Virtue ethics and the narrative identity of American librarianship 1876 to present

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University of Alabama Libraries

The purpose of this study is to propose a means of reconciling the competing ideas of library and information science's identity, thereby strengthening professional autonomy. I make the case that developing a system of virtue ethics for librarianship would be an effective way to promote that reconciliation. The first step in developing virtue ethics is uncovering librarianship's function. Standard approaches to virtue ethics rely on classical Greek ideas about the nature of being to determine function. Since classical ideas of being may no longer be persuasive, I introduce another approach to uncover librarianship's function that still meets all of the criteria needed to establish a foundation for a system of virtue ethics. This approach is hermeneutical phenomenology, the philosophical discipline of interpreting the meaning given to historical events. Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutic circle technique and Paul Ricoeur's theory of narrative intelligence are used to engage in a dialogue with three crises in the history of American librarianship. These pivotal events are the fiction question, librarian nationalism during World War I, and the dispute between supporters of the "Library Bill of Rights" and social responsibility. From these crises, three recurring themes become apparent: the tendency to reconcile idealism and pragmatism, the intent to do good for individuals and society, and the role of professional insecurity in precipitating the conflicts. Through emplotment of these themes, an identity narrative for librarianship emerges. My finding is that librarianship's function is the promotion of stability-happiness. This is the dual-process of supporting dominant socio-cultural institutions as a means of protecting librarianship's ability to offer the knowledge, cultural records, and avenues for information literacy that can improve lives and facilitate individuals' pursuit of happiness. In the conclusion, the ethical implications of having stability-happiness as the profession's function are considered. It includes a discussion of how librarianship's narrative identity could be applied to develop an ethical character for the profession and how such a character, combined with knowledge of function, might address persistent problems of race and gender disparity in library and information science.

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Library science, Ethics, Information science