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The issues of ethics for reference librarians overlap with those for libraries in general. Questions of ethics arise on many levels, among them:


• Confidentiality of queries and information seeking

• Free access to sources of information (sometimes compromised by various kinds of computer filters on public computers, which is controversial)

• Support of First Amendment rights to free speech

• Treatment of all library patrons with respect

• Copyright issues


Several professional organizations have written out their own codes of ethics. The American Library Association reads as follows:



1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

3. We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

4. We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.

5. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

7. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

8. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.


(C) The American Library Association


The American Society for Information Science's "ASIS Professional Guidelines" begin with "ASIS&T recognizes the plurality of uses and users of information technologies, services, systems and products as well as the diversity of goals or objectives, sometimes conflicting, among producers, vendors, mediators, and users of information systems. ASIS&T urges its members to be ever aware of the social, economic, cultural, and political impacts of their actions or inaction. ASIS&T members have obligations to employers, clients, and system users, to the profession, and to society, to use judgement and discretion in making choices, providing equitable service, and in defending the rights of open inquiry" and goes on to cite specific responsibilities to the Employers/Clients/System Users, the Profession, and Society. Other organizations with their own codes include the Medical Library Association's "Code of Ethics for Health Sciences Librarianship"; and the American Association of Law Libraries' "AALL Ethical Principles"






In Reference and Information Services: An Introduction, Bopp and Smith write that "Taken as a whole, these codes suggest that ethical obligations occur on at least four levels: 1. individual level—librarians have an obligation to act ethically to each individual they serve; 2. organizational level—librarians have an ethical obligation to act in the best interest of their organization; 3. professional level—librarians have an ethical obligation to promote standards of professional conduct established by the accepted professional organizations; and 4. societal level—librarians, as do all individuals, have an ethical obligation to serve the best interests of society as a whole."


In a post-9/11 world, some longtime library confidentiality concerns have taken on new urgency. If a patron comes in and asks for information on making a bomb, where does the librarian's responsibility lie, in helping the patron, or in protecting society from possible harm? If a depressed-looking teenager asks for help finding websites with information on guns and ammo, what should the librarian do? Many issues arise on a daily basis and while the code of ethics provides a framework, there are gray areas. Generally speaking, however, reference librarians tend to come down on the side of supporting the right to privacy of the user.


When the Patriot Act suddenly made it legal for authorities to demand to see a list of a patron's reading material, librarians were forced to take a stand against this invasion of privacy, arguing that the personal rights to privacy were too precious to be completely thrown out in favor of law enforcement's need to know.


Bopp, Richard, and Smith, Linda C. general editors (2001). Reference and Information Services: An Introduction, 3rd Edition. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.