Professional value and ethical self-regulation in the development of modern librarianship. The documentality of library ethics

AuthorJoacim Hansson
Publication Date09 Oct 2017
Professional value and ethical
self-regulation in the development
of modern librarianship
The documentality of library ethics
Joacim Hansson
School of Cultural Sciences, Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden
Purpose The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to make a contribution to the theoretical understanding
of documents and documentary agency in society through examples from a defined institutional and
professional setting; and second, to create an understanding for the role of ethical codes in the process of
defining and developing modern librarianship.
Design/methodology/approach This study analyses the role of documentation carrying content of
professional ethics in the formulation of modern librarianship. This is done through a series of example
documents of various kinds, such as founding charters, peer handbooks and ethical codes systematically
analysed through the use of document theory and theory on institutional change.
Findings The findings of this study suggest that documents pronouncing ethical self-regulation within
librarianship play a primarily legitimising role in situations where new types of libraries emerge or when
libraries adapt to social change. The study proposes legitimacy as a key aspect of documentality, thus
supplementing the established understanding of the concept.
Originality/value This study is the first to analyse the role of ethical codes in libraries using document
theory. It brings new knowledge to the role of ethical self-regulation in librarianship over time and in different
institutional contexts. In suggesting a developed definition of documentality, it cont ributes to the theoretical
understanding of the role of documents and documentation in institutions and in society at large.
Keywords Library management, Library studies, Institutional theory, Documentality, Documentation,
Document studies, Librarianship history, Library ethics, Logic of appropriateness
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Every profession is in one way or another exercising ethical self-regulation. During the last
century, the most common way of doing so has been through ethical codes. However,
several professions, such as librarianship, have a significantly longer history and as the
definition of profession and professionals have varied between different fields; professional
ethics have been formulated in a number of ways. The perhaps most commonly known
ethical code, the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, is believed to have been formulated
sometimes between the fifth and third century BC and has remained basically unaltered
ever since. In comparison, the first formal ethical code for librarians was amended by the
American Library Association (ALA) in 1938. This might strike us as odd since librarians
belong to a profession that may count as long back through civilisation as physicians. It is
therefore reasonable to assume that an ethical awareness developed within librarianship in
different forms and during different periods of time as part of increasing claims of
professionalism and status for librarianship as a full profession. Larson (2013, p. X) defines a
profession as an occupation with privileged position in society based on a cognitive
dimension (professional associations, agreed knowledge base, education and professional
technique) and a normative dimension (service orientation and distinctive ethics).
The combination of these two dimensions and a privilege of self-regulation granted by
society as a whole in, for instance, the form of self-administered codes of ethics is one of the
most important features setting realprofessions apart from other occupations.
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 73 No. 6, 2017
pp. 1261-1280
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-02-2017-0022
Received 21 February 2017
Revised 31 August 2017
Accepted 1 September 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
value and ethical
This paper reports from a project studying various types of documents that have carried
propositions of ethical content for librarianship during the time that may be described as the
era of modernlibrarianship. It is not the ethical content as such that is in focus, but rather
the kinds of documents in which it has been presented. The analytical framework is
primarily taken from the emerging field of document theory, supplemented by theory on
professional and institutional development.
The purpose of this paper is twofold:
(1) to make a contribution to the theoretical understanding of documents and
documentary practices in society through examples of ethical documentation taken
from defined institutional and professional settings; and
(2) to create an understanding for the role of ethical codes in the process of defining and
developing modern librarianship.
This purpose will be met by pursuing a two-way argument claiming that the character and
development of librarianship as a profession has called for a number of definitions of ethical
self-regulations during different periods in time, and in turn these definitions of ethical
self-regulation have been constructed within, and adapted to, the realms of certain kinds of
documents representing specific authority over the definition of the profession itself.
Theoretically, these points of departure are tried against two key concepts:
(1) documentality, as discussed primarily within library and information science
(LIS); and
(2) logic of appropriateness, as used in institutional theory and public policy studies.
These concepts will be used in a supplementary way to cover different aspects of the
analysis in which a series of examples of document types will be presented and discussed.
The structure of the paper is such that first of all two brief paragraphs will discuss the
problem of ethical self-regulation in professions, with special emphasis on the ethical code as
document, and the problem of where to start and how to formulate the idea of modern
librarianship through authoritative documentality. Thereafter the two main theoretical
concepts will be presented and their role in this study will be defined. This presentation is
followed by an empirical section highlighting the examples of document types that is
claimed to have been significant carriers of ethical propositions during different periods of
the development of modern librarianship. The discussed examples are:
Papal bull Ad Decorem militantes ecclesiae, 1475;
Gabriel Naudés (1644/1994) Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque;
Mary Plummers code of ethics, 1903;
Valfrid Palmgrens Bibliotek och folkuppfostran, 1909;
Charles Knowles Boltons revised code of ethics for librarians, 1922;
ALAs code of ethics, 1938 and 1995;
UK Library Associations Code of Professional Conduct, 1983;
Swedish guidelines for professional ethics for librarians, 1997; and
International Federation of Library Associations(IFLA) Code of Ethics for librarians
and other information workers, 2012.
Here, time, form and function are at the centre of the analysis. Also as part of this project
however, more detailed analyses relating also to content of several of the examples can be
found in Hansson (2016a, b). Contemporary development and current focus of content in

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