A Critical Look Into Archivist Ethics

Archivists, according to Schwartz & Cook, “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity over how we know ourselves as individuals, group and societies.” Based on their freedom to keep or discard records, our cultural heritage is thus molded from the remnants of these social memories. Despite their constant denial of this power, their authority influences generations beyond our time.


When authority like this is disregarded and unnoticed, it becomes detrimental to serving public interest when used to uphold private interests such as political power. The concept of neutrality in the archivist’s profession is subject to much speculation.  The “truth,” then, becomes a questionably delicate issue. In order to maintain public trust and to settle conflicts, professional standards had to be established.


In 1980, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) produced their first draft of Core Values and Code of Ethics. The role of the archivist was a transferal role from the National Archivist’s Code of Ethics published in 1955. The 1955 code presented the archivist as having a “moral obligation to society to preserve evidence of how things actually happened.” The 1980 code focused on the “professional responsibility” with its purpose to “resolve problems arising from conflict of interest.” This implied that public interest and participation were growing. The archivists had to acknowledge and cater to the public good.


The SAA code was revised in 1992, 2005, and finally in 2011. It is currently comprised of 11 Core Values and 7 Code of Ethics principles. While having guidelines like these may be beneficial, there are problematic loopholes that still need to be addressed.


The first principle emphasizes that Professional Relationships must be maintained. The archivists are called to uphold a moral and professional relationship with fellow archivists, their institutions, creators, contributors and users involved in the process.


The second, Judgment, is controversial but defines the very nature of the profession. It states that archivist use “professional judgment” when dealing with the entire process of historical and heritage preservation. There is obscene power the archivist holds over judgment of value. Caswell states that “assignation of value is the greatest expression of archival power.” Archivists deny the presence of biases, as their profession advocates objectivity and neutrality- a state Jensen ascertains is impossible. He expounds that being neutral is passive acceptance of the present therefore it cannot exist. There is no neutral ground and the only remedy is to acknowledge the reality-that the non-existence of neutrality is the source of conflicts and hinders us from growing. Archivists keep what they feel is relevant to whatever their own view of reality is. Humans are naturally selective based on their own world view. Therefore, there will always be a lack of exercising professional judgment appraising or giving value to records.


The third (Authenticity) and fourth (Security and Protection) principles go hand-in-hand when talking about digital preservation. Today’s information overload exacerbates the struggle to digitally preserve records. The problem first lies in what we choose to preserve. Cloonan asks, “Do we preserve just the information in a document or the physical object itself?” Because digital files are easily modified, or even deleted, she continues “digital texts are neither final or finite. The experience of using digital documents will be different with each new generation.” The experience of using digital documents will be different with each new generation.” This is true. Digital media files, their hardware, and software have limited lifespans. Dalbello recommends data migration-it being the popular choice of preserving data. One of the remedies she suggests is through the production of emulators. Emulators mirror the original hardware and software but make them accessible and usable in the future versions. Cloonan, however, argues that “When cultural remnants are placed into a contemporary context, something new is created.” Therefore, the authenticity, when transferring records, is taken away. Preservation, according to her, is a paradox. Anything taken out of its original place, time or context is naturally altered and therefore not authentic.


The fifth principle is Access and Use. Archives should be easily accessible, open and transparent. However, the privatization of some archives limits the public’s access historically significant files. Rosenwig contests the privatization of such institutions. Private corporations have taken over archives which should be public because it serves public interest. The government has restricted power over regulating the archives.


The sixth principle is Privacy. It states that “Archivists recognize that Privacy is sanctioned by law…Archivists promote the respectful use of culturally sensitive materials in their care by encouraging researchers to consult with communities of origin, recognizing that privacy has both legal and cultural dimensions.” The question is if this take on privacy serves the public good. An example would be Hillary Clinton’s emails. Legally, illegally obtained “evidence” is not permissible in court. Thousands of controversial emails were illegally exposed and faced public scrutiny. It should not be archived in order to protect privacy laws. However, the contents are significant and serve public interest. Should the archivists add the emails to the archive? Given that it was a big volume of communication, archivists would still have to use their judgment to nit pick what to archive therefore not taking in the whole context.


The last principle is Trust. All the issues and controversies stated have shaken public trust to a certain degree. Caswell asserts that archivists should concede to the presence of bias and encourage participation with the public. This allows for open communication and forums, giving the public a more active participatory role in the process.


Since codes of ethics are not laws, they are not subject to legal sanctions. The extent of their enforcement varies from each institution with no standardized procedure. In the event of legal violation, how is accountability determined? How are penalties imposed? This area is still a shade of grey as the SAA states “The current code is aspirational.. SAA does not have the means to enforce a code of ethics.”


Although they serve as good guiding principles, there are still so many gaps to be filled. We must not only circumscribe the missing pieces, but create a process to efficiently enforce them.


Jensen, R. (2006). The myth of the neutral professional. Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education, 8(2), 1-9. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://www.eastern.edu/publications/emme/2006fall/jensen.pdf

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762. Retrieved February 22, 2017 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/529596 .

Caswell, M. “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. Reconstruction, 16(1) from http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/161/Caswell.shtml

Dalbello, Marija. (2009). “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009 from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/672475/mod_resource/content/1/Dalbello_LIDA2009_text_2_dlist.pdf

Cloonan, M. (April 2001). W(H)ITHER Preservation? The Library Quarterly. 71(2), 231-242. Retrieved February 21, 2017 from                                                         http://www.jstor.org/stable/4309507?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). 2. 1-19. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from https://lms.pratt.edu/pluginfile.php/672476/mod_resource/content/1/schwartz%2C%20cook-archives%2C%20records%2C%20power.pdf

Thompson, Rachel E. (Rachel Elizabeth), “Deserving of trust: ethics in the American Archival profession” (2011). WWU Masters Thesis Collection. Paper 160. Retrieved February 22, 2017 from http://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=wwuet

Cline, S. (1989). The Development of Ethics in Archival Practice. American Archivist. 52. 64-71. Retrieved February 22, 2017 from http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.52.1.nk661527341j0610?code=same-site


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