Episode 302: Ethics

Business ethics

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Welcome back to Season Three of Linking Our Libraries! We are Central Minnesota Libraries Exchange, and we are here to share information with all types of libraries, archives, and other nonprofits working to build their skills. This season we are working through the tools you can use to be a better manager and leader.

This week we discuss Ethics.


The Basics

It is surprising how many people do not think about ethical issues being a problem in LIS. This may go back to the mistaken ideas some people have about what librarians do all day – that is, that we sit around all day waiting for people to come ask us lovely and fun questions that we can answer with smiles on our faces. Of course this does happen, and most of us enjoy it when things go so well. But other things happen too, and can pose challenges to our ethics, our practices, and even the laws governing our library and society. When you add in the idea of being a manager, responsible for the actions and behaviors of not only yourself but also yours staff, and things can get much more complicated when trying to behave ethically.

In the library field, we are a profession, and as such we are governed by an ethical code. To be more accurate: we are a multi-faceted profession with a lot of different people in different professional areas doing all kinds of different things. So we actually have several different ethical codes relevant to the work we do.

  • There are the biggies that cover us in the United States: the American Library Association (ALA) and the Society for American Archivists (SAA) both have ethics codes governing most of us across the profession.
  • Subsections of these groups may also have specific ethical codes to follow that are relevant to their work.
  • Other ethics codes may also be relevant to you if you are an LIS person working in some of the less traditional jobs for our profession. So you may be governed by codes for computer science, or engineering, or museums, or performers, or wherever else you find yourself working.

No matter what you do in libraries, you are covered by ethical codes. Be proactive about looking for codes that will govern your work, to be sure you do not get caught without your ethics firmly in place!

Too often, ethics are things that get mentioned quickly in orientation, everyone looks solemn, and we all reassure ourselves that we, of course, would always be nice people who will do nice things. Yay for us. But that is just the barest beginning of ethics and ethics training. We can all start from the stand that we are nice people (most librarians are, after all); but we need to have a specific, written-down, set of ethical principles that we all know, we all understand, and we all agree to follow. And then problems will happen and disasters will come to your door. Ethical codes give you either a nice ladder to climb up out of the problems, or can be used as a handy weapon with which to clobber if you ignore the rules and cause problems that make it into the news.



Part of leadership is to ensure your staff is up to date on all the knowledge they need to have to be effective at work. Ethics should be an important part of the training you provide to all members of your staff. It is important that everyone works together to ensure your entire organization is acting according to ethics codes.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Ethics are like cookies – more fun when shared around with everyone. How do you share ethical codes?

  • They should be part of the orientation process for new employees.
  • They should be in the employee handbook, along with links to the websites where they live in case people want more information.
  • They should be available at each public desk. Ideally, they are in nice frames, or another display device, and located physically throughout the library.
  • They are definitely on your website.
  • If your parent organization has their ethics codes on their website, or in physical locations, try to get your posted there as well, so it is clear that you have standards you need to follow in addition to theirs.

When big things happen, it is easy to incorporate them into your ethics training. The Patriot Act spurred a LOT of ethical issues in the library. Libraries were asked to remove material that might be sensitive such as diagrams of bridges and maps, as well as to potential monitor our patrons and the material they might use in the library – and being forbidden to talk about it. This spurred many libraries to talk about the ethics in our profession, to our staff and to our patrons. Great! But more often it is the small-seeming issues that cause the most trouble.

Get people to feel comfortable with the idea that ethical situations will happen, and to have some basic understanding of strategies for dealing with them.

Every library student probably had a Reference class where they discussed how to handle people coming in asking how to do things that might, or might not, be legal. Again: great. But chances are that most library staff have not had this training, and they may not even realize that some questions or situations are ethical problems. Talk about how to handle that in your organization, and what kinds of parameters are appropriate for you.

  • What is going to be appropriate in a research university library, or a specialized historical archive, may not be appropriate in a grade school library. Talk about problems that may come up in your location. And talk about WHY these decisions are made.
  • If your circulation staff think you are just mean by not allowing them to talk to other patrons about materials someone checks out, be sure you explain the importance of privacy in our ethical codes. Your staff may only be thinking of themselves as part time clerks or shelvers; they need to understand the role they are playing in the larger world of the profession.

You also want to work through some specific strategies for handling different situations that may arise. What should they do when the police come in and ask to see a patron’s record? How should they handle a patron who offers them money to get better service? What should they say when someone asks them why pornography is allowed in the library? Some of these are in your employee procedures book (or should be!). Talking and sharing ideas, letting everyone ask questions and contribute ideas, will make the idea of ethics just a daily part of what you do in your library.

Part of training should be helping people to learn what to do when an ethical situation arises – and that should include the skill of: “do nothing, call a supervisor.” If members of the media call and want to know what your patron, who just committed a terrible and media-worthy crime, has been reading – you do not want one of your ten hour a week clerks to helpfully look it up and tell them. When a police office, or other law enforcement, comes to the Circ Desk and asks to see patron records, you want your staff to know that this is something for a manager to handle. They should know who to call: you, the evening supervisor, the Provost’s office – whoever it should be according to your procedures.

  • Emphasize that this is not a matter of you not trusting them, or of them not being capable of handling situations. Instead let them know that these situations are your responsibility to handle, and are a specific part of your job.

It can be a great option to bring in some outside people to handle your ethics training. Talk to your parent organization – they may have people already on tap who can come and talk with you. Insurance companies can provide an assortment of training opportunities to your staff at little or no cost to you, because they want you to be good at your job and not cost them in claims. Community organizations may also have ethics training opportunities; talk with the United Way, service organizations such as the Lions, the Chamber of Commerce, or others that may either have ethics training or could provide you with some contacts. Regional LIS groups may also have training opportunities that would be specific to the needs of your organization. For some specific focus on an issue or for your geographic area, consider bringing in a consultant who can provide a half or full day of training. Go in on the cost with other libraries in the area, and you not only make LIS friends but you help to spread more training around to everyone!

And, as with any other kind of training, it is important to talk about consequences. You want to emphasize that you are not equating a specific disciplinary measure with a specific ethics violation; as with any discipline the context matters. But these are going to be regarded as serious discipline issues. This can help to reinforce the idea that ethics are not something you regard as trivial, and encourage everyone to follow the ethical procedures from their training.


Books Read

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle ”

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.”


I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong “Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light—less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.

The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.

Many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us—the microbiome—build our bodies, protect our health, shape our identities, and grant us incredible abilities. In this astonishing book, Ed Yong takes us on a grand tour through our microbial partners, and introduces us to the scientists on the front lines of discovery. It will change both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it.”



As a leader, it is particularly import for you to know and to display ethical behavior. Managers who lie, cheat, and steal show staff members that teamwork and ethical behavior are pointless; no one will get ahead in this kind of organization by following the rules and doing the right thing.

Thankfully, the opposite is also true. Managers who create an ethics-friendly organization, and who demonstrate ethical behavior even when it is the harder choice, are showing their staff how things should be done. All of this will add up to an ethics-friendly organization. And you will have yet another powerful skill for your own Manager Skill Set!

Thanks for joining us this week! And check back in with us next week to discuss Hiring and Staffing.

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