ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians

NOTE: "Standards for Ethical Conduct for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Librarians" first appeared in 1987 and was designed to amplify and supplement the ALA Code of Ethics. A second edition of the Standards was approved by ACRL in 1993. This version, recast as a simplified "Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians" with commentary, was approved by ACRL in October 2003.


Special collections librarians share fundamental values with the entire library profession. They should be thoroughly familiar with the ALA Code of Ethics and must adhere to the principles of fairness, freedom, professional excellence, and respect for individual rights expressed therein. Furthermore, special collections librarians have extraordinary responsibilities and opportunities associated with the care of cultural property, the preservation of original artifacts, and the support of scholarship based on primary research materials. At times their commitment to free access to information may conflict with their mission to protect and preserve the objects in their care. When values come into conflict, librarians must bring their experience and judgment to bear on each case in order to arrive at the best solution, always bearing in mind that the constituency for special collections includes future generations.

Other stresses arise naturally from the fact that special collections often have great monetary as well as documentary and aesthetic value. Special collections librarians must exercise extreme caution in situations that have the potential to allow them to profit personally from library-related activities. The highest standard of behavior must be maintained, as propriety is essential to the maintenance of public trust in the institution and in its staff.


Special collections librarian: An employee of a special collections library or any library staff member whose duties involve work with special collections materials. The principles in this Code relate primarily to professional staff (typically librarians, curators, archivists, and conservators), but all library staff members must be aware of the need to avoid potential and even apparent conflicts of interest.

Special collections library: A library, or an administrative unit (such as department) of a larger library, devoted to collecting, organizing, preserving, and describing special collections materials and making them accessible. Also referred to as "the institution. "

Special collections materials: The entire range of textual, graphic and artifact primary source materials in analog and digital formats, including printed books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, artworks, audio-visual materials, and realia.


I. Special collections librarians must not compete with their library in collecting or in any other activity.

II. All outside employment and professional activities must be undertaken within the fundamental premise that the special collections librarian's first responsibility is to the library, that the activity will not interfere with the librarian's ability to discharge this responsibility, and that it will not compromise the library's professional integrity or reputation.

III. Special collections librarians must not engage in any dealing or appraisal of special collections materials, and they must not recommend materials for purchase if they have any undisclosed financial interest in them.

IV. Special collections librarians must decline all gifts, loans, or other dispensations, or things of value that are available to them in connection with their duties for the library.

V. Special collections librarians may not withhold information about the library's holdings or sequester collection materials in order to further their own research and publication.

VI. Special collections librarians are responsible for protecting the confidentiality of researchers and materials as required by legal statutes, donor agreements, or policies of the library.


[Note: Articles I-V are based on Article VI of the ALA Code of Ethics ("We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions"), and Article VI is based on Article III of the ALA Code("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"). ]

I. Special collections librarians sometimes collect personally, as well as on behalf of their library. Personal collecting can add to the librarian's understanding of a collecting area and the marketplace for special collections materials. Consequently, personal collecting should not be discouraged. However, special collections librarians should disclose their personal collecting activity to their employer, especially when their collecting area coincides with that of the institution. When such coincidence occurs, the special collections librarian must not compete with the library, must not build his or her personal collection at the expense of the institution's collection, and must be diligent in distinguishing items acquired for the institution's collection from items acquired for the personal collection. In all instances, special collections librarians should conduct their personal collecting in a manner that avoids impropriety and prevents any appearance thereof.

II. Some forms of outside employment by librarians, such as teaching, lecturing, writing, and consulting, are conducive to professional development and benefit the library as well. Librarians have a primary responsibility to their institutions, and such employment must not interfere in any way with their principal duties. Since librarians engaged in independent outside employment may still be regarded as institutional representatives, their conduct should not compromise the library's reputation. Special collections librarians are encouraged to divulge all outside employment to the administration of their library.

III. "Dealing" is here defined as the regular purchase, sale, or trade of special collections materials for profit or other personal gain. "Appraisal" is here defined as the formal determination of the monetary value of special collections materials. Informal assessment and the valuation of such materials for internal administrative purposes are not considered appraisal. This provision grows out of the previous one and recognizes that potential conflicts of interest may arise when special collections librarians profit from the same materials they curate.

IV. All acquisitions decisions must be based on the professional judgment of the librarian, with due consideration given to the objectives and policies of the institution. While close relationships between librarians, dealers, and collectors are desirable, it is imperative that conflicts of interest do not arise. Conflicts clearly result when special collections librarians accept substantial gifts, loans, entertainment, or personal discounts from dealers, vendors, or donors. The issue of whether any entertainment should be accepted from these sources is problematic, and so librarians must make a judgment in each case as to whether the appearance of improper influence might result. Institutional policies regarding the acceptance of gifts or entertainment must also be observed. Special collections librarians should consider salaries and benefits provided by their institution to be the sole and complete remuneration for the performance of their duties.

V. Personal research by special collections librarians should be encouraged since it furthers professional development and institutional aims. However, a librarian should not withhold information about library holdings from the public at large in order to further personal research. The library's rules for access and use must be applied and enforced equally, according to the terms of the ALA/SAA Joint Statement on Access to Original Research Materials. Special collections librarians are encouraged to obtain approval for anything other than incidental use of institutional facilities, staff, or equipment for personal research.

VI. The special collections professional must heed all laws and contractual agreements protecting the privacy and confidentiality of researchers and materials in the custody of the repository. Failure to do so can expose the custodial institution to significant legal penalties, as well as undermine confidence that donors and sellers place in the institution. The nature of the information protected and the duration of protection are specified in federal and state laws addressing privacy and confidentiality of information. Other restrictions are the result of negotiations between donors and sellers on the one hand and repositories on the other. The terms of these restrictions imposed by donor or institution are not dictated by statute but are legally binding. Special collections librarians must take care to honor those terms, but they should also refuse to impose or accept restrictions that severely diminish the research value of materials being acquired.


One of the most important functions of a professional association is to define the shared values of its members by creating a written code of ethics. This code of ethics should not only be observed by special collections librarians but must also be reflected in the policies and procedures of their institutions. Educators should incorporate the code of ethics into the curriculum when appropriate, and the code should guide administrators in the recruitment and training of staff. Special collections librarians should also make donors, vendors, and allied professional associations aware of the code. To remain vital, these principles of conduct must be integrated into the life of the profession.

Related Documents

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (Adopted June 28, 1997)

ALA-SAA Joint Statement on Access: Guidelines for Access to Original Research Materials (August, 1994)