Questions & Answers on Ethics and Social Media

An Explanatory Statement of the ALA Code of Ethics

What ethical standards should ALA uphold in regard to social media?

Social media is constantly changing and has created an ethical grey area for libraries.  As professionals we must stay current to foster our own skills and encourage the professional development and aspirations of others.  By using social media we are better able to serve our public as the world around us changes.  We must be careful when using social media to avoid advancing any personal interests and to avoid invading anyone’s privacy.

Based on Article III of the Code of Ethics, ALA should make every effort to uphold ethical standards regarding social media, including “the library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”  Additionally, as stated in the principles set forth by the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), ALA should uphold ethical standards relating to concern for the public good in all professional matters, including promoting diversity, equal opportunities, and human rights.  Finally, with respect to social media, ALA must be concerned with the good reputation of the information profession as a whole.

Despite the numerous ethical concerns wrought by the emergence of social media, most libraries cannot afford to ignore this technology and its potential for increased patron outreach and engagement.  Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is paramount; libraries will need to review their own privacy policies and the Library Bill of Rights as the basis for a discussion of privacy issues and pitfalls within the context of social media, and how to handle them in individual institutions.

Information professionals must be concerned with user privacy and individual rights: they must also consider how a library’s digital footprint affects its reputation within the profession and the good of the user community at large.  Careful shaping of a library’s social media presence that includes a clearly defined purpose and content that is accurate, engaging, and professional in tone will go a long way toward upholding ethical standards while protecting user communities.

What is a library’s ethical obligation regarding patron education around social media?

As an institution, a library possesses the same ethical obligation regarding patron education and social media as it does toward information presented in any format.  As part of the American Library Association’s mission, priorities, and goals, “ALA promotes the creation, maintenance, and enhancement of a learning society, encouraging its members to… ensure that school, public, academic, and special libraries in every community cooperate to provide lifelong learning services to all.” 

Fittingly, the Information Literacy Competency Standards produced by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) maintain that “information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning.”

According to the ACRL’s Objectives for Information Literacy Instruction, “information literacy encompasses more than good information-seeking behavior…. It includes evaluating and then using information appropriately and ethically once it is retrieved from any media.”

How do we reconcile a person’s right to access and view online material with the need to protect ourselves and our patrons from unwanted exposure to offensive materials from social media?

The infusion of social media into our everyday life brings great opportunities to connect and communicate. However, this increased ease of use and pervasive interchange of ideas and communication also brings continuing and ever-changing questions about access and use in a public setting. Challenges to materials viewed by patrons on library computers or personal Internet-enabled devices are a continuing issue in libraries. According to Article V, of the ALA Library Bill of Rights, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”


Care must be taken at all times to assure that a patron’s right to access library resources is not inhibited based solely on the patron's interest and actions to access adult oriented material in the library. Judgment of what is adult oriented material and what is appropriate for the library environment is a slippery slope proposition and leads to wide ranging interpretation. Each library system should have general guidelines on addressing the viewing of adult oriented material in the library. You should consult your library’s policy and procedures on handling situations involving adult oriented material in public spaces.

What is considered offensive or sexually explicit material is subjective. Library staff’s personal  notions of what is appropriate viewing material in a library setting should not color our opinions as professionals who value free and unfettered access. According to Article VII of the Code of Ethics, “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.” Similarly, one patron’s opinion of what is offensive should not be the sole arbiter of what others should view.  According to Article III of the ALA Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

Though ALA deeply values and upholds a patron’s First Amendment right to view material without restrictions, this right is not beyond scrutiny in all situations. Accusations or personal observation of the viewing of sexually explicit images of children by patrons should always be addressed. In all cases, sexually explicit images of children are cause for investigation and law enforcement may be contacted. Your library’s stated policy or procedure on how to respond to the viewing of child pornography within the library may be helpful and should be consulted before an incident arises so that immediate action can be taken when it occurs.

Who owns the social media content created for an employer? What about followers and subscribers?

The Citizen Media Law Project, which is hosted by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, exists to explore how the legal world intersects with the Internet and social media. They advise that, in nearly all cases, the “organization itself would own the copyright in the articles, posts, and other content created by its employees in the course of their jobs”. In other words, if a librarian creates any sort of social media content in the course of normal work duties, the employer owns the content.

Who the followers and subscribers attracted by employees belong to is still a matter being decided in the courts. In one landmark case involving Phonedog Media, a consultant accumulated thousands of followers and wanted to take them with him when he left the company. The case was settled out of court, without a clear legal ruling. Because there have not been enough cases to establish a legal standard, it is suggested that librarians discuss this issue with their employers before they assume responsibility for social media on behalf of their organization. A written agreement outlining the responsibilities and ownership of content allows all parties to reach a clear understanding before the issue comes to a head.

Sources consulted for this topic:                  

Bodle, Irene. “Who Owns Social Media Contacts.” July 10, 2012..

Digital Media Law Project. “Copyright Ownership in Content of a Business.” Accessed July 9, 2013.

Perkims, Bart. “Who Owns Your Tweets.” ComputerWorld 46, no. 13 (2013),16.

What information can be gleaned from social media followers in an ethical manner?

Article III of the Code of Ethics states, “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.”

As with anything regarding user information, libraries should keep the ALA Code of Ethics in mind as well as state and federal laws regarding patron privacy and the collection and use of personally identifiable information. It is best to stay away from gathering information such as names, addresses, e-mail addresses, Social Security numbers, birth dates, bank account information, or credit card information unless it is necessary for the provision of library services. Libraries have a special obligation to protect the privacy of their users.

Any demographic data gathering should be limited to what a library can legally (and by its own privacy policy) gather from a reference interview. The methods of gathering and types of information should be clearly spelled out on the library’s web site and in written policy statements. Patrons should also be given an option to opt out. If you're in doubt, do not collect the information.

Here are some policy examples:

Multnomah County Library Privacy Policy

Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Privacy Policy

What responsibility do libraries have when re-publishing information to social media (for example, re-blogging an article)? Are libraries ethically required to fact-check information?

As the library is a trusted source of information in our communities, the information shared through the library’s social media outlets may carry more weight than realized.  For that reason, it’s important to be thoughtful about what is republished.

When deciding to republish, first remember Article IV of the Code of Ethics: “We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.”  It’s always best to link to information rather than reproduce what isn’t owned, and this is an opportunity to model best practices for users regarding the use of copyrighted material.

Regarding accuracy and balance, here are some points to consider:

  • Does republishing this story further the library’s mission of educating the community, or providing access to information not available elsewhere in the community?  If this is information related to a local event, sharing the story would likely meet these criteria.  If it’s another series of funny cat pictures, it’s probably not necessary to share (unless it’s the library’s cat and she has her own page).
  • If facts of the information can’t be verified, be certain to indicate the actual source of the story.  Also, consider the reliability of the source. Just as the reputation of information providers are considered when materials are selected for library collections, so should the source of information be considered when republishing something on social media.
  • Unlike clippings or stories that may have been temporarily posted on bulletin boards, social media preserves what has been shared, including any lapses in judgment in deciding what to republish.

For more details on what to consider, consult the Social Media Policy for YALSA Appointees for a thorough and thoughtful approach to organizational use of social media.  The NPR Ethics Handbook includes another excellent overview of what to consider when reposting information on social media.

Ultimately, what the library publishes and republishes reflects on its reputation in the community. Thoughtful decisions about using social media are worth the time and effort. 

What resources are available for developing sound policies on social media use?

You can contact the Office of Intellectual Freedom for advice and further assistance.

American Library Association
Office for Intellectual Freedom
50 E. Huron St.
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 280-4223
Fax: (312) 280-4227

You can also review these examples from public, academic, and school libraries:


Bitterroot Public Library, Hamilton, MT

Gleason Public Library, Carlisle, MA

Harris County Public Library, Harris County, TX

Messenger Public Library, Aurora, IL

Queens Library, New York City, NY


Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA

Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
(This is the policy for the entire university, not just the library)

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

Washington State University, Pullman, WA


Eudora Schools, Eudora, KS

Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, MN: Employee Use Policy and Guidelines for Employee Use

New York City Department of Education, New York, NY

San Diego Unified School District, San Diego, CA 


Adopted by the Committee on Professional Ethics, July 2013.