Klein Declines, but Kidder Gets Serious

March 12, 2009

ACRL's 14th National Conference in Seattle is the greenest in ALA history, as organizers were quick to remind everyone. The meeting opened with an ecological bang March 12, as attendees picked up their recycled conference bags (furnished by EBSCO) containing a beverage mug (furnished by Innovative Interfaces) made from 100% corn plastic, and a shower timer filled with blue sand that runs out after four minutes as a hint to turn the water off. You see, as Conference Committee Chair Betsy Wilson said before the first keynote speaker began, by using the shower saver ACRLers can save the city 90,000 gallons of water by cutting their normal eight minutes in the shower down to four; at 2.5 gallons a minute, that's 10 gallons per shower times 2,841 attendees for three days! And even the plates in the lavish Exhibits Reception were made of sturdy, recyclable bamboo. The first keynote speaker was to be Canadian journalist and economic activist Naomi Klein, the award-winning author of Shock Doctrine and No Logo. I had been looking forward to hearing her opinion on whether the Obama administration's stimulus package was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Klein had to cancel all of her appearances for the next month due to a personal illness — not life-threatening, but enough to warrant a break from her busy schedule.Rushworth M. Kidder Luckily, ACRL was able to find a substitute as eloquent and erudite as Klein. This was ethicist Rushworth M. Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in 1990 and the author of Moral Courage and How Good People Make Tough Choices. Kidder had definitely done his library homework, as he had been the keynote speaker in Denver for the 70th anniversary celebration of the ALA Code of Ethics at the 2009 ALA Midwinter Meeting. Instead of talking about the economic recession, as Klein had planned to do, Kidder spoke about what he calls the "ethical recession," a state of mind that threatens our democracy. Kidder began by saying that somewhere in late September 2008, journalists, politicians, and even economists stopped talking about the inviolability of the marketplace and began to express moral outrage at the corruption, lies, and irresponsibility surrounding many financial institutions. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted in October that he had been wrong to oppose some forms of government oversight, and President Obama has called for a new era in responsibility. But how do we rebuild a moral culture? Some of the toughest ethical problems arise, especially for librarians, not from choosing the good over the bad, but from having to choose the better of two options that are both perceived as right and necessary. He told the story of an Ohio reference librarian who faced the choice of whether to reveal to a police officer investigating a rape case the phone number of a man who had just called in to ask about state statutes on rape. An organization promoting victims' rights might demand one course of action, while a library organization would suggest another. Kidder said the most amazing librarian he had ever met was Viktor Pestov, whom he met when visiting the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, the last Soviet prison camp standing and now a memorial to Russian dissidents. When Pestov was in his teens, he suspected the Soviet government was not telling the truth about the communist system; when he heard that Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, he and a friend in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) decided to become pamphleteers and let people know the truth. After nearly two years of cleverly and clandestinely distributing pamphlets ("it isn't strange at all that Pestov became a librarian," Kidder quipped), he was arrested and sent to Perm-36 for five years. For Pestov, who knew what the risks were, it wasn't a choice; he did what he had to do. In order to escape this ethics recession, we need to cultivate a culture of integrity, Kidder said. The moral compass of individuals will only come to the surface when they are exposed to ethical organizations and institutions. This is where libraries can help. Librarians are the standard bearers for the next generation, and the library is a haven of stability in a moral storm of turbulence, a safe place where individuals can develop an ethical outlook. After the session was over, Kidder fielded a few questions from the audience. Columbia University Librarian Jim Neal asked him to comment on how new technologies affected ethical perceptions. Kidder said that advanced technology can allow a single unethical decision to wreak exponentially greater havoc. Think Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez: "At any point we have a positive obligation to become moral futurists and think ahead of the curve on the use and misuse of each new technology."


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