Cox, R.J. (2008). Archival Ethics: The Truth of the Matter. Journal of the American Society for Information Ethics, 59(7), 1128-1133.
I’ll be upfront with everyone. I read the above article for an assignment in one of my graduate classes. I chose the article because the unassuming article title promised to me a nice overview of archival ethics which I thought would be very informative since I plan on entering the archival/ records management field after graduation. What this article delivered instead was a rude awakening to the state of ethics in the profession especially when it comes to archivists and records mangers in the corporate world.
Now I’m sure some readers may have read this article back in 2008 and in the back of your mind little controversy bells are going off and you may sigh and think “Not this again”. Please bear with me. This article actually can be viewed in a whole new light four years later. For those of you that have not read it the article, Cox argues that the archival profession has been focusing too much on writing codes of ethics then actually exploring ethical practices in the profession. He focuses the article especially on corporate archivists and goes as far as to ask “Is the mission of corporate archives only to make their organizations look good or to serve a public relations purpose?” (1131).
The question of the ethics and the mission or purpose of corporate archives is even more important in the current employment atmosphere. Not every archivist can work in a government archive and not every government job is secure. A painful fact that is right now being played out in Canada. However, archival and library students are acutely aware that publicly funded archives whether on a national, state, county, or community level are just not hiring (How many times have you heard the phrase “hiring freeze” lately?). What does this leave for new additions (or accessions) to the field? Corporate archives. Corporations are hiring. They need records managers and archivists to wrangle their huge out pouring of paper and digital records. We the bright eyed, idealistic, and naive are being thrown, according to Cox, to the ethical wolves.
Now comes the “I am on my own” part. Cox points out that as a records manager, I would be the first to come across illegal or unethical records that hint that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. What do I do? What happens as a corporate archivist when I am charged to create an exhibit to make the company “look good” when the records tell a different story? Do I put a “spin” on the documents or just leave them out?
I will be honest, the answer I would give on the discussion board in my ethics class is much easier to arrive at and proclaim vehemently as “right” than the answer I would ponder while in the “real” world. My job, my livelihood, my future could be riding on the answer, and SAA gives no concrete direction. There is no code or articles I can attach to an email to my boss or piece of paper to place on his desk to say “Look I can not do this. It is against my professional code.” I do not have a stable piece of ground to stand on.
Now with the passage of rulings such as Citizens United which has highlighted a corporation’s right to free speech, do archivists have even less ethical ground to stand on? In this new era of thinking where “Corporations are people, my friend.”, do I dare be a “whistle blower” and destroy any chance of ever working in the private sector ever again? These are issues that archival and library schools need to be facing head on. As Cox says “These are dangerous, interesting, and exciting times to be an archivist or records manager” (1132). So please archival and library schools, outfit new archivists with the ethical armor to combat the dangers of the corporate world, new ideas to be interesting to our bosses, and the passion to make it all exciting.