Back to Top
Top Nav content Site Footer
University Home


Standards for Ethical Conduct for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Librarians

With Guidelines for Institutional Practice in Support of the Standards, 2d edition, 1992

(These standards were published in College and Research Library News (C&RLNews) 54:4, April 1993; also issued in a separate printing, June 1994)

Standards for ethical conduct for rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians" was approved as policy by the ACRL Board of Directors on January 18, 1987, and published in C&RLNews, v. 48 (March 1987), pp. 134-35. The statement was designed, as is this revision, to amplify and supplement the Code of Ethics adopted by the American Library Association (ALA Policy 54.16). Since the ethical conduct of individuals must be supported by the institutional context in which they work, this revision of the standards is accompanied by a set of guidelines for institutional practice in support of the standards.

The Standards for Ethical Conduct and accompanying Guidelines are intended to make known to the public and to the profession the principles which guide the actions of rare book, manuscript, and special collections librarians and libraries. The two statements exist to assist decision and actions, not only by members of the profession and the agencies they serve, but also by all those who are concerned with institutional stewardship of culturally significant properties.

These statements serve the rare book, manuscript, and special collections community in a number of important ways. The "Standards for Ethical Conduct for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Librarians" constitute a code of individual conduct covering difficult ethical issues such as conflict of interest and staff activities in areas of collecting, dealing, and appraising. The accompanying "Guidelines for Institutional Practice in Support of the Standards" recognize that individual conduct takes place in an institutional context. By calling to the attention of curators and administrators the need to develop institutional policies and procedures, the Guidelines should assist them in creating an institutional climate conducive to ethical conduct and in responding in an ethical manner to situations such as the occurrence of theft and forgery. The Guidelines address points of ethical importance specific to special collections libraries rather than general matters of effective library administration. In each statement, general principles are followed by points of consideration encompassed by the broader concept.

Libraries which are responsible for the care of rare books, manuscripts, and special collections maintain them in many administrative patterns, ranging from the part-time assignment of a librarian who has other primary duties to the establishment and maintenance of separate divisions or even entire self-contained libraries with the care of special collections as their sole function. These special collections libraries are known by many names, from treasure room to research center. The term "special collections library" is used throughout this document to refer to all these administrative patterns and names.

The bodies responsible for the governance and administration of libraries have as varied a set of names as the libraries themselves. Throughout this document "the library," "libraries," etc., should be understood to stand for "the body responsible for the governance and administration of the library." Whenever a statement such as "procedures must be established" is used, it is this body which is responsible.

The terms "library materials," "collections," "rare books and manuscripts," and so on, refer to the whole range of graphic and nongraphic records, including rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, art works, artifacts, and other objects, which are maintained in special collections libraries.

The term "library director" should be understood to stand for the person in charge of the library as a whole.

The term "special collections librarian" is used in this document to denote a person employed in a special collections library. Most of the points discussed relate directly to actions usually performed by professional staff only but all persons working in such libraries share the obligation to follow ethical standards.

I. Standards of Ethical Conduct for Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Librarians

Special collections librarians hold positions of trust involving special responsibilities for promoting scholarship by preserving and providing access to the records of knowledge in their care. Such librarians, in implementing the policies of their institutions, must accept and discharge these responsibilities to the best of their abilities for the benefit of their institutions and the publics those institutions serve.

The maintenance of public trust is essential to the effective function of a special collections library and special collections librarians must scrupulously avoid weakening this trust. They must act with integrity, assiduously avoiding activities which could in any way compromise them or the institutions for which they work. They must particularly guard against personal conduct or procedures within their libraries which may lead to conflict of interest--a condition which arises when an employee\'s personal or financial interest conflicts or appears to conflict with that employee\'s official responsibility. Special collections librarians should not reverse, alter, or suppress their professional judgment in order to conform to a management decision, but they must be accountable for making themselves familiar with and adhering to institutional policies as well as applicable laws.

It is in the public interest and the institution\'s interest that special collections librarians engage in the full range of professional and personal scholarly activities. However, in doing so, librarians must remember that their first responsibility is to carry out fully and conscientiously the duties of the position held in the library. Special collections librarians must avoid actual or potential conflicts of interest and misuse of the library\'s name, reputation, or property.

These Standards for Ethical Conduct are designed to help in the application of these principles to situations in which extraordinary care must be taken to avoid conflicts of interest. The standards identify certain categories of activity, such as dealing, which are unethical because by their very nature they cannot avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. In other areas of conduct, where judgment is required to guide individual behavior, the standards are illustrative, not comprehensive. The standards assume that the librarian will act in accordance with the spirit as well as the letter of this document.

Personal collecting

The acquiring, collecting, and owning of books and manuscripts by special collections librarians is not in itself unethical. These activities can enhance professional knowledge and judgment and are not to be discouraged. Ethical questions can arise, however, in personal collecting. Extreme care is required whenever a librarian collects items similar to those being acquired by the institution and some institutions will choose to restrict or prohibit personal collecting. Special collections librarians must keep the appropriate administrative personnel of the library informed in a timely way about their personal collections and collecting activities.

In the course of personal collecting activities, special collections librarians may wish to make occasional sales or trades to upgrade their collection or may wish to dispose of a collection en bloc. Because questions of title and conflict of interest may be raised by such sales or trades, it is incumbent upon the librarian to inform the library administration of proposed sales and trades and to present to any potential purchaser evidence of clear title or, failing the existence of a title document, a personal affidavit affirming ownership.

Special collections librarians must not use their library affiliation to promote any personal collecting activities. They must not, for example, take advantage of discounts offered on their own purchases in return for institutional orders.

Special collections librarians must not compete with their institution, in fact or in appearance, in any personal collecting activity. The library\'s collecting needs always come first.

Extraordinary care must be taken to avoid any possible confusion between personal and institutional collecting. To this end, personal orders for books or other items of the kind collected by the library must be placed from a home or other nonlibrary address and invoiced and delivered to that address. In addition, great care must be taken to avoid any possible confusion of ownership. Only those personal books and similar items which special collections librarians find necessary to their work should be brought into their offices. Each item should be marked for personal identification before introduction into the library, and inspected when brought in and when removed.

Personal Dealing

Special collections librarians must avoid any activity which appears or has the potential to place their personal gain above the best interests of the employing institution. Therefore, it is unethical for special collections librarians to engage in any dealing of books, manuscripts, and other library materials.

Dealing is here defined as the regular purchase, sale, or trade of library materials for profit. Upgrading of a personal collection (see previous section) is not dealing. Special collections librarians must also not be party to the recommending of materials for purchase by institutions or collectors if they have any undisclosed financial interest in these materials, nor may they accept any commission or undisclosed or otherwise compromising gift from any seller or buyer of such materials.


Appraisal is here defined as the determination of the monetary value of an item or collection of items. Valuation of materials for internal administrative purposes is not considered appraisal.

In the course of working with donors, special collections librarians are often required to advise on market value of books and manuscripts. Although it is proper to assist in the use of reference tools for this purpose, special collections librarians must not appraise any rare book, manuscript, or special collections materials, either for compensation or pro bono. Identification, authentication, and description (areas related to appraisal), when pursued as outside activities, must be subject to clearly defined library policy.

See also "Advice on authenticity or market value" in Part II.

Gifts, Favors, Discounts, and Dispensations

Special collections librarians must not accept gifts, loans, or other dispensations, or things of value that are available to them in connection with their duties for the institution. Salaries together with standard related benefits should be considered complete remuneration for all library-related activities. Gifts include discounts on personal purchases from suppliers who sell items or furnish services to the library, except where such discounts regularly are offered to the general public.

Personal gifts may originate from individuals who have a potential financial or other interest in the library. In such instances the librarian is obliged to disclose the circumstances fully to the library director.

Personal Research, Outside Employment and Consulting, Including Teaching, Lecturing, Writing, and Other

Creative Activities

Special collections librarians have the same right as other professional persons to engage in personal research and outside employment in accordance with announced institutional and library policy statements.

Personal Research

Personal research and publishing by special collections librarians is to be encouraged in the institutional interest of furthering scholarship in fields supported by the library's holdings. It is not unethical for a librarian to use the library's research holdings for personal research and publication on the same terms as others using the same holdings. Any perception of possible conflict of interest can be avoided by making this activity known publicly or by notification to the proper administrative authority. It is, however, unethical for a librarian to make use of special personal access to, or nonpublic information about, the library's research holdings to further personal research and publication in unfair competition with members of the public research community.

The proprietary interest of both library and librarian in copyrights, royalties, and similar properties should be in conformity with stated general institutional policy.

Outside Employment

All outside employment activity must be undertaken within the fundamental premise that the 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. Reference to the librarian's official position within the library should be avoided or made only sparingly in connection with outside activities.

Certain types of outside employment, including teaching, lecturing, writing, and consulting, can be of benefit to both the institution and the employee by stimulating professional development. Consequently, special collections librarians should be encouraged in these activities. In academic institutions, policies often regulate outside employment and consulting by faculty and staff; special collections librarians should be governed by these same policies.

Special collections librarians often will be considered representatives of their institutions while they are engaged in activities or duties similar to those they perform for their library, even though their work may be wholly independent of the institution. In other instances a librarian\'s activities outside the institution may bear little relation to the functioning of a library. In either case, special collections librarians must disclose to the library director or other appropriate superior the facts concerning any planned outside employment or consulting arrangements.

Personal Use of Library Resources

Prior approval must be obtained for any contemplated use of the library's research facilities, staff assistance, or property such as stationery, telephones, copying machines, computer time, or objects from the collections in connection with outside efforts. Arrangements should also be made to reimburse the institution for such use under the guidance of institutional policy.

No special collections librarian should use at home any object or item that is part of the library\'s collections or under the guardianship of the library and which is not normally made available for home use by members of the public, or use any other property, supplies, or resources of the library except for the official business of the institution. To the extent that circumstance or special policies warrant exceptions, the circumstances or policies should be a matter of written record.


Special collections librarians, whose work involves knowledge of the work of researchers, the library\'s relations with donors and booksellers, and other matters of a confidential nature, must exercise care in respecting the privacy of this information.

In accordance with American Library Association policy (S52.4, Confidentiality of Library Records), special collections librarians must keep confidential information about the activities and research of their readers which they gain in performance of their duties. Exceptions may be made to this provision in cases where, for the advancement of scholarship, the reader has signed a written agreement to waive any claim to confidentiality in general or in specific instances.

II. Guidelines for Institutional Practice in Support of the Standards

The governing body of a special collections library is responsible for acting ethically toward the library\'s collections, staff, readers, donors, and the world of scholarship, with due care for the preservation of the library\'s reputation. It must create and maintain a climate of ethical conduct within the library, promulgate standards of ethical conduct, both institutional and individual, and take responsibility for compliance with these standards.

Enunciation of Policies

The library must clearly state its standards of ethical conduct and make them known to all staff; it must develop and promulgate procedures for the resolution of questions of unethical conduct. Particular aspects of professional conduct which should be addressed in these standards include personal collecting, personal dealing, appraisals and authentications, gifts and other favors, personal research and outside employment, and confidentiality, which are discussed in detail above in Part I. Where institutional policies or legal restrictions exist governing matters within the purview of such standards, these must be included in the policy statements of each library.

The Collections

Special collections libraries derive their unique identity from their collections, and the primary duties of these libraries are the safeguarding and development of and the provision of access to these essential elements of our cultural fabric. The libraries\' responsibility to their collections is paramount.

Access to the Collections

The library must provide reasonable access to the collections on a nondiscriminatory basis in accordance with pertinent professional standards governing access policies and procedures. To the fullest extent permissible by donor and legal requirements, library access policies should further the goals of scholarship for which the collections are maintained.

The library must insure the intellectual accessibility of its holdings by the application of professionally accepted standards of cataloging and the free exchange of information about the collections. The library must maintain information about the collections in as free and open a manner as possible.

Special collections libraries may regulate access to the collections according to established and stated policies. In formulating such policies, the following considerations are relevant In accordance with the principle of nondiscriminatory access, the library may not deny or limit access on the basis of the perceived scholarly merit or appropriateness of a researcher\'s work.

The library may not reserve materials exclusively for the use of individual scholars except where required by a donor\'s condition of gift or where such a reservation has been imposed by the holder of the copyrights in the material as a condition of acquisition. Where the library itself is the holder of the copyright, it should refrain from exclusive reservation of materials for the use of individual scholars. The library should attempt to persuade donors and/or copyright holders to refrain from requiring exclusive reservation for individual scholars or other undue restrictions on access to materials under its control and should weigh carefully any decision to acquire materials accompanied by such restrictions.

The library may deny or limit access if it would impair the physical or intellectual integrity and safety of an item or collection.

The library may deny or limit access to meet conditions imposed by the donor as part of the acquisition agreement or for other legal reasons. When providing access not only to original materials in its own collections but to photocopies of or other surrogates for original items which are the property of others, the special collections library should be mindful both of copyright and of the property rights of the owners of the physical original, informing readers of their obligation to seek permission both from copyright holders, where relevant, and from the institutions that own the originals from which any copies have been made, before undertaking publication or other public use of such materials.

Security of the Collections

Special collections libraries have as a primary responsibility the safeguarding of their materials. The institution of policies and procedures to protect and preserve the materials is an institutional responsibility of the highest order. The physical integrity of the materials must be protected; the materials guarded against theft, defacement, alteration, and physical damage; and measures taken to insure that their integrity and meaning are not impaired in consequence of conservation treatment, arrangement, or use.

General Physical Care

Procedures must be established for the general and special maintenance of the collections to insure that they are preserved unimpaired for the future, including the following:

  • Regular evaluation of storage and handling procedures to protect the material against damage.
  • Regular evaluation of standards of conservation treatment.
  • Regular monitoring of environmental and safety conditions.
  • Education and supervision of readers and staff in the handling of materials.
  • Establishment of policies and practices to minimize damage to materials from photoreproduction, lending, and exhibition.

Disaster Planning

Senior staff and emergency preparedness personnel should develop and regularly review plans to prevent, prepare for, deal with, and recover from disasters. The library should insure that staff are thoroughly familiar with these plans and should make appropriate sections of these plans known to emergency preparedness personnel such as institutional maintenance departments, fire and police departments.

Theft Prevention

Special collections libraries must guard their materials against theft by developing, evaluating, and regularly reviewing physical and procedural safeguards against theft. In addition to physical and procedural security against theft by outsiders, policies and procedures which guard against both the suspicion and the actuality of insider theft must be established and put in practice. The following institutional practices are fundamental to theft prevention:

  • Separation of responsibility for order and receipt of materials, payment, and accounting, so that no single staff member controls all procedures.
  • Maintenance of clear and scrupulously accurate records of all such transactions, open to inspection by responsible senior staff and administration.
  • Compliance by all staff, including volunteers, with security measures comparable to those applied to the public in regard to entering and leaving the library and the storage and inspection of personal possessions such as books, coats, briefcases, and other containers.
  • Maintenance of strict control over keys and entry to the library, with the issue of keys, keycards, and access codes restricted to a minimum number of designated responsible senior library staff only, and all entries and departures outside hours of opening documented.
  • Maintenance of proper bibliographic control, including employment of copy-specific catalog descriptions and recorded markings which make the materials unmistakably identifiable.
  • Regular performance of inventories.

Response to Theft and Forgery

Special collections libraries victimized by thieves, forgers, and other criminal traders, either as the targets of theft or the unwitting purchasers or recipients of stolen or forged materials, must do all in their power to stop further illicit practices. Special collections libraries must not knowingly acquire materials which have been stolen or imported in contravention of applicable law.

Special collections libraries must vigorously investigate allegations of external or internal theft of library resources as well as allegations that library materials may be forgeries and, where it is justified, seek public prosecution. Special collections libraries must be prepared to publicize known thefts and proven forgeries, to cooperate with law enforcement agencies in the identification and prosecution of thieves and forgers, and to work cooperatively with other libraries and the antiquarian trade in the recovery of stolen materials, in efforts to make known the existence and location of stolen materials, and in facilitating the return of the materials to their rightful owners.Special collections libraries must prepare and regularly review contingency plans to deal with any theft which may occur. Institutions should establish chains of authority for handling relations with law enforcement and press, establish contacts with appropriate law enforcement agencies, and make plans for necessary public dissemination of information, including alerting of booksellers and other libraries.

Development of the Collections

The special collections library should develop and make public a statement of its policies regarding the acquisition and disposal of items. Collection development policies and practices must be designed to improve the quality of the collections, providing clear guidelines while remaining flexible enough to permit effective response to unexpected opportunities. While the governing body bears final responsibility for the collections, including both acquisition and disposal, writing the collection development statement and rigorously assessing the pertinence of items to the collections or the library\'s programs should be the responsibility of the special collections librarian in consultation with appropriate collection development staff.

Additions to the Collections

Materials collected by the special collections library should be relevant to the library\'s purposes and activities and consistent with the collection development policy.

Particular care should be taken to insure that records of ownership and of any conditions agreed to at the time of acquisition are maintained. For full legal and ethical protection of the library and any other parties concerned, the types of records to be maintained and the forms of instruments of conveyance and other documentation to be employed should be developed in consultation with legal counsel.

The library should retain clear and detailed records of purchase of materials and insure that donated materials are accompanied by an appropriate document transferring title, preferably unrestricted, but with any limitations clearly described in the instrument of conveyance. It should take particular care to insure that materials accepted "on deposit" are accompanied by clear documentation of ownership, any conditions of deposit, and the rights and responsibilities of both library and owner, and that the documentation includes agreement of ownership and provision for disposition of the materials in case of abandonment.

In the light of the particular problems of sensitivity and confidentiality which may arise in connection with oral histories and other individual testimonies, the library should make sure these are collected only under the terms of clear written agreements controlling access to and use of such materials.

Deaccession of Materials from the Collections

In the deaccession of rare books and manuscripts, the special collections library must weigh carefully the interests of the public for which it holds the collections in trust, the interests of the scholarly and cultural community, and the institution\'s own mission. The institution must consider any legal restrictions, the necessity for possession of valid title, and the donor\'s intent in the broadest sense.

Procedures for the deaccession or disposal of materials must be at least as rigorous as those for purchasing and should be governed by the same basic principles. The decision to dispose of library materials must be made only after full and scrupulous consideration of the public interest and the needs of researchers; the process of deaccession should be carried out in as open and public a manner as possible.

Mandatory restrictions on disposition which accompanied a donation must be observed unless it can be shown clearly by appropriate legal procedures that adherence to them is impossible or substantially detrimental to the institution. When statements of donor\'s preferences accompanied the acquisition, any departure from them must be carefully considered and negotiated with the donor or the donor\'s heirs or settled by appropriate legal procedures.

Responsibility to the needs and reputation of the library requires that, in preparing for and accomplishing any deaccession, the special collections library must take care to define and publicly state the purpose of the deaccession and the intended use of monetary or other proceeds of the deaccession, to avoid any procedure which may detract from the library\'s reputation for honesty and responsible conduct, and to carry out the entire process in a way which will not detract from public perception of its responsible stewardship. The following points must be taken into consideration The library must insure that the method of deaccession will result in furthering the agreed purpose of the deaccession, whether this be monetary gain or more appropriate placement of scholarly resources.

The deaccessioning library must disclose to the potential new owner or intermediary agent any action, such as the retention of a photocopy of the material, which may affect the monetary or scholarly value of the material.

To the fullest extent possible, the library must make public information on the disposition of deaccessioned materials.

The library must not allow materials from its collections to be acquired privately by any library employee, officer, or volunteer, unless they are sold publicly and with complete disclosure of their history.

Due consideration should be given to the library community in general when disposing of items. Sales to, or exchanges between, institutions should be explored as well as disposal through the trade.

Library-Donor Relations

Written policies governing relationships with donors must be provided to both staff and potential donors, governing such matters as authentication, referral to appraisers, and provision of information about tax regulations concerning donations.

See also the section on responsibility to donors in case of deaccession of donated materials (above) and the section on appraisals in Part I.

Advice on Authenticity or Market Value

Potential donors and others often seek guidance on the authenticity or market value of books and manuscripts. It is proper to assist the owner of materials in the use of reference tools for these purposes, but libraries must ensure that librarians exercise due caution when offering further advice, characterizing it as informed opinion only and explicitly warning against employing it in place of professional appraisal. Caution must be exercised in giving written certification of the authenticity or authorship of specific materials beyond the ordinary nonbinding statements made in the course of cataloging or normal reference work.

Tax Matters

United States Internal Revenue Service regulations prohibit librarians from acting as appraisers of materials given to their institutions. While donors may be helped to find expert appraisers and tax advisers, special collections libraries must make certain to avoid any appearance of collusion with potential donors to bypass provisions of the law regarding gifts. (Note: Librarians from other countries should consult the appropriate legal codes of their own countries for similar restrictions which may govern the provision of information on valuation, authenticity, and the like.)


Special collections libraries should avoid any appearance of collusion or favoritism by requiring librarians to provide, whenever possible, more than one name in referring potential donors or other inquirers to appraisers, booksellers, and other persons who may be of assistance to them.

The Book Trade

Libraries and the book trade share a long tradition of mutually beneficial cooperation in building collections and a common concern for their preservation. Libraries and librarians must conduct all business with booksellers and vendors in an open and ethical manner.

Libraries whose budgetary constraints require that payments for goods or services be deferred to a future time should discuss these constraints with booksellers and vendors before acquisition processes are initiated or materials are ordered "on approval." Libraries which hold materials "on approval" or under exclusive offer have a responsibility to reach acquisition decisions quickly; they should also make certain that payment procedures, to the extent that these lie within their control, are as expeditious as possible.

Libraries which choose to dispose of deaccessioned materials by sale or trade to dealers rather than by public auction should offer them to a number of dealers for bid, wherever feasible. Institutional fiduciary responsibilities must outweigh library-dealer relationships that could permit the appearance or the reality of favoritism.

Libraries should respect the property rights of booksellers whose materials they have under consideration, handling the materials carefully, not making photocopies without permission of the bookseller, and making sure that material to be returned is packed securely and returned promptly and safely.

Objectivity and Authenticity

The library must be scrupulous in the observance of objectivity in its provision of information about its collections and in the accuracy of its attestations of the authenticity of its materials.

Institutional practices must be designed so that exhibitions, publications, and public information are presented honestly and objectively. The stated origin of an item or attribution of a work must reflect thorough investigation and must promptly be changed in the event of accurate challenge. Library exhibitions and publications routinely address a wide variety of social, political, artistic, or scientific issues. Exhibitions from whatever source and on any subject can be appropriate, if approached objectively and without prejudice.

Special collections libraries must take special care in the representation and identification of forgeries and facsimiles. Items known or proven to be forgeries must be clearly identified as such. Special collections libraries which knowingly acquire forgeries must do so only for use, study, and display as forgeries.

In arranging for the manufacture and sale of facsimiles, reproductions, or other commercial items adapted from items in a library\'s collections, all aspects of the commercial venture must be carried out in a manner that will not discredit either the integrity of the library or the intrinsic value of the original object. Care must be taken to identify reproductions permanently for what they are, to record their source and degree of completeness, and to insure the accuracy and high quality of their manufacture.

Final approvals of these Standards were made at the 1993 Midwinter Meeting in Denver, When the ALA Ethics Committee, the ACRL Standards Committee, the ALA Standards Committee, and the ACRL Board of Directors approved the document. The statement supersedes the standards adopted in 1987.

Copyright 2003, American Library Association

Permalink Last updated 01/06/2017 by R. Davidson

How can we help you?

Back to Top