Ethics and the Digital Library




Ethical concerns for librarians, whether they be in public, academic or school libraries, have always been an issue.  This issue was recognized and raised in the literature around 1980.  Since that time, the issue of ethics has evolved and become more complex for the professional librarian, particularly with the introduction of computers into the library.  Professionals involved with the internet have developed multiple codes of ethics ranging from a one-page code formatted similarly to the ALA Code by to the detailed Code adopted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Council.  This paper will discuss the interplay of the ALA Code of Ethics with the general principles covered by Internet ethics codes and the impact of these multiple codes on librarians.

    It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause:  namely to attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer. 
G. E. Moore
, Principia Ethica (1903)

ALA Code of Ethics Overview

            The American Library Association (ALA) introduced a Code of Ethics in 1939.  This Code was most recently amended in 2008.  ALA Code of Ethics (2008).  The ALA has adopted a Code of Ethics that serves as a general guideline in making ethical decisions.  They recognize that the fact situations giving rise to ethical questions in libraries are unique and any attempt to give specific direction will fall short of that goal.  The guidelines address issues that arise among employees of the library, personal issues to each librarian and issues affecting patron usage of the library and interaction with the librarian.  The issues most directly impacting patrons include intellectual freedom, privacy and property rights.  Many librarians will be governed by multiple codes of ethics as special library groups have adopted codes addressing issues specific to their specialty.  See, e.g., AALL Code of Ethics;  SAA Code of Ethics.

            The ALA has also adopted a Bill of Rights guaranteeing the public intellectual freedom in its use of libraries.  The ALA policy on Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks, part of its interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, discusses the special issues presented to librarians by electronic information access.  This policy outlines the duties of librarians to provide to patrons all access possible to constitutionally available material through all means possible.  It recognizes the additional responsibilities and challenges of internet filters and the digital divide.

Internet Codes of Ethics Overview

            There exist a myriad of ethical codes regarding internet usage.  The book Cyberethics contains a collection of thoughtful writings on the issues that must be considered in structuring  ethics codes regarding internet usage.  (Baird et. al., 2000)   The content of these numerous codes vary depending on the role of the user group to whom the code applies. has compiled an Internet Code of Ethics for the entire Internet community, including users, site owners and providers.  This code is structured similarly to the ALA Code setting forth general principles to guide usage. 

The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)  has adopted the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility.  This Code goes far beyond the ALA and Inethics codes.  It contains general moral imperatives, more specific professional responsibilities and organizational leadership imperatives.  It reserves the right to terminate membership in the association for ethical violations.

The issues of intellectual freedom, privacy and property ownership are overriding issues addressed in many, if not all, computer and Internet codes.  For purposes of this paper, these issues discussed in Cyberethics are juxtaposed with those issues covered by the ALA Code.

Overlapping Ethical Issues

In today’s library, be it public, academic or school, computers are commonplace.  Librarians are confronted daily with ethical issues regarding computer usage.  While some of the issues that arise can be analyzed under the ALA Code of Ethics or the specific code governing the library in which the issue arises, a working knowledge of the issues from the perspective of the Internet will be of significant assistance to the librarian.  The common issues for librarians in both the ALA Code of Ethics and most internet ethics codes include intellectual freedom, privacy and property rights.

Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual freedom, the free and open access to ideas and information, is considered a fundamental basis for democracy and is the mission of libraries.  The ALA Code of Ethics states:  We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”  The Inethics Internet Code of Ethics states that the Internet community “[r]espects the freedom of speech, informational transparency and efficiency.”  Other ethical codes for libraries and for the internet include similar statements. 

Special issues regarding intellectual freedom arise when computers are added to the mix of available resources in a library.  These include freedom of access to digital information by those with limited or no access to or training on computers.  Further, many governing bodies impose a mandate for Internet filters on libraries.  The librarian confronted with these issues must evaluate and act on them in an ethical manner.  

Privacy Rights

The issue of intellectual freedom and digital information access runs parallel with the patron’s right to privacy.  ALA’s Privacy:  An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights states that it is all librarians’ “ethical imperative to provide unrestricted access to information and to guard against impediments to open inquiry. . . . When users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists”  

Privacy has been a highly controversial issue in libraries over the years.  Library standards have evolved to the point that records of materials checked out by patrons are not archived once the material has been returned to the library.  Further, the ALA adopted a policy on confidentiality of library records advising all library directors and trustees to adopt policies declaring library records confidential.  (ALA Policy on Confidentiality).   This policy is supported by the position that the right to receive information is a corollary to the right of free speech and, therefore, is constitutionally protected.

Privacy issues enter a totally new dimension when applied to the cyberworld and because computers are commonplace in libraries today, for use by both employees and the public, librarians must be aware of the application of privacy ethics to internet usage. The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility states:  “Respect the privacy of others” as a general moral imperative and, as a more specific professional responsibility states “Access computing and communication resources only when authorized to do so.”  (Code of Ethics – Association for Computing Machinery).  

Because many libraries now have employees whose domain is the digital world, these persons have access to information that is private and the ability to access information about usage of the Internet by employees and by patrons.  It has become necessary for libraries to put policies in place regarding access to and distribution of this information.  The library must also take it upon itself to educate all employees on the terms of these policies in context of their work as librarians.

            Property Rights

            Libraries have always been extremely cognizant of copyright and related laws put in place to protect intellectual property.  The ALA Code of Ethics states:  “We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.”  Copyright laws and their applicability as to books, magazines, journals, dissertations and other published papers have been around long enough that they are usually handled as a matter of course.  When digital information is thrown into the mix, however, new territory is breached every day and librarians are affected by these issues.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was implemented for the purpose of addressing these issues.  Codes of ethics and their application and enforcement must follow suit. 

            Academic librarians and school librarians are perhaps closer to issues of plagiarism than public librarians.  With our digital age providing ready availability of information and cut-and-paste technology, the ability to plagiarize is far too easy.  When the librarian assumes teaching responsibilities, the law and ethics of copyright and plagiarism must be communicated clearly to students.  These are not easy issues and there are exceptions, such as the fair use doctrine, that make material available in limited circumstances for limited purposes.  The librarian can and should play a major role in modeling respect for intellectual property rights.  An ethical duty also falls on library directors to see that all library staff is trained to understand and respect these property rights.

Ethics Education for Librarians

            Librarians, like other professionals and business people, should have an ethical base for all their professional actions and decision-making.  While we may hope that ethics is good judgment and common sense, it is the hard questions that bring need for pause and reflection.  Ethical issues often arise when there is no obviously right or wrong resolution to the question.

            The ALA has produced materials for use instructing librarians and library employees of the importance of the ALA Code of Ethics and Bill of Rights and its impact on fulfilling the duties of a librarian, professional or paraprofessional.  One of these courses is “Defending Access with Confidence.”  (Lord, 2005).  Included in these materials are fact scenarios that can be used for role-playing and discussion in class groups.  This activity is very helpful for all library personnel so, when confronted with a tough ethical question, they have had the opportunity to contemplate similar situations through discussion in class with other library employees.

            Ethics topics are discussed in most classes in MLS programs.  This writer is not familiar with a class offered solely on the topic of ethics.  If an ethics course is not offered in an MLS curriculum, it is indeed necessary that all course offerings touch on the applicability of ethics to the subject matter and raise potential ethical questions that might arise linked to the subject matter of the course.

            New issues are continually created for librarians.  Librarians are blogging, creating wikis and interacting with patrons on-line.  The ALA Code of Ethics evolves to assure it is broad enough to cover new issues.  This state of constant change is further reason to educate all library employees – and re-educate them – on ethical questions that will arise in the course of their work with the public.


            All librarians must be knowledgeable about the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights.  In addition, library employees with IT responsibilities must have a working knowledge with any ethical code applicable to their duties.  Libraries and library education programs have an ethical obligation to train all librarians and library employees in ethical conduct.  In today’s library, the applicability of the ALA Code to computer issues must be a part of that training.  With on-going ethics training, librarianship will be considered a highly ethical profession.



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Baird, R. M., Ramsower, R., & Rosenbaum, S. E. (2000). Cyberethics. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Code of Ethics — Association for Computing Machinery. (n.d.).  Retrieved May 1, 2009, from

Fallis, D. (2007). Information ethics for 21st century library professionals. Library Hi Tech, 25(1), 23-26. Retrieved May 2, 2009, from

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Lord, C. (2005). Defending access with confidence: A practical workshop on intellectual freedom. Chicago: PLA.

Martin, A. M. (2008). Leadership: Integrity and the ALA Code of Ethics. Knowledge Quest, 37(3), 6-11.

Osif, B. A., & Harwood, R. L. (1999). The Internet: Issues, ethics and controversies. Library Administration & Management, 13(2), 105-109.