The ALA Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) produced a sample set of questions and answers to clarify the implications and applications of the ALA Code of Ethics.
“Social media” is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” Libraries participate in social media for many reasons but primarily to communicate information about library services and resources, and to engage with their communities. Libraries also provide users with access to social media, and library workers often provide assistance to social media users.
While social media has created unprecedented opportunities for information sharing and for community building and engagement, it has also raised numerous ethical concerns. Such concerns include professional responsibilities of staff, how staff interacts with public, how staff interact with the library, privacy and data protection, behavior of professional library workers, and professional discourse with our colleagues. Use of social media may affect the overall image of our profession and the public image of each individual institution. Most of the statements in ALA’s Code of Ethics encompass various ethical concerns that may arise from social media use.
This document is intended to provide general guidance for library workers of all types regarding ethical issues arising from social media, and is not intended as a comprehensive list or legal advice. For guidance in creating and implementing a policy to govern how libraries operate social media platforms, please see ALA’s Social Media Guidelines for Public and Academic Libraries. Library governing authorities and library workers should consult legal counsel for definitive guidance and for the approval of policy statements.
- Do libraries have an ethical obligation to educate patrons on the use of social media?
- Do library workers have an ethical responsibility to be respectful to one another in social media?
- Is it ethical to glean and use information obtained from social media followers?
- What responsibilities do library workers have when sharing or re-posting information via social media? Are library workers ethically required to fact-check information?
- Do professional ethics for library workers extend to personal social media accounts?
- What is the best way to be inclusive when creating social media content for the library? What if there are complaints?
- Where can I find more information?
1) Do libraries have an ethical obligation to educate patrons on the use of 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.”
2 ) Do library workers have an ethical responsibility to be respectful to one another in social media?
Article V of the Code of Ethics states "We treat co-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 our institutions.” This can be broadened to the online social environment. When communicating online, library workers should be cognizant of who may see or share their posts. Individuals should take responsibility for any and all online behaviors.
Library workers have an ethical responsibility to represent themselves and their colleagues, institutions and associations, in both their professional and personal lives, with respect, courtesy, sensitivity and fairness. Losing sight of this responsibility can lead to ethical violations in the form of social media interactions that are inappropriate and insensitive to colleagues which may damage the reputations of those involved.
3 ) Is it ethical to glean and use information obtained from social media followers?
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, email addresses, social media handles and user names, Social Security numbers, birthdays, 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, regardless of how innocuous the content may seem.
4 ) What responsibilities do library workers have when sharing or re-posting information via social media? Are library workers 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 content is shared.
Before sharing, here are some points to consider:
- Does sharing 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 sharing 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 share.
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.
5 ) Do professional ethics for library workers extend to personal social media accounts?
Article VI of the Code of Ethics states “We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.” 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.”
Both statements address a separation between private/personal and public/professional. However, library workers are often recognized beyond their libraries as community helpers and leaders, and what they post on their personal social media accounts may be associated with their professional position regardless of their intention. Harvard Business Review and Queens University of Charlotte provide methods to separate personal and professional identities on social media.
Library workers should use professional judgment when conducting themselves in public, even in their leisure time, which extends to social media use. Reputations, both personally and professionally, can be at stake. The American Institute of CPAs provides tips for staying professional on social media.
Additionally, library workers who choose to interact with their library’s social media platforms using their personal accounts should consult Questions & Answers on Speech in the Workplace. They should also be aware that in nearly all cases their library “would own the copyright in the articles, posts, and other content created by its employees in the course of their jobs” (per the Digital Media Law Project, which was a project of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2007 to 2014, and which remains accessible though no longer updated.)
6 ) What is the best way to be inclusive when creating social media content for the library? What if there are complaints?
Library workers are encouraged to seek out bias-reducing strategies when evaluating social media content that is being created. It is natural for personal bias to be intertwined with the creative work that is produced on a professional level, so it is important to seek multiple perspectives and objective feedback to ensure inclusivity with the library’s social media environment.
In a column from Public Libraries Online, Library Ethics and Social Media, that references the removal of social media posts because of concerns about political-leaning content, the author writes “Biases include all things religious, political, age related, content related, gender related, and racial. Perception of bias is the key. There does not have to be a bias actually there, only the perception of one.”
Social media content that is created by or published by a library is protected as a library resource and falls within the ethical responsibility of library workers to “uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” as stated in the Code of Ethics. Complaints about such content should be evaluated objectively and reported to ALA’s Office for intellectual Freedom.
7 ) Where can I find more information?
Adopted July 2013, by the Committee on Professional Ethics; and amended January 28, 2019.