Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The ethical archivist

Elena s. Danielson, The Ethical Archivist (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2010).

Those looking for the best introduction to archival ethics will be satisfied with Danielson's book, although they might be dissatisfied with the open-ended nature of much of her discussion.  She states openly, right at the beginning, that this book will raise more questions than answers and while this does not bother me in the list it will certainly irritate some practitioners. She starts with an overview of the nature of ethics, the nature and role of professional ethics codes,  the role of ethics in the role of archives in contributing to a sense of collective memory and human rights, and ethical issues in using archives as a means for social accountability.  Then Danielson leads the reader through a detailed discussion, with numerous case studies and questions for reflection on ethics codes, appraisal and acquisition, disposal of records, access, issues about personal privacy and corporate proprietary information, forgery, and the dilemmas posed by displaced records.

Danielson is particularly good at grappling with tough issues, while not taking a particular side (something I am not good at) and still manages to be provocative.  In discussing the nature of ethics codes, for example, she makes this comment: "If the profession continues the policy of providing an aspirational code rather than enforcing ethics with penalties, there needs to be a forum for the concerns of archivists who take a different form" (p. 40). At the moment, the forum is in the classroom, and while that is a start it is not where the profession needs to be. Another emphasis by Danielson is her belief about how much is changing and how fast this is happening, such as when she considers privacy: "After decades of efforts by archivists to protect the rights of individuals, people are surrendering their privacy of their own accord" (p. 205). Such an environment makes it difficult to figure what the ethical stance ought to be. And Danielson is very adept as drawing attention to severe contradictions and murky areas, such as discussing the complicated nature of legal protections for whistleblowers, while further noting that archivists who make consider such a step could be seen as violating their trust andante their own ethics code.

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