Code of Ethics for Health Sciences Librarianship
Code of Ethics Defined
By Richard A. Lyders, AHIP
Chair, Ethics Task Force (April 1994)
Last month's MLA News featured the latest draft of the association's Code of Ethics for Health Sciences Librarianship, developed by the MLA Ethics Task Force and approved by the MLA Board in February 1994 [MLA News 1994 Mar; (263):1, 7]. To further clarify the code and to assist you in understanding our intentions as we drafted it, the task force here explains certain words and phrases that appear in the document. While these definitions are not part of the code, we hope they will help you understand it more fully. In the end, however, the code you adopt must stand on its own without explanations. It must be understandable in the context of the practicing health sciences librarian and the standards of the profession.
The task force has attempted to incorporate the various ideas and issues that have arisen whenever a new version has been presented and critiqued by the membership or member units. Many specific suggestions and concepts have been consolidated into broader categories with more general language. For example, the concepts of "the right to know" and "censorship" are incorporated under the phrase "freedom of inquiry." Certain common words, such as "client" and "best," require narrower definitions tailored to our field. And finally, phrases such as "health information" or "informed health care decisions" need definition to understand how they are used in the code.
- Health information: "Health information" is to be used in a broad, inclusive sense.
- Creates and maintains conditions of freedom of inquiry: The right to know, opposition to censorship, the broad idea of access to information for all---the librarian has a responsibility to promote these ideals.
- Informed health care decisions: "Health care" here is to be taken in its broadest sense, to include all aspects of "learning about medicine," from study to research. All these activities ultimately affect "health care."
- Without prejudice: Without discrimination in any sense.
- Client: Any health information consumer. We are using the term
"client" as the accepted term for those who seek information
from libraries (previously called "patron" and sometimes "customer").
- Protects the confidentiality of the client relationship: This
refers to all cases of the client-librarian relationship. We note that
the issues that pertain here pertain elsewhere in the health professions
as well. Professionals might encounter difficulties or subtleties in
interpreting "confidentiality" in their respective practices;
however, the code does not address these practice situations, it only
presents the ethical standard under which professionals are to practice.
The code thus forces one to address pertinent issues in each situation.
- Ensures: Life is difficult and messy. On a given day, one is
not going to do everything right, but this does not change one's ethical
responsibility to act. While no one is perfect, we cannot avoid our
ethical responsibility. We must always strive to fulfill the ethical
- Best available information: What is "best" is conditional
and falls within the realm of the librarian's professional judgment.
The librarian's job is to determine it.
- Ethical management: Stewardship of resources, balancing the interests and needs that always compete for limited resources.
- Information system: This refers to the library as a whole, not specifically to any one particular system within the library.
- Meet the information needs and obligations of the institution: This means having effective systems for the institution, not just any system. In most cases, a library cannot meet its institution's needs in isolation; hence refusing interlibrary cooperation—networking, for example—could in most cases be construed to be an unethical practice.
- Philosophy and ideals of the profession: This ethics code states
part of this philosophy and some of its ideals. MLA has a values statement
that is part of the strategic plan. It is not the purpose of the code
of ethics to restate the philosophy and ideals of the profession: it
is the code's purpose to state only that they should be upheld.
- Advocates and advances: In response to previous criticisms,
there are many ways to "advocate and advance" besides attending
MLA meetings. Each professional must find his or her own way.
- Standards of the profession: Some standards, but not all, have
been codified. The librarian has an obligation to meet the standards
of the profession and to adopt them in practice even if not codified.
- Professional relationships: This refers to all professional
relationships, not just those within the library profession.
- Professional integrity: This covers areas such as the "vendor
relations issue," and it means being a "good person"
in all areas of life. As far as determining what constitutes integrity
in each of these areas, librarians must make that determination for
themselves, according to personal definitions of ethics and morality.
Again, the code cannot prescribe specific practices, it can only establish
an ideal against which the practice can be judged.
- Personal responsibility: In response to the criticism that all employers do not fund trips to MLA meetings, this statement says that professional excellence is one's personal responsibility in any case. There are other ways to develop and maintain professional excellence besides attending MLA meetings.
- Professional excellence: In practice, it is the individual librarian's responsibility to determine within accepted standards what constitutes one's own professional excellence. There are many ways to achieve professional excellence.