing information that is potentially dangerous, and hiding their ethical inaction behind claims of professional responsibilities.

He framed his charge that librarians were acting amorally by not “sensitizing” information, or determining what information is acceptable to share with patrons, as a conflict between professional responsibilities and personal ethical obligations (Hauptman 1996, p.328). Hauptman (1979, p.198) considered the dissemination of information “a rather dubious professional commitment” that should not take precedence over personal ethical decisions. He argued that “protecting and advancing the free flow of information is commendable, but there may be times when it is ethically unacceptable” (Hauptman 1988, p.42).

Hauptman’s view is a clear challenge to the idea of value-neutrality, and his experiment brought about a serious debate over if, and how, information could or should be “sensitized”. His experiment became a model that others replicated, and, although the results were similar, the conclusions reached by other researchers were very different.

Dowd attempted to replicate Hauptman’s experiment in the 1980s, and chose a topical question in the way bombings were topical to Hauptman’s experiment; he made the request: “I want to find out how to freebase cocaine” (Dowd 1989, p.486). Like Hauptman, Dowd found that none of the reference librarians refused to answer the question; he did, however, note two things that Hauptman had not. First, none of the reference librarians had engaged him in a reference interview. Second, “reference aid at these libraries ranged from extensive to minimal,” and, of those that gave minimal assistance, “the sources chosen were not the best possible given [his] unusual information need” (Dowd 1989, p.487, 489). Hauptman’s feeling that librarians should “sensitize” certain information seemed to be already occurring when some of the librarians were asked for information on controversial topics. Whether caused by an insufficient understanding of his informational needs, or simply a lack of comfort in dealing with the topic, the result was poor quality reference service. By not engaging Dowd in a reference interview, it was not possible to understand the intent of his request.

A study in Slovenian libraries returned similar results. Juznic had students in the library studies program at the University of Ljubljana ask for information on one of three “morally disputable” subjects: ways in which to perform suicide, necrophilia, and finding pictures of corpses. The students were asked both to observe the reactions of the librarian, and to “evaluate the appropriateness of the materials or directions” given to them by the librarians (Juznic 2001). Nearly two-thirds of the librarians acted in ways other than “totally calmly” to the requests (responses included: worried, indignant, uncertain, officious, embarrassed, and others), and nearly sixty percent of the students were less than satisfied with the information received (Juznic 2001). The concerns expressed by Dowd were seen in the Juznic study as well: reference librarians sometimes did not make a serious effort to find information they were uncomfortable with.

When a noticeable lack of quality reference service regarding controversial materials occurs, attacks on value-neutrality become serious concerns. Patrons seeking information on controversial issues could be denied information seemingly at the whim of the librarian. If personal ethical concerns are to take precedence over the “rather dubious professional commitment” of providing information, what would be the effect to a patron requesting information on abortion providers from a staunchly pro-life reference librarian? Hauptman (1979, p.198) raises this question, but does not attempt to answer it.

Also, if the provision of information by librarians is only a “dubious professional commitment,” it raises the larger question of what the role of librarianship is at all. Hauptman (1988, p.42) compares the value-neutral stance to “the case of the lawyer who fervently defends an admitted criminal and gets him off on a technicality. The criminal’s rights have been protected, but at the expense of both his or her victims and society.” Again we see Hauptman’s rejection of the views of Enlightenment Liberalism; where the Enlightenment thinkers would see the protection of a criminal’s rights as defending the interests of society by maintaining a strict adherence to the rule of law, Hauptman sees simply a lack of personal ethical behavior. The question raised by these opposing views becomes one of the place of librarianship or others professional commitments: does librarianship advance society, even morality in society, by sometimes engaging in behavior that, outside the confines of professional action, may cross ethical lines; or is society better served by individual conscience acting outside professional guidelines?

Communitarianism as an alternative model of librarianship

One response to the question comes from thinkers who challenge the ideas of Enlightenment Liberalism, and argue that morality is a socially constructed set of rules, rather than moral laws determined by universal principles of reasoning. This view, which Gremmels and Haste label Communitarianism, disputes the Enlightenment Liberal belief that the exercise of reason itself can help people to become moral. Thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition, from Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” to John Rawls’ “parties situated behind a veil of ignorance,” have emphasized the idea of impartiality and objectivity as a necessary part of determining moral laws or proper ethical behavior. They argue that personal interests and culturally ingrained views must be overcome in order to properly judge a situation.

Communitarians, on the other hand, argue that such objectivity is not possible, and they present a critique of Enlightenment thought as a whole. For the Communitarians, the idea of individualism, one of the core beliefs of Liberalism, is false. They argue that, “people simply are not solitary beings capable of ‘autonomous reasoning’ from behind a veil of ignorance, or in a state of suspended objectivity from one’s cultural context. They are deeply social, embedded in culture and in social practices” (Haste 1998). Values are therefore not the result of moral laws arrived at by human reason; rather, they are created by social interactions. People are unable to completely remove themselves from their cultural and personal prejudices, so pure rationality, and therefore objectivity, are simply not possible. Since objectivity is not possible, value-neutrality essentially becomes an unachievable standard.

Gremmels (1991, p.364-5) argues that librarianship itself is hardly value-neutral; rather, it clearly embraces the values of the Enlightenment: “we believe that information is a useful commodity, a good thing. We believe that it is better to be literate than illiterate. The Statement on Professional Ethics is full of values: freedom of information, freedom from censorship, and professionalism.” She suggests that rather than attempting to maintain “mindless adherence to an impossible standard of objectivity,” librarians should embrace a communitarian view, which would allow reference librarians to place the common good over the information needs of an individual patron (Gremmels 1991, p.367). It “would allow the reference librarian to say no…to Hauptman when he posed the bomb-building question and refused Dowd’s request for the how-to’s of freebasing cocaine” (Gremmels 1991, p.368). The needs and values of the community, in this view, should replace attempts at value-neutrality. Librarianship, and other professions under the Communitarian view, would have it’s purpose and mission defined and controlled by the values of the community.

The problems with the Communitarian view are clear if any attempt is made to maintain the traditional function of librarianship. Communitarian values would have “allowed the reference librarian to say no,” but as Dowd (1989, p.491) points out, they would have said no to two researchers who simply wanted information and had no intentions of doing anything illegal or unethical. Gremmels (1991, p.368) acknowledges that “public interest theory offers no help to the librarian in deciphering the intention of the client”; yet, if it is easier to deny patrons information without any better method of determining the intent of the patron, it is easy to envision a scenario in which community libraries become increasingly provincial in their views because community values are continually reinforced by limiting information through reference service and collections development.

Another potential problem with a Communitarian philosophy of reference service is how to determine or measure community values and opinions. Even in a fairly homogenous community, there will undoubtedly be differences of opinion. Is a simple majority view an acceptable measure of community value? Under that definition, in a town whose primary employer is a military base, it would probably be acceptable to not provide access to Fahrenheit 9/11, or other anti-war films or materials. Or would a library in a town with a single major employer whose products were poorly reviewed in Consumer Reports be acting in the community’s interest by not subscribing to that magazine? The Communitarian view is vague when it comes to defining what public interest actually is, and when that is combined with the fact that community values change, the role of librarianship would not have a standard by which to operate.

Marco provides an alternate view of objectivity as a function of librarianship’s social role that responds to Communitarian objections to Enlightenment Liberalism. Marco (1996, p.33) argues that the debate over professional ethics has become too “expansive,” in that it is attempting to deal with personal morality when that should be an extraneous concern for professional ethics. His “narrow view” of professional ethics is that of a “set of mutual obligations between the profession itself and the society that establishes and maintains it” (Marco 1996, p.33). On the surface, this view seems to be consistent with the Communitarian view; however, there is a difference. He writes that within the societal mission of the profession, there are “role obligations” which define the role of the profession, and personal ethical considerations simply should not come into play: “A person joining a profession accepts its moral system, so there should be no problem for her in obeying the rules of it” (Marco 1996, p.34). Finks (1991, p.86) makes the same point this way: “Librarians are behaving properly (or ethically) when they act in such a way that they fulfill their function.”

Social definitions of reference librarians require that they “give information assistance which is requested, even if possible use of the information by the patron may be personally objectionable to the librarian” (Marco 1996, p.37). Objectivity, then, becomes a role obligation of librarianship. While the Communitarians are correct in pointing out that no individual is free of preconceived ideas, the librarian needs to be aware of their own attitudes and beliefs in order “to keep them from detrimentally influencing professional practice” (Bunge 1999, p.34).

Marco (1996, p.37) does draw limits, however; he writes that if there is a clear and present danger in providing the information, “the librarian has the duty not to impart it.” How, then, is it possible to determine a clear and present danger? Further, how do we set rules or guidelines that prevent the denial of information based on the personal whim or discomfort of the librarian, yet prevent actual harmful action?

Criteria for making judgments on limitation of information

Several factors need to be addressed to begin to make any determination. First, the difference between suspicion of intent and knowledge of intent is important in making any decision to deny information to a patron. Both Hauptman and Dowd used specific phrasing of the reference requests in their experiments in order to lead the reference librarians to suspect that their requests were for illegal purposes; however, neither one ever said directly that they were planning on blowing up a home or freebasing cocaine. It is easy to think of other reasons why a patron would request such information: curiosity, research, writing crime fiction, etc. Under conditions of suspicion of the patron’s intent, without real knowledge, it is very difficult to justify withholding the requested information.

If the reference librarian does have evidence or knowledge that the patron is going to use the information to do harm, however, denial of service may be justified. Someone coming to a reference desk saying “I want to rob a bank, and I need to know how to effectively plan the robbery” or “I need to know how to burn my neighbor’s house down so it looks like an accident,” would clearly be putting the reference librarian in a situation that crosses the lines of both ethical and legal activity. A librarian’s duty to provide information cannot be a license to freely cooperate in the commission of crimes. This type of activity would violate the strictest interpretation of value-neutrality because of its basis in the idea that knowledge leads to moral action and moral improvement. Reference service should err on the side of providing information if there is only a suspicion of criminal intent, but draw the line at providing information when knowledge or evidence of illegal or immoral intent exists.

Another criterion to determine the limits of providing information is the potential harm to the community if the suspicions about the patron’s intent turned out to be true. Koster (1992, p.76) writes that, in addition to professional values, each ethical decision on whether or not to share information includes “three other sets of values that are also relevant: broadly held societal values; the personal values of the librarian; and third-party values, of the user, the institution, or another party.” Koster feels that, since each situation is different, the weight given to each of the values under any particular circumstance will be different. A patron asking a reference librarian for information on radar detectors that implies he wants to get away with speeding must have the balance between suspicion and knowledge, and the balance between competing values, weighed differently than someone asking for information on poisoning a city’s water supply.

A related criterion is the concern about the long term good of the community when deciding whether to withhold information. The Enlightenment Liberal view is clear on this account; when information is withheld, the community will suffer because individuals will not be allowed to fully develop their reason, and will not contribute as effectively to the community’s needs. The question then becomes: is the potential short-term harm that may occur because of information being used for harmful ends serious enough to justify the long-term loss to the community that would occur by withholding information?

The question takes on a deeper meaning when the danger of a chilling effect on use of the library could occur. Bunge (1999, p.40) writes that we should “consider the result that might come from limiting the librarian’s obligations to the client… students who cannot rely on the confidentiality of their interactions with reference librarians…are likely to avoid using the reference librarian’s service.” If a decision is made to weigh community values and suspicion of intent over the individual’s right to know, patrons of the library, particularly those investigating controversial topics, may cease to view the library as a useful place to find information.

An extreme example of this scenario was seen with the FBI’s Library Awareness Program, and the potential for government collection of patron data that exists under the USA PATRIOT Act. Cleghorn (1971, p.398) reports an instance of federal agents “obtaining the names of people who had checked out books on guerilla warfare by Che Guevara…The librarian willingly provided the names, which included those of two teen-agers who apparently were working on term papers.” Deciding that material is unsuitable for patrons has the danger of leading down a slippery slope toward keeping records on, or reporting on patrons who do ask for such information. While this is a separate ethical issue altogether from value-neutrality, it needs to be kept in mind as an example of how determining that certain information is “sensitized”, to use Hauptman’s phrase, could lead to more serious, and intrusive, actions.


The vast majority of reference questions will have no ethical implications at all. There is no direct moral significance in giving patrons information on finding resources on gardening, the capitol of North Dakota, or population statistics of the former Soviet Union. However, if a question like Hauptman’s bomb-making request arises at the reference desk, the librarian will be put in a position of weighing different factors and values that will affect their decision on whether to provide that information. The criterion used to make the decision, including the intent of the patron (as far as it can be determined), the potential harm to the community, the remoteness of the harm, and the long-term good of the community, all should be weighed with the goal of maintaining the social role of librarianship as defenders of intellectual freedom and providers of information to the public.

Views, such as Communitarianism, that attempt to make it easier to withhold information, even for ethical reasons, run the risk of becoming contributors to censorship. If reference librarians attempt to judge all difficult questions by the fact that there is a potential harm to the community, then “our intellectual freedom and our ethics would soon be hostage to misapplied evidence in the hands of arbitrary authority” (Swan 1982, p.112). Librarians act to help the development of society by producing intellectually and ethically self-directed individuals through the fulfillment of their role obligations in a society based in the traditions of Enlightenment Liberalism. Before deciding to accept views that seek to make it acceptable to withhold information, librarians need to realize that, “if the truth were withheld from everyone, including you, then you would not have enough evidence to decide what are the truths that are to be withheld” (Mintz 1990, p.11).

Works Cited

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Cleghorn, R., 1971. When Readers Become Suspect. In B. Katz & J.J. Schwartz, eds. Library Lit.- The Best of 1970. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, p.398-404.

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Hauptman, R., 1979. Ethical Commitment and the Professions. Catholic Library World, 51, p.196-199.

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