CaMMS Forum: Power That Is Moral: Creating a Cataloging Code of Ethics

The Cataloging and Metadata Management Section (CaMMS) of ALCTS sponsored this forum, “Power That Is Moral: Creating a Cataloging Code of Ethics,” which was held on Sunday, June 25. The forum was divided into three sections, discussed below. The two presentations were designed to give the audience some structural background and common vocabulary to discuss the proposed code of ethics.

Beth Shoemaker (Rare Book Cataloger, Emory University) started with her presentation, “Power that is Moral: What Does the User Need?” Morality is the belief in what is right and wrong, but how does someone decide? Catalogers deal with ethical problems on a daily basis, including explicit materials, reclassifying materials, and flagging subject headings for removal. ALA’s Code of Ethics is too broad, especially for catalogers. The code doesn’t exclude catalogers, but it also doesn’t address our ethical dilemmas. IFLA and ALCTS have codes of ethics for us, but they are only advisory. So, are we satisfied with this guidance or do we need more? If so, what to we gain by a special cataloging code of ethics? Much of the work we do is hidden but is also essential for access. Having a cataloging code of ethics would help us think about our work, provide guidance for problems, display us to users, and provide us with professional standards and behaviors.

Dr. Hope Olson (Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee) presented “Ethics Theory and How Code of Ethics Might be Applied.” Ethical theory should be used as a tool to organize our ideas. Ethics of a culture are based on what is right and wrong, which means that ethics are culturally specific. Prescriptive ethics tells us what to do (imperative), and descriptive ethics puts questions in context (permissive). There is no single universal theory that covers all human values and ethics. In addition, every theory has its limit.

The third part was a discussion facilitated by Karen Snow (Associate Professor, Dominican University) and Bobby Bothman Metadata & Emerging Technologies Librarian, Minnesota State University — Mankato). They asked four broad questions to start the conversation. The questions and some of the responses are below:

  1. What ethical conundrums/issues have you had?
  • Subject headings using patronizing language.
  • Emotional labor for offensive material.
  • Power structures.
  • Conscious neutrality because bias is inevitable.
  • Standardization restrains our flexibility like local options vs. global options for vocabulary.
  • What about catalog-ready records? Vendors will need a code of ethics for cataloging, too.
  • Restrictions on creating records, even when records should be created.
  • Race and representation in code of ethics.
  1. Should there be a cataloging code of ethics? What are the pros and cons?
  • Employers will not care, and there is no backing to enforce the code.
  • The code will present a unified front and identification, and will help to dismantle library class structure.
  • Too much burden on the individual to meet standards.
  • Code of ethics will give us a professional voice in the library world.
  • We need a code that is flexible but not too flexible.
  • A professionally endorsed code would help raise awareness and start the conversation about what catalogers do.
  • Committees and subcommittees will bog and delay action. Can we do this without a committee?
  • A descriptive code rather than prescriptive code would be preferred.
  • With a code of ethics, you need someone to police it.
  1. What are our values?
  • Neutrality is not a good goal to work towards. It is unattainable. We need to understand and work with our biases, and to cultivate self-awareness. We, and our tools, are flawed.
  • We help make and use connections.
  • Content determination and access for all to library materials. Sometimes the subject gets lost in the attempt for neutrality.
  • The user is not a monolithic identity, nor are we.
  • Respect others and their feelings more.
  • Provide access to all point of views, even those we find personally distasteful.
  • Slant description to the user. For example, expert description vs. casual description.
  • Access to materials for wide range of ages.
  • Treat all material types equally (e.g., books, series, DVDs)
  1. Do we as a community want to move forward with a code of ethics?
  • Does this force others to create a code of ethics?
  • A committee means that this code of ethics will be written by people who can afford to come to conferences and devote lots of time to this project. Crowdsource the content first rather than have a committee write the code of ethics and then submit it to everyone.
  • Crowdsourcing does not necessarily mean a diverse range of people will answer.

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