Library Leadership

85. Library Code of Ethics with Annie Gaines

The Library Code of Ethics—it’s foundational to our profession. Yet, how often do we stop to think about what those are, how they affect staff, and ways that we create our policies and procedures using these ethics? On this episode we do just that speaking with Annie Gaines, Continuing Education Consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries. She shares all of this plus information on a new article that’s been recently added to the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics.


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This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

The Library code of ethics—it’s foundational to our profession. Yet how often do we stop to think about what these are, how they affect staff, and ways that we can create our policies and procedures using these ethics?

On this episode we do just that—speaking with Annie Gaines, Continuing Education Consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries. She shares all of this plus information on a new article that’s been recently added to the American Library Association Code of Ethics.

You won’t want to miss it. Enjoy the show!

Annie, welcome to the show.

Annie Gaines:

Hi. Thanks for having me.


Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today about the code of ethics in libraries and the impact these have on staff. Let’s start at the beginning. What is ethics? 01:27 

Annie Gaines:

So, ethics are a group of moral principles, or values, governing, or distinctive of, a particular culture or group. Ethics are important because they affect our behavior. If you think about it, responsible behavior regardless of personal biases, is a result of sticking to our values or ethics. While many people have personal ethics that impact their individual behavior there are also ethical systems in the workplace.

Many professions have codes of ethics which are shared principles and fundamentals that serve as guidelines for professional conduct including doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. It’s important to understand the ethics of your profession, or workplace, as those values provide a framework for creating policies, procedures, and guidelines which influence the day-to-day activities of the organization.


Question #2: So, how does this fit with the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics? 02:28  

Annie Gaines:

The American Library Association, as our professional association, publishes and periodically updates the Code of Ethics for ALA members. It was first adapted by the ALA Council back in 1939 and has since been updated four times, most recently last month.

The ALA Committee on Professional Ethics, or COPE, is responsible for the code and they are the members who take the time to do the work to translate those values of intellectual freedom—that define our profession into the broad principles which are then approved by the larger group. 

It’s really useful as a profession to make our code of ethics known not just to ourselves, but to the general public. If you look at some of the other professions I listed earlier that also have codes of ethics, like lawyers, teachers, doctors, and social workers, they also serve the public and have a responsibility to do so ethically because society needs to trust them in order to function.


Question #3: And, there are nine articles in ALA’s Code of Ethics. Can you briefly tell us what these are? 03:26 

Annie Gaines:

Sure, I’ll start with the first four which covers accessibility, intellectual freedom, intellectual property rights and privacy, and confidentially. Article I says, 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. This article touches on two important things to keep in mind in libraries, equitable access to the library, and unbiased service for everyone who the library interacts with.

Article II says, We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources. Intellectual freedom is a big deal in our profession. It’s the right of every individual to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction, allowing for free access to all expression of ideas where any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement can be explored. This article encourages us to resist censorship of library materials as much as possible.

Article III says, 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. In the library the right to privacy, the right to read, consider, and develop ideas, and beliefs, free from observation and unwanted surveillance is essential because it enables library users to select, access, and consider information, and ideas without fear of judgement. While privacy focuses on the rights of users, confidentially refers to the responsibility of the library to keep identifying information private on their patron’s behalf. This means limiting the amount of personally identifiable information the library collects, and knowing the legal requirements so you can destroy it as soon as possible.

Article IV says, We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users, and rights holders. Intellectual property is any product of the human intellect, like books, musical recordings, paintings, or complex equations. Respecting intellectual property rights means, among other things, not copying things that aren’t supposed to be copied, or only copying things under certain conditions. For example, Interlibrary Loan works within restrictions of copyright law to allow one library to borrow from another. And, fair use is another system which helps libraries balance the interest of the user, and the copyright holder. These first four articles cover some great fundamentals in library ethics.


Question #4: Sounds great. What about the rest of them? 06:21 

Annie Gaines:

Articles V through VIII cover our behavior in the workplace including how we treat our colleagues, keeping our private interests separate, and professional development. Article V states, We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard those rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions. It’s not just what we do for our patrons that’s important, what we do for others is just as important, too. We need to treat our colleagues with the same respect and concern that we give to our patrons. 

Article VI states, We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions. Private interests are any personal gains that benefit, privileged exemption, or advantage that are not available to the general public creating a conflict of interest. For example a library staff member should not be put in a position to make collection development decisions that will benefit themselves, or their family. Conflict of interest can be avoided by observing the boundaries between your personal and professional role. Although friends, or family may ask you for favors, for example by extending a checkout period, or holding a popular book for them, it’s important to treat them just as you would any other patron. 

Article VII states, 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. In other words, be objective. In collection development, during patron interaction, and while answering reference questions it’s important to keep our personal beliefs separate from the work at hand. For example, although libraries may help patrons identify and research issues of an upcoming election they do not promote one political candidate or party over another.

Article VIII states, 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. This is my favorite one because it’s all about continuing education. As members of the library profession it’s important that we keep up with changes in the global community of practice and there’s lots of ways to increase our knowledge and skills. And don’t forget about supporting the ambitions of potential new members of the profession. I think the best way to do this is to be authentic and encouraging to future library workers.


Question #5: And, there’s a new article to the Code of Ethics. Is that right? 09:02 

Annie Gaines:

Yes. The newest edition to the Code of Ethics is Article IX which I’m really excited about. Article nine says, We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression, to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of services and spaces.

This article was just added to the code of ethics on June 29th, 2021 during a session of ALA  Council at ALA Annual, and it was approved unanimously. It’s cool to see a very timely reminder that this is a living document that grows and changes with us. I first heard about it as folks on Library Twitter were live tweeting all the various motions on that day’s session.


Question #6: It is exciting. And, I really appreciate you going over all those codes of ethics with us. I wanted to jump in next on how these articles impact library staff members. Can you share with us about that? 10:05 

Annie Gaines:

So, while this code of ethics isn’t a  code of conduct, or a definitive list of rules it does put a framework for thinking through situations where these values might be in conflict. One example that jumped out at me is that our values of intellectual freedom and equal access are in direct conflict with the law when it comes to internet security. The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires libraries to install filters on computers in order to block sites that contain sensitive materials. This requirement is a condition of receiving federal funds and e-rate funding. Because it’s the law, public libraries have to comply with it and it goes against our code of ethics. This conflict between our stated values and the law exists. It’s a thing we have to grapple with as library professionals. And, there’s a lot of great writing out there that digs into these topics, if you’re interested.

The code of ethics doesn’t just provide the framework though, it helps to emphasize the fact that everything in libraries pivots on the concept of intellectual freedom. So for example, if I’m helping a child prepare for a school assignment I’m not going to say, No, that book is too old for you, you can only check out books from the Children’s Section. Or, Your parents wouldn’t approve of that book. The code of ethics tells me that we treat juvenile patrons with the same level of respect, courtesy, and professionalism, that we would afford to an adult patron.

For a library staff member, I think one of the most useful things about the code of ethics is it’s a way to understand why the library does what it does. I’m always that person who wants to know why, you know? What is the reason behind this policy? What is the driving force behind this initiative? I think this code puts all of that into plain language, or at least tries to put it in plain language for us to reference.

And I think, this is a great place to point out that the code of ethics isn’t mandating neutrality. A lot of these articles—even before the ninth one, have active language like, Advocating Conditions of Employment that safeguards the rights and welfare of all employees. That’s not really neutral language. 


Question #7: Right. So, what is the importance of policies and procedures around code of ethics? 12:27 

Annie Gaines:

So, if someone is in a position to create policies and procedures for a library, understanding this ethical framework will ensure that those policies and procedures are reasonable ones. I recommend every library board member, and every library director both read and understand both Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. If someone is not a policy maker, understanding the ethics or values that shape library policies will help you be more effective in carrying out your responsibilities. If you’re anything like me, knowing the why behind what the library’s doing helps a lot. And, if you understand library values you can more easily articulate them to library patrons and staff.


Question #8: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 13:15 

Annie Gaines:

I’m so encouraged by the addition of this new article to the Code of Ethics. I’ve always wanted our profession to live up to the values that it purports to have and this ninth Article feels like a huge step in that direction. It’s full of action words, right? …like, We work, we confront, we enhance, we advance—those aren’t passive words. Those words are, in a way, a call to action. Because I feel like—I’m a relatively young person, I guess. I feel like there’s been a divide between the values that we say we have in a profession, and our willingness to put those values into action.

Last year I was so inspired to read the words of ALA Executive Director, Tracie D. Hall, and then ALA President, Julius C. Jefferson, Jr. as they connect with the role of libraries. The mission of libraries in society—to this broader conversation around race and justice happening in our country, Julia C. Jefferson, in particular, wrote, I want each member to take our values of equity, diversity, and inclusion to their libraries and communities and make a difference. The change we want begins with each of us. I’m just so thrilled to see the addition of this ninth Article, and really looking forward to great discussions that will happen around it.


Question #9: It is fantastic. I agree. Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 14:31 

Annie Gaines:

So, I really loved Brené Brown’s, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. I read that book during a time when I was really wrestling with what kind of career I wanted to have, and what kind of librarian, or really the kind of person I wanted to be. Her focus on authenticity, and digging deep to find our own core values, and connecting that to our work, really spoke to me.

She wrote about how it is important to actually practice our values, rather than to profess them, and we need to walk our talk. She said that integrity is practicing your values. And that totally resonated with me.

One of the activities in Dare to Lead is to name your values, which is actually pretty difficult to just sit down and do. They provide a list of fifty or so words and ask you to select the two that you hold most important. I think I started with ten or fifteen, and narrowed down to three, and it took a little bit of time. But the activity itself is really valuable. Figuring out these few core values that are most important to us, that helps us find our way in the dark, that fills us with feelings of purpose—it is really an illuminating activity. It truly helped me a lot during that time. 

Brené Brown is really good at writing motivational phrases. Here is one I love, Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about the hard things. One thing I also really appreciate about this book is that they released all these bonuses to go with the book on the website. There’s like workbooks, and handouts, and also these very cute printable signs with some of the phrases that she used in the book. I printed out one that says, Clear is Kind, and put it up in my office.


Question #10: I’m so glad you shared that book because my team, here at my very own library, just went through that book. We read it together as a team, and processed with it, and have gained so much from it. So, I think it’s a wonderful recommendation. Thank you. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 16:21 

Annie Gaines:

Wow, so, libraries mean freedom to me. I grew up as a queer kid in rural town, and early on I started gravitating to the library because it was the place where I could be myself. I could read what I wanted. I could think what I wanted. There was tremendous freedom inside those walls. And the librarians didn’t bat an eye as this nine-year-old checked out nearly every Steven King novel on the shelf. 

I like to credit my small, local public library as the place that inspired me to become a librarian. Rural public libraries are definitely where my heart is. Usually small spaces have huge impacts on their community, and play a massive role in developing future generations of library enthusiasts and library workers like me.


Freedom, that’s it, Annie. Thank you so very much. It’s been wonderful to have you here today. I appreciate us digging into the ALA Code of Ethics. So, you know, it’s so foundational to what we do, and what a great topic for this show. Our listeners are really going to benefit. 

I appreciate you being here with me today.

Annie Gaines:

Thank you so much for having me.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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