History of the Code of Ethics

1930 Suggested Code of Ethics
from American Library Association Bulletin

The library as an institution exists for the benefit of a given constituency. This may be the nation, a state, a county, a municipality, a school or college, a special field of research, industry or commerce, or some more limited group.

Libraries differ so widely in size, type of constituents, support and character of work that a code of ethics would have to be excessively detailed to apply to all situations, but certain fundamental principles may be laid down that are generally applicable.

The library’s obligations relate to such collection, organization and administration of printed material or other records as will give the best possible service to its constituents. The human factors in this service are:

  • The trustees or other governing body or agency;
  • The librarian;
  • The staff ;
  • The people whom the library serves.

A. Governing Bodies

These may be the Board of Trustees or city officials (on whom the responsibility rests) of public or semi-public libraries; the library board or committee of college or university trustees or faculty; Board of Education or a committee thereof for school libraries or for public libraries organized under school law; officer or committee or department of a business corporation.

1. Functions.

The functions of a governing body are usually prescribed by law but generally include:

  • The representation of the constituency for which the library exists;
  • The determination of the policies of the library in its service and relation to its constituency;
  • The exercise or delegation of the appointing and removing power;
  • Responsibility for bringing the needs of the library before the authorities who control the appropriation of funds and for using all proper influence to get such increases as are necessary for the growth and development of the work;
  • The administration of the funds for the support of the library;
  • Responsibility for the economic, social and physical well-being of the staff, including a retirement system which is needed for the good of the service as well as of the individual.

Trustees of tax-supported public libraries remembering that they are representatives of the whole community, should be careful not to ask special privileges for themselves or their families. The Board of Trustees should recognize that the librarian, as its executive, should attend the meetings of the board in order to be fully informed as to its desires and purposes and to aid in the formulation of its policies.

2. Appointments.

The appointing power in any institution should be definitely vested in some one board, committee or person. The appointee should not consider an appointment final unless made by the agency or person in whom that authority is lodged.

Appointments should be made for fitness only; no merely personal consideration should enter into the selection of the personnel of any library; conversely, no librarian should accept an appointment, however attractive, unless he believes that he has the ability, the training and the experience needed for ultimate success in that position, and no one should continue to hold a position unless he finds himself qualified to meet all its requirements.

3. Tenure.

Having accepted a position in a library the appointee incurs certain definite obligations:

  • To remain long enough to repay the library for the expenditure of time and money incident to the period of adjustment; this length of time differs in different positions, but is seldom less than a year;
  • To remain long enough to accomplish definite results in work undertaken;
  • Unless a larger opportunity offers, it is best to remain in a position as long as one is able to do creative or effective work or to get satisfaction from the work; otherwise it is probable that one’s usefulness in that position is at an end.

4. Resignations.

Resignations should be made in writing to the authority from which the appointment came with due notification to the immediate supervisor. Adequate time should be given before the resignation takes effect for the work to be put into shape; for the appointment and, when practicable, the initiation of a successor.

5. Dismissals.

Dismissals should be made whenever the good of the service demands. The employee’s length of service, need of the position and personal worthiness may be considered, but these elements should never outweigh a clear case of incompetence or incompatibility. It should be remembered that an employee who is unsatisfactory in one position may often prove effective in another department or position. Such adjustment may be attempted where practicable before dismissal. Dismissal should be made by the highest executive officer.

6. Recommendations.

Trustees and librarians are sometimes dependent for information about candidates on recommendation from trustees, librarians, library schools, and other employment agencies. Recommendations should present a fair statement of the strong and weak points of the candidate.

B. Librarian (or chief administrative officer)

The librarian is the executive officer for the governing body of the library.

The position of librarian involves a threefold relation: 1. To the trustees or governing body; 2. To the constituents of the library; 3. To the staff.

1. In relation to the Board of Trustees the Librarian:

  • Should make a loyal effort to carry out its policies;
  • Should make regular and systematic reports upon the work accomplished;
  • Should initiate plans for improvement of the service of the library;
  • Should act as liaison officer between the trustees and staff, interpreting each to the other and establishing, where possible, friendly relations between them.

2. Librarian and constituency.

The librarian represents the library-book power and book service-and should so represent it as to win recognition for the institution rather than credit for the individual.

The librarian has a further obligation to the community or constituency which the library serves and should, as representative of the library (with due respect for other duties), take part in the life and activities of the community or constituency.

As representative of the library, the librarian and the staff should feel an obligation to maintain in personal conduct the dignity of the position and take care not to offend against the standards of decorum that prevail in that community or constituency.

The librarian, representing the governing body, should see that the library serves impartially all individuals, groups; and elements that make up its constituency. In the case of the public library as a non-partisan institution the books purchased should represent all phases of opinion and interest rather than the personal tastes of the librarian or board members. In an official capacity, the librarian and members of the staff should not express personal opinions on controversial questions, as political, religious, or economic. issues; especially those of a local nature.

3. Librarian and staff.

The relations of the librarian to the staff within the library should be impersonal, and absolutely impartial. The librarian owes to the members of the staff:

  • Stimulus to growth, to the exercise of the creative impulse, to the development of initiative and of a professional spirit;
  • Constructive criticism;
  • Freedom to achieve results and credit for such achievement;
  • Respect for the authority delegates to the staff ;
  • Friendliness of attitude;
  • Justice in decision;
  • Opportunity for professional and economic advancement within that institution or some other;
  • Encouragement of reasonable suggestions and criticisms for the improvement of the service.

C. The Staff

1. Loyalty.

Loyalty to the institution is the primary duty of all members of the staff.  Loyalty involves, in part, submergence of the individual to the institution. Such manifestations of egoism as criticism of the library or librarian outside, or the claiming of individual credit for work done as a staff member when credit should belong to the institution, are examples of disloyalty. Constructive criticism offered to the proper authority should not be considered disloyalty and should be encouraged.

Good health is a pre-requisite of good service and involves the right use of free time so that a proper balance is maintained between work, recreation and rest.

The atmosphere of the library is disturbed unless the workers preserve harmony and a spirit of cooperation among themselves; hence the staff relations, while impersonal within the building, should be friendly. Envy, jealousy, or gossip should have no place in a library staff. The staff should refrain from discussion of personal affairs in the library or from attention to personal business in library time.

2. Relations to the public.

The members of the staff are the interpreters of the library to the public, and its service may be materially helped or harmed by their individual contacts.

The staff owes impartial, courteous service to all persons using the library. Among the patrons entitled to use the library no distinctions of race, color, creed or condition should influence the attitude of the staff, and no favoritism should be tolerated. On the other hand, a cold officialism is to be avoided and a cordial attitude which welcomes approach should be manifested by those in direct contact with the public.

3. Department heads.

Heads of departments should consider their departments in relation to the institution as a whole and never magnify unduly the importance of their own part.

Understanding and cooperation between departments is essential to the efficiency of the library’s service to the community.

The heads of departments bear much the same relation to those under them that the librarian does to the library staff as a whole, and have on a smaller scale the same duties and responsibilities.

4. Assistants.

Assistants are an integral part of the institution as a whole, and their suggestions for the improvement of the service should be encouraged. These suggestions should be made to the immediate superior. If differences of opinion concerning the work arise between assistants in a department, the matter in question should be taken to the head of the department for adjustment. If an assistant is critical of the policy of the department or feels that he has been unfairly dealt with, he should first discuss the matter with the head. If unable to obtain satisfaction, he may then appeal to the next higher authority. Constructive criticism or correction by responsible heads is . necessary to the efficiency of any service and should be accepted by assistants without personal resentment.

The advancement of assistants should come as the result of the recommendation of heads of departments or of the librarian. Assistants should never use outside relationships to obtain a position or promotion.

The relation of staff members to the non-professional group of workers, as janitors and pages, should be strictly impersonal. Personal favors should never be asked. Their work should be directed by those assigned to the duty, and never interfered with by other staff members.

D. Library Profession

All libraries and all librarians have a duty not only to their constituents but to the profession as a whole; or to some division of it, because cooperation between libraries and librarians makes for better service to the constituents of every library. This duty involves membership and activities in one or more professional organizations, subscription to and the reading of professional literature, interchange of ideas and, as far as possible, of material.

While these principles may not cover every case that may arise, we believe that if applied intelligently they would make for harmony in staff relations and for the general good of the service.

JOSEPHINE ADAMS RATHBONE, chairman.
MARION HORTON
G. R. LOMER
RALPH MUNN
REBECCA B. RANKIN
MALCOLM G. WYER

Source: “Suggested Code of Ethics,” American Library Association Bulletin 24 no. 3 (1930): 58–62.