Ethics of Information Organization
The Information Organization Research Group and Center for Information Policy Research of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies collaborated with Milwaukee Public Library and UWM Libraries to present the 2nd Milwaukee Conference on the Ethics of Information Organization. This conference united practitioners, students, academics, and supporters to discuss ethical concerns related to the current state and future of information access and organization. Presentations and the following discussions ranged from the ethics of catalog notes to library labor as intellectual craft. See the full schedule and linked abstracts at http://sois.uwm.edu/ioethics/schedule
. Throughout the conference, I was thinking about how the ethics of information organization can be applied in other areas of library and information service.
opened the conference with a lively discussion about “just classification”. He presented the audience with two different interpretations of this phrase: 1) It is justclassification
, not anything significant or having much impact; and 2) It is just
classification, as opposed to unjust classification. It is classification that does not harm and is fair. He illustrated how classification is a system of expressed judgments, rather than an objective, neutral system of order. This theme resonated throughout his talk as he explained the difference between the perspective of perceived neutrality/disillusioned objectivity and the perspective of conscious position/understood subjectivity. He wonders how it can be possible to be positioned as neutral or objective. How can one conclude their own neutrality or objectivity? We are all positioned as individuals, as part of collectives, or serve on behalf of institutions. We may be influenced by people we work with, the environment around us, the systems we work with, among other factors. Oxford English Dictionary defines “positionality” as “The fact or quality of having a position (in various senses) in relation to other things” (2006). For example, subjective decisions are necessarily made in information organization, particularly when a cataloger creates a record, or determines which items require more detail or special notes. A cataloger possesses positionality based on the person’s amount of expertise and experience, the support of fellow colleagues, the environmental circumstances, her/his individual biases, assumptions, and presumptions, etc. Subjective decisions are not only made by catalogers and technical service departments. All LIS professionals must be conscious of their positionality and subjectivity.
Just Frontline Library Service
A practicing librarian at the conference really connected with the themes and content shared throughout the weekend, but was having a hard time deciding how to share with co-workers what was discussed so that it wouldn’t be received as out of touch, academic babble. I can relate to the translation work that takes place mentally to build the bridge between theory and practice. Although theory informs everything we do in practice, it is not always discussed on the frontlines and when it is, it is not in the abstract way it is often discussed in academia. My professional experience is in frontline public library service, so I was interested in carrying the presented information from technical services to frontline services. I thought of the importance of just
frontline library service. We have many “systems” of expressed judgments and many opportunities to express judgments in all areas of librarianship.
Each time we select books for storytime, we are making value judgments about which books are best. When we select workshops to be presented throughout the year, we select some programs over others because of our value judgments. The way our buildings are organized makes some materials more accessible than others because we’ve made decisions to arrange them in a particular order. If we adhere to the misconception that librarians and LIS practitioners are neutral parties and libraries are value-free institutions in the community, we are disillusioned. In this mindset, we perform our duties at the risk of causing harm and making unfair and inequitable decisions that may affect our libraries, our staff, and our communities. We must be reminded of our subjectivity and personal (individual/collective/institutional) positions and professional values that influence all decisions made.
Just Service to Latinos and Spanish-Speakers
How do we provide just
frontline service to our Latino and Spanish-speaking communities? Do we acknowledge our own positionality and subjectivity? As Reformistas, we are forthcoming with our interest in improving library and information services for Latinos and Spanish-speakers, but we must still remain conscious of our individual presumptions, our positionality, and our subjectivity. If we identify as Latina/o, this does not mean that we share essential characteristics with all others who identify as Latina/o. The Latino community is heterogeneous, rich with varied experiences, traditions, and values. The Spanish-speaking community is heterogeneous, ranging in dialect and colloquialisms. Within ethnic subgroups there is diversity and variation. We must consider the broad spectrum of our service community as we make decisions and value judgments in our work. As we select books for bilingual storytime, how do we select the books? When we purchase new items for our Spanish collection, how do we determine how to best spend the limited funds? When we create displays to recognize and celebrate the achievements of Latinos and Spanish-speakers what criteria do we use to decide which materials to highlight over others? Do we ask ourselves these questions on a regular basis?
In all situations, it is important to consider the justice of our decisions. Who benefits from the decisions we make? Who suffers as a result of the decisions we make? Whether we create catalog records, create book displays, conduct outreach in the community, or provide virtual services, we make value judgments every day. Is your practice just library service
Mai, Jens-Erik. “Just classifications.” The 2nd Milwaukee Conference on the Ethics of Information Organization, Milwaukee, WI. 15 June 2012. Opening Speech.
. (2006). The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed.; online version June 2012. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/266539