Monday, November 22, 2010


Library staff follow a code of ethics which outlines that they should always
  • remain objective
  • provide the right information
  • avoid making judgements about the clients or the questions asked
  • avoid interpreting the information
  • avoid giving legal, medical or financial advice
  • respect the confidentiality of each query
  • provide equal service to all
  • remember legal implications when supplying information

Although you should try to treat all library clients equally, some libraries prepare guidelines on the level of service provided to various types of clients. For example, research staff in an academic library are likely to receive more assistance than undergraduate students.

The Australian Library and Information Association has prepared a Statement on professional ethics which all reference staff should keep in mind.

ALIA statement on professional ethics
Librarians and library technicians significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation and dissemination of information. In a political system dependent on an informed democratic society, they are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. Libraries and library technicians have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

Librarians and library technicians are dependent upon one another for the bibliographical resources used to provide effective information services, and this dependence imposes obligations for the maintenance of the highest level of personal integrity and competence in the performance of their duties.

Librarians and library technicians:

  1. Must provide the highest level of service to all clients through appropriate and usefully organized collections, equitable access and service policies and skilful, accurate and unbiased responses to all legitimate requests for assistance.
  2. Should not exercise censorship in the selection, use or access to material by rejecting on moral, political, gender, sexual preference, racial or religious grounds alone material which is otherwise relevant to the purpose of the library and meets the standards which are appropriate to the library concerned.
  3. Must recognize and respect intellectual property rights and in compiling information for clients must avoid manipulation of information likely to mislead.
  4. Must protect each user’s right to privacy with respect to information sought or received and materials consulted, or
  5. Must distinguish clearly in their actions and statements between their personal philosophies and attitudes and those of an employing institution or professional body.
  6. Must treat fellow 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 the institution.
  7. Must avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or financial benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues or the employing institution.
  8. Must maintain and enhance their professional knowledge and skills to ensure excellence in the profession by encouraging the professional development of co-workers and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

    Adopted 1986 Revised November 1997

    Available on the Internet at

Legal requirements
When assisting a client, you may have to take into account

  • copyright
  • freedom of information
  • privacy
  • duty of care
  • censorship
  • confidentiality

Before providing information to a client you must make sure that you are not infringing the copyright laws by copying or downloading too much information. You must become familiar with the conditions of the copyright law and instruct clients on how to comply with it.

Freedom of information
Most library staff agree that clients should have freedom of access to information. However there are situations when you need to use your common sense before answering a request for information. For example, if an enquirer asks for information on suicide or the use of poisons, you may need to refer to your supervisor before supplying the information.

You must not reveal details of an enquiry to another library client. This is particularly important in special libraries where researchers may be working on sensitive topics.

Duty of care
Library staff can be held liable for the quality of information that they supply. When working in a reference area you must make sure that all the information you provide is accurate and that you can supply details of the source in the information.

Many people argue that libraries should not include books on topics such as how to commit murder or instructions on how to make bombs. Others argue that people should have the freedom to read whatever they want. A common problem is that people use computers in libraries to search for pornographic material. It is very difficult however for library staff to patrol usage of all computers.

Library staff must be discreet and tactful when handling enquiries. It can be frustrating if a client is unwilling to tell you why they need the information. However you must remember that they have the right to keep quiet about their reasons. Be careful when conducting a reference interview that your conversation is not overheard by other library clients.

Gosling, Mary. Learn reference work. Canberra: DocMatrix, 2001, pp. 108-110.

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