Ethics and Values in Librarianship: A History

“The thesis of this work is that the ethics of librarianship and its practice are not fixed and constant.” With this sentence, Wallace Koehler opens his masterful book on the history of library ethics and values, and it marks the start of his argument that our profession’s core values are not as enduring as we would like to believe. Reaching back well before the rise of librarians as a distinct profession, Koehler aims to trace the development of core values by looking at specific roles and responsibilities of librarians throughout history. However, there are times when the historical focus of the book obscures the main thrust of examining the professional ethics and values of librarianship.

Book Cover: Ethics and Values in Librarianship: A History, by Wallace Koehler

The book is organized around themes related to the ethics and values of librarianship, and explores the history of each theme individually in each chapter. Some of the themes have a clear connection to ethics and values, such as “Libraries and Ethics” (chapter 1), “On the Freedom of Expression, Intellectual Freedom, and Their Control” (chapter 5), and “Libraries and Democracy” (chapter 6). Other chapters, such as “Classification” (chapter 3), are introduced with a few paragraphs on the connection to ethics before diving into the subject matter, while the “Love of Libraries and Advice on Library Formation” (chapter 9) just launches into the topic without making a case for why this subject is included in the book. Having said that, each chapter provides an excellent history of its subject matter, even if there appears to be an occasional overdependence on the same sources (especially Justus Lipsius, Edward Edwards, and James Kirkwood) for the historical information.

Koehler is at his most compelling when he outlines how the current core principles of the library profession have changed over time. He lays the foundation for this work in the first chapter by establishing the definitions for “library” and “librarian” while also setting the scope for the range of professional ethics and values, compiling a list of thirty items that captures the many concerns of contemporary librarianship. Some later chapters, in addition to the ones mentioned above, focus on specific aspects of ethics and values, including “Stewardship and Service” (chapter 2) and “Intellectual Property, Copyright, and Fair Use” (chapter 7), while others look at broader topics in the field, such as “On Public Libraries” (chapter 4) and “Qualifications of the Librarian” (chapter 8). The chapter on public libraries spends most of its time examining the history of the institution, but includes a few paragraphs near the end to tie it back to ethics. Likewise, while the qualifications of librarians are of major importance to the role they play in the promotion and defense of the professions ethics and values, the related chapter is largely concerned with historical opinions on the librarian’s role and does not always take the necessary step to demonstrate how those opinions informed the current (or even historical) role of librarian as related to ethical concerns. “New Conditions and New Principles” (chapter 10) is intended to provide an overview of current trends and future issues, though the author’s approach of grounding each topic in its historical context occasionally distracts from the future-looking theme of the chapter. The aptly named “Concluding Chapter” (chapter 11) attempts to pull all of the possibly disparate themes into a coherent argument and does an admirable job, in some cases surpassing the previous efforts in individual chapters of tying the content to professional ethics and values.

In addition to the thematic confusion noted above, there are some structural flaws in the book. Early in the chapter on classification, a paragraph repeats two sentences almost verbatim, as if competing drafts of a section were both included in the final version. While not as obvious, there are other points in the text in which it seems that a less-than-final version of the text survived the editing process. As a result, there are digressions and repetitions throughout the book that occasionally dull the edge of Koehler’s arguments. As mentioned earlier, some of the topics included in the book have at best a tenuous connection to library ethics. Classification is a good example. While the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association does refer to classification when it states in the preamble that librarians “significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information” (emphasis mine), the level of detail that Koehler devotes to the minutiae of classification schema seems out of place in a book focused on ethics and values. In the same vein, the inclusion of lengthy quotes from standards, laws, and other documents, especially in the case of the untranslated (from Spanish) legal qualifications of Argentinian librarians that exceeds a page, creates roadblocks for the reader that impede comprehension of the main themes. Many chapters include long lists or bibliographies that would work better as footnotes, but their presence in the main body has a similar effect on the argument’s flow. Though Koehler makes a valiant effort to demonstrate why each topic is central to the ethics and values of the library profession, it occasionally feels like a well written article on an otherwise unrelated topic was crammed into the book for added heft. The chapter on the love of libraries is a particularly good example of this issue.

Ultimately, this book fills a gap in the library literature, as there is no comprehensive book on the history of professional ethics and values. Despite the occasional foray into topics that would make more sense in a general history of the profession, this book provides a much-needed historical overview of the origins and development of librarianship’s key values. Readers will learn that many of our core values and ethics are relatively recent discoveries, but will also be convinced that these values are rightly prized for their centrality to contemporary librarianship. Any institution supporting library and information science programs should add this to their collections, along with libraries with professional collections focused on our ethical principles. Should a revised edition address the concerns noted in this review, this book is clearly destined to become the definitive work on the history of professional ethics and values in librarianship.

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World

Timothy Garton Ash is a diehard liberal cosmopolitan. He recently called the Brexit vote “the biggest defeat of my political life,” adding that the day of the referendum “was almost as bad a day as the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall was good.” Garton Ash’s formative years as a journalist and writer were spent covering Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. The fall of the Berlin Wall looked like the dawn of a world where people no longer needed fences to make good neighbors. Reinforcing this impression was the fact that the same years of the Soviet Union’s collapse were also witness to the rise of the global Internet. People everywhere could connect regularly and often intimately without the hurdles and hassles of visa applications and airplane tickets. Why is it, then, that in 2016 Garton Ash needs to publish a book entitled Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World and that this book would be considered both timely and urgent?

Book cover: Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, by Timothy Garton Ash

Free Speech hits bookstores as a wave of illiberal nationalism sweeps Europe and the United States. Like most liberal cosmopolitans, Garton Ash did not see this coming but that doesn’t make his prescription for today’s ills any less worthwhile or necessary. “I can discern no better way,” Garton Ash writes, “to proceed towards a more universal universalism—essential if we are to live together well in this twenty-first century world-as-city—than to spell out what we believe are the standards that, were they applied by all, would be best for all” (p. 4). Part 1 of Free Speech sketches the global context in which we must fight for free speech, the best ways to go about it (hint: the less one resorts to the state to police speech, the better), and the reasons why the battle matters in the first place. Part 2 is the “User Guide” in which Garton Ash elaborates upon the ten principles devised by himself and a team of colleagues, principles like “We—all human beings—must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers” (number 1) and “We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers” (number 9).

Nick Cohen writes in the Guardian that Garton Ash “has two virtues, which are rarely combined”—“the ability to theorise and the ability to work.” Public intellectuals draw us the big picture but few of them take the time to do the yeoman’s work of filling in all the details. Not Garton Ash in Free Speech, which has been called encyclopedic and exhaustive. The breadth of coverage of incidents involving free speech over the last few decades can be overwhelming but I enjoyed reviewing noteworthy episodes (the “Innocence of Muslims” video posted on youtube and triggering violent protests, for example) and learning about others for the first time (the defamation suit brought and lost by Holocaust-denier David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, for example). To further ensure that he is doing everything he can to advocate for free speech, Garton Ash has also worked with countless others in an impressive number of countries to launch the website freespeechdebate.com. Indeed, the book is perhaps best viewed as a companion piece to this global and interactive digital project.

As signaled by the phrase “connected world” in the subtitle, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World spends much of its time exploring the possibilities and challenges created by the Internet. It is indisputable that the Internet has exponentially enhanced the ability of individuals to express themselves, the ability to spread and receive information widely, and the ability to demand transparency and accountability from various societal actors, public and private. Each of these has a flip side, of course, that Garton Ash considers carefully: “free expression” on the Internet extends to trolls and bigots as much as to everyone else; the ability to spread and receive information widely is also the ability to spread and receive disinformation wildly; and greater transparency and accountability can generate mistaken assumptions and recklessly destroy lives. (Garton Ash’s experience with the Stasi and the vast records it kept on the German Democratic Republic’s citizens, recounted in his 1997 book The File, gave him unique insight into the way “surveillance” rarely delivers an accurate, contextualized picture of a person or situation.) Garton Ash is a strong believer, however, that on balance more speech and more accountability will translate into a healthier “city-planet.”

Most of the time I am happy to believe this, too, but there are moments when Garton Ash is unable to smooth away a wrinkle he has conscientiously drawn to our attention. Take the way the internet facilitates subcultural silos as much as it facilitates connections among diverse groups. Due to the search engine’s capacity to learn from our viewing history, we are increasingly fed a diet specifically targeted to our demographic and are less and less likely to be exposed to what other demographics encounter. To assuage the fears of balkanization that this provokes, Garton Ash cites a small study that found that we actually want to be exposed to new viewpoints. That a group of people surveyed said what we all think we should say—yes, I want to learn something new!—does not instill great faith that we will reverse a trend that is baked ever more thoroughly into the system every time we browse the web.

I also found myself wondering if Garton Ash’s long history covering totalitarian repression during the Cold War has rendered him more vigilant at ferreting out political and ideological attempts to control speech than attempts stemming from powerful economic interests. I hasten to say that he is keenly aware that the categories of state and market are both different and much more intertwined than they were in the days of yore and he stresses that the biggest threats to individual free speech arise when government and corporate interests work in tandem. Nonetheless, Garton Ash seems more comfortable when calling out the authoritarian’s bullying than when he has to consider the less familiar paradoxes of a global economy so interdependent that liberal states can be found to cater to illiberal ones of their own accord.

During the Cold War, the liberal side was also the more prosperous one. That is no longer a foregone conclusion, making for a geopolitical situation in which actors that once reliably followed the liberal bible can no longer be counted on to do so. In 2016, for example, a South Korean media company cancelled performances of Shen Yun, a dance and acrobatic organization whose founder is active in Falun Gong which is, in turn, highly critical of the Chinese Communist Party. When Shen Yun sued in Korean court, the judge ruled against the media company, as would be expected with any blatant breach of contract. Yet when the media company later disclosed documents from the Chinese Embassy threatening economic retaliation if Shen Yun were allowed to perform, the court reversed its decision. Because the Chinese market for Korean entertainment is so huge and any losses in this market so financially damaging for the industry, China’s ideological interests were allowed to derail the normal course of rule of law. We are on new terrain here—this is not a Chinese dissident being thrown into a Chinese jail. This is the Korean court effectively authorizing censorship in Korea on behalf of China in order to protect its own national economy.

Still, China is very much on Garton Ash’s radar and he will develop a nuanced articulation of the implications for free speech when the authoritarian country is also the one holding the purse strings in short order, I’m sure. In fact such work is already being done on his website, freespeechdebate.com. If you look at the site’s China pages, you will find “Hong Kong: two systems, one country?,” an article identifying the multifaceted approach Beijing is using to bring Hong Kong to heel. “The crux of the matter, therefore,” Samson Yuen and Kitty Ho write, “is not simply an authoritarian grip on press freedom, but very likely a total paradigm shift.”

Data and Goliath

It seems like barely a week can go by without some bad news related to data and information security making the news. Whether it is Home Depot, Target, or LinkedIn having their user data hacked and stolen or new revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs or changes to Facebook or Instagram’s user policies that throw individual privacy into turmoil, people are becoming gradually more aware that their information is at risk and that their data is a commodity being used on the worldwide stage. In the 2015 book Data and Goliath, Bruch Schneier presents a dark view of where this information usage is taking American society while presenting a list of policy proposals and recommendations to protect the privacy and security concerns that are at stake.

Book cover: Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier

The book is divided into three sections. The first describes the basic state of the world of information as it existed at the time of writing. Schneier points out that everyone is producing more data than ever before and that companies and governments are mining this data in ever-expanding ways. The second section details “What’s at Stake,” noting that political liberty, commercial fairness, competitiveness, privacy, and security are all areas that are touched on in this growing world of big data. The third section details the author’s specific proposals for governments, corporations, and individuals to undertake to fight the pernicious rising tide of data collection and usage.

As would be expected from a source like Bruce Schneier, this book has a heavily one-sided appeal. Schneier is an expert cryptographer and security technologist, a Fellow at Harvard University and a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is widely well-regarded and even at one time briefed members of Congress on the unpublished leaked Snowden documents. The book is deathly opposed to all NSA mass surveillance for any reason and under any circumstances. Its author holds the NSA document leaks of Edward Snowden in incredibly high regard, referencing the fugitive whistleblower numerous times throughout the book. And the text is only slightly more receptive towards private businesses working in the big data space. Throughout the book, government and corporations are always portrayed as the bad guys out to spy, surveil, steal, and hoodwink data out of private citizens whenever possible for the nefarious purposes of security that won’t make society safer and to attempt to make money.

At times, the tone of Data and Goliath comes off as strident and preachy, and it too often assumes that the reader fully agrees with the author about the underlying issues. Indeed, by the third section of the book, any attempts at even-handedness have completely dissolved into a completely unrealistic list of policy positions that would radically reshape the national security and technology business environments in large and largely unforeseen ways. Even people who believe in privacy as a fundamental right may have a hard time swallowing all of the items proposed, particularly for the United States government and corporations. A small sampling of these proposals include practically disbanding the National Security Administration, creating government sponsored social media commons to wrest control away from private companies, making it more expensive to collect and use data (effectively shuttering the major profit avenues for most search engines and social media companies), making all companies that collect data fiduciaries, and protecting whistleblowers by allowing a “conscience” defense. While these and the other recommendations Schneier makes would probably assist in making data more secure and privacy more fundamental, the effects they would have would have enormous ripples that are not examined nor considered in the course of this book.

The book’s argument is particularly weak when dealing with the corporate side of big data as it tends to undersell the benefits of data aggregation to the average consumer. While advocates may wish that the average consumer were more concerned with their own privacy, the growing ubiquitousness and ease of signing up for new services by “Sign[ing] in with Facebook” and other efforts that reduce friction in the online space in exchange for some personal information shows strong evidence that convenience is still more paramount to the average contemporary technology user. The text never seeks to grapple with the idea that people may still choose convenience over privacy even when fully informed, and it never seeks to explore what to do then.

Through no fault of the author, this book also has issues with timeliness that have already made it feel dated. For instance, although published in 2015, the author refers to Democratic Senate committee chairpeople (the Democratic Party lost control of the US Senate in the 2014 midterm elections). At another point, Schneier muses that many technology companies were worried about “significant loss of foreign sales” (p. 122) in 2013 after information regarding the NSA’s hacking of US computer equipment became well known, specifically citing Cisco Systems. However, it does not seem to have injured Cisco too badly, as their stock price is 60 percent higher today than it was in the fourth quarter of 2013. While this is the nature of the publishing industry when commenting on current events, it does serve to weaken the claims put forth in several places throughout the text.

In other moments, though, the author seems to be misleading the reader. In chapter 14, he writes about how the right to be forgotten has come up before the European Court of Justice as it relates to removing information about certain individuals from search results. Schneieer specifically referenced that “politicians, doctors, [and] pedophiles” (p. 202) demanded that their information be removed from Google with the implication that the information was immediately removed. Except, the right to be forgotten does not typically work that way; anybody can request their information be removed, and then it is up to the search engine and the courts to decide whether they will or not. Of the three mentioned, I can only really imagine the doctor having any large chance of success. In other sections of the book, Schneier makes assumptions based on limited information, particularly regarding government surveillance, and these assumptions always tend toward the negative and Machiavellian.

Additionally, it is difficult to ascertain who the audience for Data and Goliath is. On the one hand, those who are interested in privacy, big data, and other information technology concerns will already be intimately familiar with most of the examples and issues that Schneier raises. On the other, those new to these issues will likely find themselves overwhelmed with a flood of references and examples that are minimally dealt with. While the book feels like it was written for a popular audience, it fails to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about the issues on the table.

The worst part is, Schneier is not wrong. He does point out dozens of examples where consumer data has been stolen and the businesses who let it leak were never punished. He points out that society does not have any good evidence that the NSA’s mass surveillance policies have made the country any safer. He provides numerous examples of when information is kept too long, handled carelessly, not adequately protected, sold to the highest bidder, and when it does not adequately protect the interests of the average person. Just this week, a predictive policing program in Chicago like the ones Scheneier writes about was shown to have had zero effectiveness over the last three years. But the unrelentingly negative take on the modern data environment can make even those who are strong privacy advocates (like this reviewer) feel like Schneier’s take is too bleak and his recommendations go too far.

Overall, Data and Goliath is a one-sided take on the way that data trends are evolving in the technology landscape. While it does a good job of portraying numerous ways that technology companies and governments have failed in this new world, it lacks nuance and a willingness to understand that there is an opposing side to this argument. While there may be great value in a popular nonfiction portrayal of these issues to increase the knowledge surrounding these concerns in the general public or to serve as a primer for those who want to get more involved, this book simply is not it.

Surveillance in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and the Law

Dixon (Online Privacy: A Reference Handbook) has compiled 115 entries by over forty authors with almost 70 primary documents related to government surveillance and privacy. The resulting encyclopedia is an excellent starting point for high school and undergraduate students researching topics in this area. The preface is unabashedly for complete transparency in government surveillance, but the entries attempt a more balanced approach to their topics, providing the historical, constitutional, legal, political, and social contexts for the actions and issues covered. Volume 1 includes all entries, a chronology, and a listing of entries by broad topic with their relevant primary documents. These include “Agencies and Organizations”; “Antisurveillance Programs and Activities”; “Court Rulings”; “Government Oversight”; “Laws and Regulations”; “Privacy Rights”; “September 11 Terrorist Attacks and USA PATRIOT Act”; “Snowden’s Release of NSA Surveillance Information”; “Surveillance, Criticism of Practices and Programs”; “Surveillance, Defense of Practices and Programs”; “Surveillance—Industrial Complex (Government-Corporate Partnerships)”; “Surveillance Programs and Initiatives”; “Surveillance Types and Practices”; and “U.S. Constitution.” This reader’s guide would allow students to read beyond a single article in a targeted manner to gain the insight needed to do a creditable job of research. Volume 2 includes all the primary documents and excerpts in chronological order, a bibliography, and the general index.

Book cover: Suveillance in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and the Law

Most entries are one to four pages in length and are followed by a list of “Further Reading.” Having the primary documents appear in a separate volume allows one to go between the entries and their documents easily. Some entries might have required a bit more length than was allowed (why does “Alien Registration Act” end with a mention of its having been amended several times without briefly describing the amendments?), but, generally, the entries are sufficiently detailed to educate their primary audience without overwhelming them with technical information. Even technology-related entries are approachable by undergraduate students who are not computer science majors.

The editor claims that government surveillance as an issue “exploded into modern consciousness with the revelations that Edward Snowden made about the activities of the National Security Agency in 2013.” While Snowden’s leaks may have precipitated the most recent “explosion” of this topic in the public eye, the historical information and cases included show that the balance between security and privacy has long been a precarious one and a matter of contention in the United States. Indeed, the chronology and the list of primary documents indicate that much was occurring in this field long before Snowden’s revelations. The chronology begins with the 1761 James Otis’ writing of “Against the Writs of Assistance” and has four pages of entries before 2000, with almost half of all the primary documents covering this same time period. Privacy has consistently been an issue in the United States, and concerns that rose to legal challenges long predated current technologies. The vast amount of data that now can be collected and distributed (or leaked) is unprecedented, but it is important for students to understand that the principles involved are not new and actually predate the formation of this nation. Keeping the application of the principles involved in ensuring privacy relevant to current threats and weighing privacy against security also have long histories. Each new generation believes it has invented a new world; it is the job of historians to remind them that much has preceded current events that is relevant to their understanding. The reader’s guide listing of related entries, chronology, and volume of primary documents invite the student to delve much deeper into the topic of surveillance than the simple alphabetical arrangement of volume one would suggest. I hope many readers accept the invitation.

Although this encyclopedia is intended for high school and undergraduate students, the general public and professionals in various fields may find it useful to have so much information on government surveillance gathered into one work. Highly recommended.


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