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Library Ethics

by on June 9, 2015

What happens when a patron wants to check out materials but has forgotten his card? When a well-respected member accrues a large fine? How about when a staff member sees a young library user copying and pasting large chunks of text into a school report? Or when a resident asks for help to fax a credit application to a predatory lender? We know the laws and we know our policies, but aren’t there times when the rules should be bent? Instances when we should speak out? Occasions when we should do what we think is right rather than what is prescribed because sometimes it is more ethical to break the rule than to follow it?

In 1939, the American Library Association adopted a Code of Ethics to “maintain ethical standards of behavior in relation to the governing authority under which they [the librarians] work, to the library constituency, to the library as an institution and to fellow workers on the staff, to other members of the library profession, and to society in general.”[1] Although the code was amended in 1981, 1995, and again in 2008, one thing didn’t change – the document remains a framework. The statements [in the code] “cannot and do not dictate to cover particular situations.”[2]

How, then, do we know what to do in such situations? “Establish ethical standards, educate staff, and take transgressions seriously!”[3] says Pat Wagner, a library consultant and trainer who believes the main reason for unethical behavior is to avoid conflict. Not enforcing front-line behavior is one of the biggest mistakes a director can make. Some common behaviors that demand attention include staff gossiping about patrons at the circulation desk, allowing special privileges for friends or favorite patrons, and not considering barriers to access.

Further, Wagner encourages libraries to engage in conversations with those both inside and outside of the library and to build relationships before issues arise so that it will be easier to deal with problems when they do. It is especially important to have a clear understanding of ethical expectations as we move into the future.

Wagner points out that issues are already arising out of use of maker spaces and curating user-created content. And with ever shrinking budgets and rapidly advancing technology, considering how best to serve the community’s needs bears discussion. “Good people can have different ethical systems and disagree about what the right thing to do is,”[4] she says.

For a list of ethical resources:


For more information about Pat’s work:


Works Cited

[1]History of the Code of Ethics1939 Code of Ethics for Librarians (History of the Code of Ethics1939 Code of Ethics for Librarians): http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/coehistory/1939codeethics

[2]Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (Code of Ethics of the American Library Association) http://www.ifmanual.org/codeethics

[3]Wagner, Pat. “Re: Library Ethics” Message to author. May 1, 2015. E-mail.

[4]Wagner, Pat. “Everyday Library Ethics – Part One” Online video. Florida Library Webinars. Florida Library Webinars, 16 Aug. 2013. Web.  27 Apr. 2015.

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