Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Archival Ethics in Practice

In my opinion, and as I have written about in a variety of other circumstances, archival ethics may be the next professional crisis. For the past two decades, archivists have assumed that the primary crisis was dealing with digital documents and electronic records systems, and they have written hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of words in both print and digital venues. While such concerns continue to be a challenge, and may always be so, I personally believe that ethical matters will consume more and more of archivists and records managers’ time and attention. The eroding of government openness, intellectual property contests, corporate shenanigans, weakening professional associations (in terms of resources, if not other matters), the transformation of universities into businesses, and a host of other issues will affect archivists in every sector where they work. Archivists will be confronted with increasing difficulties of making records available, of capturing them in the first place, and in knowing what to do with proprietary or controversial evidence they hold.

Ethical issues are far more difficult to grapple with then technical or other professional activities, especially in an era when ethics codes have been weakened, personal morality contested or held in uncertain regard, and professional associations backed away from them fearing legal and other conflicts they are unprepared to handle. The Center of Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin recently held (November 30, 2007) a conference on “Archives and Ethics: Reflections on Practice,” featuring Verne Harris (pictured here from another venue and striking a typical pose of one about to take on anyone willing), Menzi Behrnd-Klodt, and David Wallace as speakers and generating some lively debate and conversation (I attended as a civilian and enjoyed the presentations and especially the interaction with the many students in attendance). The sponsors of the conference were surprised at the good turnout, and they seem interested in hosting additional conferences in the future on the subject. I certainly plan on going.

You can view the conference at