The Ethics of Information Provision

By Misty Smith





Table of Contents




I. Introduction

II. Quality of Service

III. Equity of Service

IV. Conflict of Interest

V. Confidentiality

VI. Personal Ethics

VII. Professional Codes of Ethics

VIII. Conclusion








Ethics are professional standards of conduct.  There are many ethical issues that librarians must deal with when providing information in libraries.  Librarians in academic and public have a responsibility to make sure the information they are giving is accurate and reliable and that they are providing this information equally to all members of the population.  Recently, a new dilemma has surfaced that has librarians questioning whether or not to provide information that could be potentially harmful to the requestor or society as a whole.  Special librarians usually are not faced with this type of dilemma because they generally serve smaller groups that have a professional or organizational association with the library.  Special libraries are different from any other library which means the librarians will face their own unique ethical problems.  This chapter will explore the ethical dilemmas special librarians must deal with in order to provide information to their users.




Quality of Information



     There are several aspects to quality of information provided to users and each aspect has its own ethical issue.  A large part of a special librarian’s job requires researching information for users.  The user is relying on the information to be accurate and from a reliable source.  The librarian should always conduct complete and careful research (Mintz 1991).  Special librarians are often the only professional in their library.  This causes the librarian to be overworked and pulled in many different directions.  When a client asks the librarian to conduct research on a topic for them and gives a deadline the librarian is faced with some ethical issues.  The easiest and least time consuming thing to do would be to conduct the research, find some kind of information and give it to the client by the deadline.  However, the librarian must ask herself if it is truly professional to present the client with information that has been thrown together in order to meet the time limit.  Sometimes it is necessary to tell the client in order to provide them with the best information available on that topic the deadline will have to be extended.  It is the duty of the librarian to provide the best available information to their users.  Doing otherwise could reflect badly on the librarian, the organization and the profession.

     Special librarians must continue their education in order to make sure they are providing information and services that are up to date.  Many librarians feel that once they have completed their degree their education is completed.  This poses a big ethical dilemma in special libraries (Hauptman 1988).  There are many responsibilities that go along with being a professional librarian.  These responsibilities include being skilled in information retrieval and research techniques.  The technology in this field changes very rapidly.  Not keeping up with these changes and learning how to utilize the new technology leads to poor and out-of-date services for users (Mintz 1991).  With an increase in technology comes the need for librarians to be aware of how to authenticate online resources and the limits of electronic resources as a whole (Diamond 2001).  This is especially important when instructing clients on how to use electronic resources and the Internet to research on their own.  Librarians should make it their responsibility to share with the users their own knowledge of limits and problems with electronic research (Diamond 2001).  Librarians should also make sure the services being offered users are current and of high quality.  This involves communicating with the vendors to make sure the library is receiving the best of what they have to offer (Mintz 1991).

     Libraries housing special collection must make sure the items in the collection are authentic.  If items are fakes or forgeries it is the responsibility of the librarian to make sure they are identified and share this information with patrons (Eberhart 2000).  The same is true for reproductions.  The librarian must not misrepresent the items in the collection.

     Special librarians are held responsible for the quality of information they provide.  The organization for which the librarian works is also held responsible.  Ethical decision regarding the quality of the information provided protects the good name of the librarian as well as the organization.



Equity of Service



      Special libraries have the advantage of being able to clearly define their users and their needs (Gorman 2000).  Many special libraries are not open to the public and serve only the members of their organization.  If they are open to the public it can be an acceptable practice to place the needs of the primary users above those of the secondary users.   This does not eliminate the problem of making sure all primary users are receiving equal services.  Special libraries are usually associated with organizations that have a hierarchy of staff.  This can cause some ethical dilemmas.  Suppose a partner of the law firm needs information for a case right away.  Earlier that same day a new attorney at the firm requested information that he feels is equally as important and also needs it as soon as possible.  The librarian is faced with a decision to put the needs of the partner above that of the new employee because the partner has more power at the firm and is regarded, in general, as being more important.  The one idea that is consistent in all professional codes of ethics is the idea of equal treatment of users regardless of status.  It would not be fair to place the needs of the partner over that of the new attorney simply because of position (Hauptman 1988).  However, sometimes it is necessary to make the decision to place the needs of the higher ranked partner above that of another employee if the decision will benefit the firm as a whole.  It is up to the librarian to recognize when this is the case.



Conflict of Interest



     Ethics are especially questioned in situations where there is a conflict of interests.  Special librarians will face many situations where there may be conflict of interests and they must rely on their professional standards and the values of the organization.

     Freelancing is an area that is very controversial in special libraries.  There may be instances when an employee of the organization approaches the librarian with the request to help them research information for a project that is unrelated to their work.  This employee may offer to pay the librarian for their time.  Through word of mouth this could potentially lead to more freelance work and quite a bit of extra income for the librarian.  There is nothing unethical about agreeing to do research for someone for pay outside of work.  However, the librarian must make sure that “outside of work” is where this freelancing remains.  The biggest problem that librarians will face with freelancing is how to avoid having it interfere with their duties at work (Hauptman 1988).  The librarian of course can’t do this outside research while at work but they must also make sure that this outside research isn’t keeping them up late at night or causing stress that could interfere with their performance at work (Hauptman 1988).  There is also the issue of using the employer’s databases to perform research even if the librarian has the intention of reimbursing the company.  The only way this is acceptable is if the librarian has permission from their supervisor (Hauptman 1988). 

     Another ethical issue that may arise involves consulting users.  Many special libraries are in law firms, medical facilities or companies.  The librarian will sometimes be asked for advice as well as information.  For example, a corporate librarian could be asked their advice on what stock to buy or a law librarian could be asked legal advice from an outside user.  A medical librarian will sometimes be asked for medical advice or even a diagnosis from patients, etc (Hauptman 1988).  Librarians must avoid giving medical or legal advice to patrons because the patron could hold the librarian and the organization responsible.  There is a thin line between guiding a user and giving out advice.  This is especially true in a medical or law library.  It is not just a poor ethical practice to give out advice it is also against the law and the librarian and the organization could be held liable (Hauptman 1988).   Librarians should never put themselves in situation where they could be at risk of legal action being taken (Mintz 1991).  Once the librarian reaches the point where the information being given is beyond facts or instruction it is necessary to recommend the patron contact someone that is trained to help them such as a doctor or lawyer (Hauptman 1988).






     All the library organizations stress the importance of protecting the client’s privacy.  In special libraries this can be a tricky situation depending on who is determined as the client, the individual or the organization?  Suppose the head of the organization wants to know what the employees are researching.  Does the employer have the right to that information or do the employees still have the right to privacy.  There is no clear way to resolve this issue.  This is an instance when the librarian will have to look at the policies and values of the organization and ultimately make the decision of what they feel is the right thing to do.  This decision should be made keeping in mind what the consequences and if the decision is fair to all those involved (Blanchard 1988).  It would be acceptable to divulge this information if the employees were aware of it, but the librarian should never make it a practice to share information with the employer without the knowledge or consent of the employee.

     The primary users in special libraries often are researching information for their own clients.  Examples are lawyers researching for clients and doctors researching for patients.  These types of situation reemphasize the importance of librarians maintaining the privacy of the clients because it extends beyond that one user in the library (Hauptman 1988).  A good librarian is always trustworthy.




Personal Ethics



     In any library situation there will be a time when the librarian is asked to provide information that disagrees with their moral values and beliefs.  Special librarians are not exempt from this just because their user groups are smaller and more defined.  There could be many instances in which a librarian’s moral and professional lives collide.  For example, suppose a lawyer asks a librarian to research information that would help him defend a person accused of a heinous crime.  The evidence against this person is overwhelming and the librarian is convinced the person is guilty and would rather not play a part in defending them.  Or suppose a corporate librarian is asked to gather all the information on a competitor that would assist the organization in a hostile takeover.  The librarian may consider actions such as these to be morally unethical and against their better judgment as a person.  If the professional codes are adhered to it calls for the librarian to remain neutral and provide the information to the client (Alfino 1997).  This does not mean that the librarian should strive to eliminate any feelings they may have about particular issues.  It simply means that librarians should be aware that these are personal feelings and they should be able to put these feelings aside in order to effectively do their job (Alfino 1997).

     Sometimes this will be difficult to do and this is when the librarian is faced with the ultimate question.  What is worth losing a job over?  Because this is what could happen if information or service is refused.  However, special librarians like any librarian must make individual decision when faced with these types of dilemmas.  They should not compromise their own principles just to do their job (Hauptman 1996).       







Professional Codes of Ethics



     When discussing ethics in the library profession it is good to be aware of the codes of ethics of the different library associations.  Professional codes of ethics are important because they can give the librarian a basis form which to make difficult decisions.  Sometimes it is difficult to provide information that may disagree with personal values and beliefs.  The codes of ethics are there to guide librarians in making decisions that support the goals and beliefs of the profession rather than making decisions based on personal values. 

     The Special Library Association does not have its own separate Code of Ethics.  This is partly because the different organizations of which the libraries are a part of usually have their own guidelines for ethical practices.  Therefore it is necessary for special librarians to be aware of the beliefs and values held by their particular organizations while at the same time practicing the behavior that is expected of library professionals.  Sometimes these two can contradict each other and this is when the librarian must decide which takes precedence, the profession or the organization.

     There are a number of other library associations and organizations that have codes of ethics.  These can provide the librarian a basis from which to make particularly difficult decisions.





Websites for guidance in professional ethics and behavior



American Library Association Code of Ethics



ASIST Professional Guidelines


American Association of Law Libraries Ethical Principles


Core Competencies of Law Librarianship


The Association of Independent Information Professionals

Code of Ethical Business Practice


Librarianship and Information Service: A Statement on Core Values


A Code of Ethics for Archivists with Commentary


Code of Ethics for Health Science Librarianship


Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century










       The purpose of this chapter has been to introduce new library professionals to some ethical dilemmas of special libraries.  Every librarian has their own set of values and beliefs they will bring with them to the job.  Professional codes of ethics have been written by several different organizations in order to guide the librarian in making ethical decisions regarding the provision of information.  Ethical decisions are not easy to make and sometimes require the librarian to put aside their own beliefs.  This is why codes have been written.  They deal only with professional behavior.  Part of being a professional requires the ability to make these ethical decisions and provide the client with the best information available.  It also means being able to discern when a professional decision conflicts too much with personal values. 








Alfino, Mark and Linda Pierce. Information Ethics for Librarians. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 1997.


Blanchard, Kenneth. The Power of Ethical Management. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988.


Diamond, Randy and Martha Dragich. (Winter 2001) “Professionalism in Librarianship: Shifting the Focus from Malpractice to Good Practice” Library Trends 49 no 3, 395-414


Eberhart, George M. Issues. The Whole Library Handbook. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.


Gorman, Michael. Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000.


Hauptman, Robert. Ethical Challenges in Librarianship. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1988.


Hauptman, Robert. (1996) “Professional responsibility reconsidered” RQ v35 n3, 327-328.

Available on Infotrac One File


Mintz, Anne. (1991) “Ethics and the news librarian” Special Libraries v82 n1, 7(5)

Available on Infotrac One File


Rubin, Richard. Ethical Aspects of Reference Service. Reference and Information Services: An Introduction. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 2001.