An ethical framework for professional practice

Case study


Ethical Behaviour


Code of Ethics


Freedom of access to information has long been regarded as one of the key values of librarianship. As modern political contexts can present the individual library and information professional with ethical challenges regarding access to information, the library association plays an important role in developing a collective position on professional values and articulating this through a code of ethics. The Canadian Library Association (CLA) Code of Ethics is presented as an example of a professional statement that reflects fundamental national and societal values.

Key Ideas

As you read the case study, think about the following issues:

  1. The distinctions between ethical codes and legal codes
  2. How a code of ethics reflects the values of a profession
  3. How a code of ethics relates to society’s values
  4. How being a member of a library association shapes your actions as a professional
  5. What are the benefits of being a member of a library association?


‘Ethics’ has been referred to as a branch of philosophical enquiry that relates to the “choices made and the actions undertaken by the individual and how these impact on wider society” (McMenemy, Poulter & Burton, 2007, p.1). Ethical issues and legal issues may, on occasion, intersect; however the distinction lies in the fact that ethics are enforced by the individual’s own conscience, while laws are enforced by the powers of the government and its agencies. The work of librarians involves providing people with the information they need, but, of course, the duties and responsibilities of librarians will be quite different in the different types of libraries which serve very different clients, such as public, academic or special libraries.

In recent years, however, there have been increasing situations where legislation is passed that attempts to limit the traditional and historical freedoms of citizens. The provisions of the Patriot Act 2001 in the USA and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006 in the United Kingdom potentially impact on the privacy of library patrons and restrict their access to information. Since September 11, governments have taken a more robust interest in what citizens are doing, with the desire to scrutinise and limit their activities. Legislation can be used, for example, to obtain library users’ borrowing records and to carry out surveillance in libraries. The President of CILIP noted that the library profession had a responsibility to help protect society against terrorism, but noted that “we have a duty of client confidentiality and so we cannot collude with fishing expeditions by the authorities” (McMenemy, Poulter & Burton, 2007, p.10).

Issues relating to access and privacy represent one of the major ethical challenges for library and information professionals today. Key ethical questions include:

  • How much control should an individual have over the information that pertains to them?
  • Does an individual have the right to access any piece of information he or she needs?
  • Is there a duty to make certain information inaccessible when appropriate?
  • Is there a duty to make information accessible and findable?

These topics represent some of the practical challenges facing library staff and often infer a range of ethical choices that may be considered.


The right of access to information is an essential tenet of librarianship: “human beings have a fundamental right to access to expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity, and to express their views publicly” (IFLA, 1999). This statement echoes the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom of access to information is regarded as one of the central shared values of the profession While this shared value is reflected in many professional codes of ethics, it is particularly important in the code of the Canadian Library Association (CLA). Intellectual freedom, which inherently includes the principle of free and universal access to information, is “the foundation on which the CLA’s ethical framework is built and shaped” (Samek, 2002, p.37). The CLA’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom was originally released in 1966, but underwent a number of revisions before being adopted in 1974. The Position Statement on Code of Ethics was published in 1976 as the accompanying ethical framework. Compared to many codes of ethics, the CLA document is succinct: “a straightforward set of four numbered statements” (McMenemy, Poulter and Boulton, 2007, p.31). Members of the Canadian Library Association have the individual and collective responsibility to:

1. “Support and implement the principles and practices embodied in the current Canadian Library Association Statement on Intellectual Freedom;
2. Make every effort to promote and maintain the highest possible range and standards of library service to all segments of Canadian society;
3. Facilitate access to any or all sources of information which may be of assistance to library users;
4. Protect the privacy and dignity of library users and staff.”
(CLA, 1976)

The Statement on Intellectual Freedom is appended to the Code, to address the issues relating to equity of access, ensuring a broad coverage of materials, and the need to resist attacks on the premise of intellectual freedom:

“All persons in Canada have the fundamental right, as embodied in the nation’s Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity, and to express their thoughts publicly. This right to intellectual freedom, under the law, is essential to the health and development of Canadian society.

Libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom. It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials.

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library’s public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them. Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups.

Both employees and employers in libraries have a duty, in addition to their institutional responsibilities, to uphold these principles.”
(CLA, 1985)

These two linked documents are seen to define the place of libraries and librarians in Canadian society – “a society derived from a rich and varied racial, religious and cultural heritage” (Samek, 2002, p.41). Critics have noted, however, that while the Code of Ethics applies to individual members of the CLA, the Statement on Intellectual Freedom is aimed at institutions, ie libraries.

The CLA has developed a range of resources and toolkits that are designed to help librarians interpret and contextualise the principles, for example for library services for older adults, for people with disabilities, for linguistic and ethnic minorities, or for specific dimensions of service such as Internet and database access. There have also been briefings prepared for the Canadian government on various aspects of information access. In this way, the CLA is acknowledged to play a key role as “an agent of democracy, through development and maintenance of intellectual freedom” (Samek, 2002, p.53) in Canada.


‘Equity of access’ does not necessarily mean, however, ‘equal access for all’. Libraries of all types have financial constraints, so there is no possible way that a library could ever grant access to all the world’s knowledge. This is regarded as a particular problem in the developing world, where access to information is an essential component of a country’s development into a knowledge economy, as well as to the citizen’s ability to pose informed questions about government decisions. Economic, political and legislative pressures continue to challenge librarians. Library associations play an important role to advocate on the ethical dimensions of professional issues and to fight for the ethical principles that have traditionally guided the profession. Professional codes of ethics embody a set of principles for librarians to consider; they do not offer any direct guidance to inform practice. For many ethical dilemmas there may be no right or wrong answer, but there are likely to be some options that may offer more favourable outcomes than others. A library association can develop effective strategies to enable library and information professionals to collectively support and promote society’s values. At the local level, library policies can directly reflect the principles articulated in the library association’s codes and position statements to ensure that the profession’s values are clearly communicated to the wider community.


  1. Does your library association have a code of ethics? If not, is there an umbrella association that has a code of ethics that your association draws on?
  2. What does the code of ethics address?
  3. Do you believe that it is important to have a code of ethics? Why – or why not?
  4. Do you think that national or cultural characteristics can be reflected in an association’s code of ethics?
  5. Do you think it is valuable to review a code of ethics on a regular basis?

Case Notes

Resource: Case study
Country: Canada
Region: North America
Agency: Canadian Library Association (CLA)
Topic: Code of ethics
Keywords: code, ethics, conduct, professional values


Canadian Library Association (CLA). (1976). Position statement on code of ethics. Available online:

Canadian Library Association (CLA). (1985). Position statement on intellectual freedom. Available online:

IFLA (1999). IFLA statement on libraries and intellectual freedom. Available online:

McMenemy, D., Poulter, A. & Burton, P.F. (2007). A handbook of ethical practice: A practical guide to dealing with ethical issues in library and information work. London: Chandos.

Samek, T. (2002). Ethics and the Canadian Library Association: Building on a philosophical foundation of intellectual freedom. In R.W. Vaagen (Ed.), The ethics of librarianship: An international survey, pp.35-58. IFLA Publications 101. Munich: K.G.Saur

Associations, Building Strong Library Associations

Last update: 21 October 2012