History of the ALA Code of Ethics

The Code of Ethics of the American Library Association has a long history. ALA adopted its first official code of ethics in 1939. The code was revised in 1981, in 1995, and again in 2008. As noted by John A. Moorman in 1995:

Since its formation, the American Library Association has worked on a Code of Ethics for its membership. In 1903, 1929, 1938, 1975, 1981, and since 1992, special attention has been given to either formulating, revising or revisiting the American Library Association Code of Ethics. The Association’s Code of Ethics Committee was first noted in 1928 and was established as an ALA Council standing committee in 1975.[1]

The March 30, 1930 American Library Association Bulletin published a Suggested Code of Ethics. The committee that developed the code was chaired by Josephine Adams Rathbone, who served as ALA president from 1931-1932. This document covered specific ethical principles related to the governance and operation of a library. Although this early code bears very little resemblance to later codes of ethics, it includes concepts that remain in the current code.

1930 Proposed Code of Ethics

In November 1938, the Code of Ethics Committee distributed a revised code that was adopted at the 1939 Midwinter Meeting. The new code was more succinct, and the focus shifted somewhat from governing bodies to librarians, which it defined as “any person who is employed by a library to do the work that is recognized to be professional in character according to standards established by the American Library Association.” The code put forth twenty-eight principles of ethical behavior for professional librarians.

1939 Code of Ethics

More than four decades passed before ALA adopted a revised code of ethics. During that time, the organization adopted the Library Bill of Rights in 1948 and the Freedom to Read statement in 1953. These two policies embodied for ALA the professional values that would serve as the framework for a new code of ethics reflecting the significant changes in the economic, social, and political environment in the United States since 1939. A 1975 draft of a new code and a 1979 revised draft were published in the November 1979 issue ofAmerican Libraries. After receiving comments, the Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE)[2] produced a revised code, which was adopted at the 1981 Annual Conference.

1975 Draft Code

1979 Draft Code

1981 Code of Ethics

The Committee on Professional Ethics began working on a revision of the Code of Ethics in 1991. Over a four-year period, the committee solicited comments from ALA units and members. When the document was submitted to Council at the 1995 Annual Meeting, Jeanne Isacco, chair, reported that during this process, the Committee received numerous comments, many of which were incorporated into the revision. In addition, the Committee encouraged members in individual libraries to use the code, discuss the implications of each statement, and adopt it as part of their institution’s practices.

The most striking difference between the 1995 Code of Ethics and those that preceded it is the voice in which it is expressed. Previous codes were in the impersonal third person: “librarians should” in the 1939 code and “librarians must” in the 1981 code. The 1995 code represented the voice of ALA’s members. Furthermore, the principles were expressed as facts (e.g., “We provide the highest level of service”) rather than as obligations based on “should” or commands based on “must” of previous codes. The 1995 code also included two new principles related to copyright (IV) and excellence in the profession (VIII).

Finally, the 1995 code included a statement concerning its use. This concept was included in the 1939 code but was absent from the 1981 version. The 1939 code stated:

This code sets forth principles of ethical behavior for the professional librarian. It is not a declaration of prerogative nor a statement of recommended practices in specific situations.

The 1995 code addressed this issue by stating:

The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct over particular situations.

Throughout the history of the Code of Ethics, there have been debates about whether there should be a means for enforcing it. The inevitable conclusion to these discussions has been that ALA has neither the resources nor the legal authority to do so. When the 1995 code was presented to Council, COPE expressed the opinion that the most effective way to make the code a meaningful part of the library profession would be for it to be discussed and considered for adoption by local and state libraries.

1995 Code of Ethics

In 2000, the Committee began work on the first explanatory statement of the Code of Ethics, “Questions and Answers on Librarian Speech in the Workplace.” The previous year, Council had considered and referred to the Committee a resolution on an amendment to the Library Bill of Rights that addressed the free speech rights of library personnel. After careful consideration, the Committee concluded the existing tenets of the Code of Ethics addressed the issue, but further clarification and explanation would be beneficial to the profession. Because workplace speech is a complicated matter affected by employment law and First Amendment rights in addition to professional ethics, the Committee developed a question-and-answer document addressing the legal and ethical complexities of workplace speech. In July 2001, COPE adopted “Questions and Answers on Librarian Speech in the Workplace: An Explanatory Statement of the ALA Code of Ethics.”

ALA Council revisited the topic over the next few years and adopted CD#38.1, Resolution on Workplace Speech at the 2005 Annual Conference in Chicago.

In anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the ALA Code of Ethics in 2009, the Committee began exploring whether the Code of Ethics should be revised, in light of new issues confronting the profession and numerous new policies adopted by the ALA. COPE relied upon a series of programs and hearings held from 2004 through 2006 to consider whether the Code should be revised and to listen to ALA members’ views.

COPE reviewed each article of the Code of Ethics in light of the comments it received. Prior to the 2008 Midwinter Meeting, the Committee circulated a proposal with two minor language changes and an expansion of Article IV, reflecting the importance of balance between the holders of intellectual property rights and the rights of information users. Article IV read: “We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.” The proposed revision to Article IV read: “We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.”

A hearing was held at the 2008 Midwinter Meeting and ALA Council subsequently adopted the proposed changes to the Code of Ethics on January 22, 2008.

2008 Code of Ethics

The Committee on Professional Ethics continues to develop publications and programs that educate libraries and librarians about the importance of the Code of Ethics and, in particular, the importance of incorporate it into a library’s set of governing policies.


[1] Moorman, John. “Knowledge of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics among Illinois Public Library Directors: A Study,” Illinois Libraries 77, no, 3 (1995): 140-47.

[2] Please note that the Committee on Professional Ethics was created as a Council standing committee in 1975, replacing the Code of Ethics Committee.