Archival Ethics: Or How I Realized I Am on My Own

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.



Filed under Archives, Library School, Professional Ethics, Professional musings

3 responses to “Archival Ethics: Or How I Realized I Am on My Own

  1. I’m a content manager for Kaplan Publishing and faced a similar fear when I first started working here. Now that I’ve been with the organization for approx. 1 year I can tell you that my perspective is substantially different. To be honest, I’m not sure how applicable an ethics code is in this environment. Certainly, ethics are important, but ultimately they aren’t that practical.

    I agree that it was much easier to proclaim in LIS school that I would never work in a corporate archive or anything like that. Reality is slightly different. By and large, I’ve found that if there is any malfeasance it’s well hidden. More to the point, nobody who might be conducting any bad or shady business wants to broadcast it.

    In hindsight, I think that an ethics code is slightly anachronistic and naive. Granted this is just based upon my experience, but up until now I’ve neither seen nor participated in any activities that would warrant such a code.

    There’s also the economic consideration. As my father says: “you can’t eat on principles”.

    • One of the issues brought up in this article was the lack of articles or any literature looking into practical ethical situations (beyond just ethics code writing) in the archival/ records management profession.

      Do you think literature that researched ethical dilemmas faced by corporate archivists would have helped you when entering the field? Or are such studies just as anachronistic as a code in your opinion?

      • I think these studies would be or are anachronistic for one reason: change. Let me qualify that statement by saying that I specifically work in digital LIS. I’m responsible for creating a custom XML schema based off DITA as well as creating and implementing an entire taxonomical regime and content management system. The reason that studies won’t work is that they’re outdated before they’re finished.

        Our rate of change is astounding, seriously. The principles are pretty consistent, but our methodologies and understandings can change on an hourly basis. Given this reality, it’s hard to think of a way to make any research relevant. From an academic perspective, this is a completely non-ideal situation. For me though it’s real life.

        I think that’s the biggest difference between academia and non-academia. It’s also something I wish I had been aware of before I left school. I love my job, but the farther out I get from academia the more outmoded it seems. Again, the principles stay the same but the methodologies change much quicker than academic methods allow.

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