Trust, Privacy and our Ethical Principles

January 5, 2018

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By Dawn Finch, author, librarian, and CILIP Trustee

This blog was originally created as part of a briefing pack for the #DataPrivacyNY study trip, examining the theme of online data privacy and public libraries. Further blogs on the topic can be found here and more information about the wider project can be found here.


One of the things most often said about librarians is that they are trusted. Surveys show that librarians are regarded as one of the most trusted professionals in our communities, second only to nurses. I firmly believe that the bedrock of this trust is the set of ethical principles around which we have built our careers. Among other things, they demonstrate that we have a commitment to the public good in all professional matters, including respect for diversity within society, and the promoting of equal opportunities and human rights, but our concern in this digital age is even wider. A key element of our ethical principles must also now cover how we handle data, and the privacy we can afford our library users – be they corporate or private individuals.

This presents us with a dilemma – how can we balance the right to privacy with the requirements of national security?  This is why membership of a professional organisation becomes increasingly important. Librarians are all too often lone or sole workers and therefore face pressure to breach their ethical principles. Membership of a larger professional body can offer a librarian support that they might not otherwise have.

The world of libraries has changed dramatically in the last decade, and this means that our ethical principles must be regularly reviewed and refreshed to ensure that they are fit for an evolving working environment. We do, of course, face potential issues when our principles of data protection and privacy may conflict with national policies of data handling and protection, but librarians have always navigated these difficult waters. 21st Century data is so easily leaked and shared, warped and distorted, and librarians have adapted quickly and demonstrated that they are still the ones able to identify the difference between what is real, and what is fake.

Some have suggested that in a world of completely open data there is no need for the librarian and their ethical principles. That it is up to the individual to navigate this world, and that it is archaic to suggest that people require help doing so. I disagree. In a world where we are bombarded on a daily basis with uncountable gigabytes of data, and also with biased reporting and often outright lies, having someone in our community (be that virtual or physical community) who can be trusted is essential. A librarian who has sworn to uphold truth and privacy is not a dated concept, in fact it is the very cornerstone of every successful 21st century community.

A key example of how increasingly important it is to have trusted people in our communities can be seen in the Books on Prescription scheme in public libraries. This is a UK health initiative whereby doctors can advise their patients on which books may help them with their conditions. This relies on the patient being able to enter a library with a prescription that essentially outlines their medical condition. The success of this scheme depends on the patient being able to completely trust the librarian with the most private information. This is a scheme that has already helped thousands of people in the UK and is growing rapidly. For this to work the patient has to know with absolute certainty that their personal information will not only remain private, but that the librarian will handle it in a completely non-judgemental way.

Being trusted is what sets a librarian aside from many other people in our communities, and in a world where people feel their trust in the media and politicians is declining, this feeling of trust in our librarians is something to be nurtured and supported. To me, the ethical principles set out by professional bodies like CILIP and the ALA, are more than just a set of guidelines, they are a valuable public statement about who we are and what we do, and they protect both librarians, and the people they serve.


Further information

Link to survey demonstrating librarians are trusted:

Link to Books on Prescription scheme: