Ethics and the health librarian

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 15 July 2017


See also Bioethics | Blogging and the law | Liability and the health librarian | Managing health libraries | Privacy in social networks | Web 2.0

"...Codes of ethics are a classic mark of a profession, and their preparation is an important part of the work expected of a professional organization. EAHIL has recently embarked on drafting a code for European health librarians. This paper explains the background to EAHIL's decision, and reviews existing codes of ethical practice in the fields of both medicine and library and information work..." — McSean et al (1995)

Ethics and the health librarian is a topic that needs closer examination in the digital age given the myriad ethical and legal challenges health librarians face because of the web. This entry provides some introductory information and links to basic resources and theories that pertain to this topic. The goal is to draw on the literature and articles that describe how health librarians deal with ethical challenges, especially those that arise in their practice and delivery of library services, but within a broad context.

Health librarians are advised to have a good working knowledge of ethics when they begin their careers. However, it is only by dealing with ethical dilemmas around professional conduct or provision of library services that they become more knowledgeable about this topic. By way of context, various professional codes have been developed by health library associations such as CHLA/ABSC (Canada) and MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.). However, any code of ethics is only a general framework for building ethical competencies and in making ethically-sound decisions in the workplace. Ultimately, a code of ethics should be supplemented by other courses and learning such as continuing education workshops at annual conferences.

Some CE courses provide health librarians with an understanding of ethical theories and how they might be applied in daily practice. In discussing ethics, the connection between the mission of the health librarian and fitting into an organizational context of health education or patient care can be made more direct and explicit.

What is ethical conduct?

The Canadian Oxford dictionary defines ethics as the " of morals in human conduct; or moral principles and rules of conduct...". Some related philosophical areas include information ethics, computer ethics and privacy and security in the digital age. However, others place ethics within a context of their own philosophical and religious beliefs which suggests ways of being, acting and interacting with others. In cases where professional ethics are severely tested (such as end-of-life issues, abortion and information provision), issues of morality (i.e. moral imperatives) will undoubtedly be introduced into the equation. In legal terms, ethical conduct is connected to the notion of what any prudent person would do.

Information science and ethics

Marquette law.jpg

According to Moor in 1985, information technologies highlight a revolutionary power that few of us could have imagined:

"...computers are logically malleable in that they can be shaped and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in terms of inputs, outputs and connecting logical operations .... because logic applies everywhere, the potential applications of computer technology appear limitless. The computer is the nearest thing we have to a universal tool. Indeed, the limits of computers are largely the limits of our own creativity. (Moor, 1985, 269)

The flexibility of computer technology makes it possible to perform information management tasks that were previously unimaginable. For example, with the introduction of social media in the last decade, it has become more possible to retrieve all kinds of information about people, their search habits and use of health care systems. Since many actions made possible in the digital age have introduced new ethical quandaries, questions arise as to whether information professionals should re-examine their positions within a solid ethical frame - and work to uphold them within health organizations. The paucity of standards of practice or specific ethical rules that apply to health librarians in the information age have not made this decision-making process any easier. Moor refers to this problem as a ethical vacuum which tends to create confusion, apathy and even fear within organizations and in society at large.

Since Moor's influential paper in 1985, several key figures in information ethics have emerged: 1) Luciano Floridi and the Information Ethics Research Group at Oxford University (2) Jeroen van den Hoven and his series of computer ethics conferences and journal Ethics and Information Technology 3) Rafael Capurro's creation of the International Center for Information Ethics and the International Review of Information Ethics and 4) Stahl's International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction.

Canadian context

Any process of learning in the digital age should include opportunities for critical reflection of the issues. By recognizing, understanding, and evaluating potential solutions to problems associated with easily-accessible information, health librarians can undertake their responsibilities in an efficient, confident and ethical manner. That said, health librarians are strongly advised to (re)consider their positions on these matters as they arise on their blogs or in their personal journals.

One of the most contested and widely-discussed issues is privacy in the age of social media such as Facebook. What are your views on this matter? Will you, as a health librarian, be prepared to discuss your position when your patrons ask for your opinion or advice? Should we (they) delete our/their Facebook profiles? Why or why not? See story that outlines Canada's privacy commissioner upbraiding Facebook for not protecting users' personal data and Michael Geist's response.

Research ethics

Major ethical issues in health libraries

For information about ethics in health generally, see EthicsShare.

For a brainstorming entry on an ethical topic, see "Doing the right thing, for the right reasons: living our professional values as librarians"

Providing Reference Services

  • Communicate your role as health librarian clearly to patients & physicians
  • Never diagnose (or help to diagnose a patient)
  • Consider privacy options for demonstration, or assume neutral topics
  • Suggest second opinions from independent sources to reduce bias
  • Find Canadian resources and context whenever possible
  • Provide an evaluation skills handout
  • Refer questions to health professionals for verification
  • Consider patron’s information-seeking behaviours, and information needs
  • Consider variables (who is sick, what the illness is) and select information accordingly
  • Health literacy level should always be considered
  • Inquire about language, and comfort with technology
  • Basic information seekers want pamphlets; think brief facts, symptoms, and treatments
  • Advanced information seekers want detailed research, reports, clinical trial information
  • Information-seeking in special populations includes patrons seeking mental health information (try to minimize stigma and embarrassment)


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