Week 6 Blog: The Ethical Archivist

After reading the ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians and the SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, it became apparent that the codes and ethics were most-likely a prescriptive measure. My initial impression was reaffirmed after reading The Ethics of Collecting. The archival world was and is prone to all the same human qualities that adversely affect ethics of the business world: actions motivated by personal gain, money, competition rather than ethics and institutional integrity.

The Ethics of Collecting, which appears to be written prior to a unified emphasis on archival professionalism, identifies problems within the profession that were ignored prior. Have any of these ethical issues within the archival field declined? And more importantly, is there any way to empirically assess (in any manner) whether the professional codes promoted by various associations have worked to curb unethical behavior?

Regardless, professionalism requires uniformity and a clear code of ethics. One can easy hypothesize that codes of ethics have indeed improved the professionalism within the archival field. Archival associations can not only attest to the professional character of their members, but they can also police the individuals who make up their organization. The fact that professional organizations exist and gain credibility in the field by promoting professional behaviors means that institutions will prefer members over non-members. An unethical archivist who loses their membership will be unattractive candidate for any position in a market dominated by associated professionals. In this way, archivists can exert control over their profession. You cannot stop many of the unethical practices that occur in archives, but you can teach and promote ethical behavior and punish poor behavior organizationally when it becomes apparent. What is most difficult is when the archivist is incentivized to act unethically by their institution. Some examples may include splitting groups of material at the cost of the researchers, acquisition practices which hurt or demean other archives, and collecting priorities pushed by institutions which do not benefit archive users (ex. memorabilia collecting over the collecting of research materials).  In these situations, it is ultimately up to the archivist to act ethically. One can only hope their training and connection to the larger professional community leads them to act for the common good.


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