What have I been reading?

Every month at the Library of Congress, staff members get together for an archives reading forum. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few of these forums, and plan on continuing to attend them as long as I’m able to do so. The theme this month was ethics – always an exciting thing to talk about, since people often have very differing opinions about it. To prepare, we did a bit of reading:

  • Three case studies from the book Ethics and the Archival Profession by Karen Benedict, published by The Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 2003
  • “Secret Sharers” by Elena S. Danielson in The American Scholar

I’ll get into the ideas behind the readings shortly, but first, you might want to take a look at the SAA Code of Ethics for Archivists. As archivists, we deal with ethical issues fairly often, and it’s important to have a way to discuss these issues with others in the profession (as well as those outside of it). While some ethical issues also relate to matters of legality (e.g. copyright), others would not be appropriate in a courtroom setting (e.g. avoiding conflicts of interest). I have always found discussions about ethics incredibly interesting, partially because they can get pretty heated.

The three case studies that we discussed from Ethics and the Archival Profession were:

  • Case 4, in which an archivist has received the papers of a deceased man who has no remaining family in the area. The papers include nude photographs with no permission from the models to make them public. Also included are anonymous letters to the creator of the collection hinting at blackmail, probably sent by a well-known (and still very much alive) member of the community who inexplicably acquired a great deal of money around the time these letters were sent.
  • Case 22, in which a small county historical society acquires the papers of a world famous author right before he unexpectedly passes away. The author was urged by his attorney to sell his papers, and the historical society did not have time to get a written deed of gift from him before his death, but they did get spoken confirmation of his desire to leave his papers with them. The attorney approaches the historical society to demand the papers back, and says that he will bring the historical society to court if they do not return the collection.
  • Case 37, in which an archivist who must publish in order to continue on a tenure track decides to write a book using one of the collections in her repository. After she has already done a good amount of research, one of her colleagues mentions the collection to a published biographer who decides to write a book using the same collection. Is the archivist required to tell this biographer about her own research with the collection? Can she decline to provide reference help concerning that particular collection?

Archival work is exciting! These case studies brought up a whole set of issues to discuss: How far does privacy reach? What kinds of restrictions can you (or should you) as an archivist place on a collection? At what point should you report evidence of illegal activities to the police, if ever? What constitutes a conflict of interest (should you really be researching a collection at your own repository?), and what kinds of information are we required to divulge to the researchers visiting our repositories? How do different repositories react to these issues in different ways?

There’s not an easy answer for any of these cases, and they would be dealt with very differently in different archives. For example, larger repositories like the Library of Congress might only place restrictions on collections when they are in line with the deed of gift for that collection – that is to say, the donor makes decisions about restrictions rather than the repository. Often archivists will urge their donors to keep the collection as open as is legally possible (medical records must be kept closed for a certain time period by law, to give an example of something that must be restricted because of legality). Smaller repositories that are geographically-based and very involved with the communities surrounding them might be more careful, especially when it comes to matters of privacy. Take case 4, for example: in a large nation-wide repository, the photographs and letters wouldn’t necessarily be restricted unless the donor asked for them to be. A small community-based historical society, though, might want to err on the side of caution so as not to receive bad press which could be absolutely detrimental to their financial situation. This isn’t to say that one side or the other is right – ethical issues are sometimes murky and often subjective.

“Secret Sharers” is an incredible article that I urge you all to read, whether you are in the archives field or not. The central idea behind it – who controls information? – is relevant to all of us. Danielson brings up some really interesting questions by talking about WikiLeaks, classified documents, transparency, document forgeries, and the tobacco wars of the late 20th century. How far does the power of a free press extend? How free should information really be? How damaging is it to provide information without context, and how do we ensure (especially in the growing digital age) that the information we’re getting is authentic? How transparent should the government be, especially in cases that involve national security or the confidence of the country’s population? Or, to put it another way (in Danielson’s words), “What happens when the desire for transparency collides with a legitimate need for secrecy?” How soon should classified documents be declassified? How do we as archivists deal with restricting documents when one of our main jobs is to provide access? What is the role of activism in the archives field, if any? Should activism have a role in archives?

I ask a lot of questions in this post and don’t give a lot of answers, but that’s the point: many of these things are difficult to think about, and few of them are black-and-white. As archivists, we have to ask ourselves questions of ethics very regularly, so of course this post relates to the ACLS collection as well. For example: are there documents that I should avoid posting publicly on this blog because they involve third parties (individuals or organizations) that are not directly affiliated with ACLS? How do I balance access and preservation? I want to process the documents as quickly as possible in order to open them up to researchers, but need to take certain measure to ensure that they are safe from harm. These are things that I could talk about for days. I find it exciting and wonderful to be in a field that constantly keeps me on the edge of my seat and requires me to use critical thinking skills.

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