Ethics in Archives

Special Collections Research Center Reading Room

Special Collections Research Center Reading Room

Blog post contributed by Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates

Archival processing requires a lot of tough decisions. It may not always seem that way, but archivists are charged with holding and indefinitely preserving the cultural heritage of the communities around them. Not a small task! Archivists are responsible for acting in the best interest of these communities, and their actions must be ethically sound to uphold that trust. Because there are so many ethical concerns to consider, this blog post introduces Special Collections’ new series on archival ethics. Over the next several months, we will post regularly on topics including privacy, description, and preservation.

To navigate tough ethical cases and make informed decisions, archivists use a variety of resources. We rely on archival networks for support, particularly those provided by professional organizations including the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and the Society of North Carolina Archivists (SNCA). One of SAA’s functions is to establish guidelines that help archivists work through difficult decisions. SAA’s Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics list key aspects of archival work and the values we should uphold as we collect and process archival materials. The Core Values Statement includes tenets like “Access and Use” to encourage archivists to “promote and provide the widest possible accessibility of materials.” That one seems pretty intuitive. After all, access is the fundamental mission of the profession. Other values, such as “Responsible Custody” and “Social Responsibility” look deeper at our role as stewards entrusted with preserving society’s heritage and memory.

SAA’s Code of Ethics encourages archivists to ethically acquire, protect, and provide access to collections based on the beliefs outlined in the Core Values. Contemporary archival ethics are reflective of current social, cultural, and political climates. SAA’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (CEPC) reviews the Code of Ethics periodically to ensure that it reflects current ethical discourse (for more information on the evolution of the code, see SAA’s Code of Ethics History). The code was last updated in 2012 and it outlines seven principles of which archivists should be mindful. For example, archivists should implement security measures and disaster plans to “guard all records against accidental damage, vandalism, and theft.” Other principles include “Authenticity,” “Trust,” and “Professional Relationships.”

As with many other professions, archivists find that these ethical considerations are often tied to situation and interpretation. Nurturing and maintaining professional relationships is a means by which archivists gain insight from collective experiences of those with similar dilemmas. They remind us that we aren’t alone when we make these decisions! Professional relationships can be beneficial on local, state, and national levels. Archivists have a duty to present a fair and inclusive historical record, which may be regionally shaped by demographics. Because certain issues may be specific to a state or region, local professional organizations like the Society of North Carolina Archivists (SNCA) provide even stronger ethical guidance by providing a space for peers and mentors working with similar historical collections to communicate about their experiences. By attending SNCA’s annual meeting each spring, we foster these relationships, develop support networks, and stay up to date about what is happening in North Carolina’s archivist communities.

Talking about concepts like ethics and professional values helps us be more transparent about the decisions we make behind the scenes and how they might affect archival research. Researchers have the right to know that our decisions affect their interactions with the collections they are using. It is our hope that we can help researchers better interpret the archival record by sharing how we make our decisions in this new blog series on archival ethics. Researchers can then focus more on finding beneficial primary sources and revealing their stories.