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Chapter 6: Professional responsibility and advocacy, pp. 328-341 March 3, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I had originally given this post the title “Professional responsibility as advocacy?” but I thought it was too much of a stretch.

In considering these last sections of Chapter 6, I see Jimerson describing a range of possible actions an archivist may take to support a social justice agenda. The most unusual and personal of these would be taking action yourself to address malfeasance involving records, becoming at some level a whistle-blower. Jimerson provides several notable examples of archivists putting their own professional lives at risk to “do the right thing.” Cases such as these sometimes result in proper actions being taken regarding the records, and sometimes they don’t, just as they sometimes result in positive media attention but are just as often ignored by the press.

I see the next level as taking action to lobby or advocate regarding a specific records-related issue. Again, Jimerson devotes some time to discussing how individual archivists and our professional organizations have taken action on issues in the past, most notably government secrecy. We could also include in this category taking action to support the whistle-blowers and others who “do the right thing” as discussed above. Again this is a combination of professional responsibility with more general advocacy on behalf of archives. Often providing support on a records-related issue involves a certain amount of education as well. One has to explain why it matters, and this in turn is an opportunity to reinforce the importance of archives, records, and the role of the archivist.

The top level, which I think is only touched on, is more generalized advocacy in the form of outreach or public relations either by individual archivists on behalf of their own organizations or by our professional organizations on behalf of all archives. This would include working to build relationships with allied organizations, which Jimerson notes is an important part of broadening support for archives. It’s appropriate, I think, that Jimerson spends less time on this aspect since it has the least to do with social justice. Some would argue, however, that it is at this level where we have the most to gain from making a case for “archives power.” The individual and collective actions we take to support social justice in archives are powerful expressions that can illustrate the importance of records and archives, but I think it would have served the argument of the book better if Jimerson had concluded this last chapter of the book by recapping the various sources of “archives power” that he has described in previous chapters. I think what he has here is great, I was just looking for a more comprehensive wrap-up of the themes of the whole book. But I haven’t yet read the Conclusion, so perhaps I’m speaking too soon.

How did you think these last sections worked?



1. Elena Danielson - March 3, 2010

I like Rand’s emphasis at the end of this section on advocacy by an alliance of archivists, librarians and other information professionals.Two attorneys, Menzi Behrnd-Klodt and Tim Ingram did a session on whistle blowing at SAA Austin. It was the last day, so most people were already leaving for the airport and missed it. In essence, Menzi and Tim found that, however noble, most whistle blowers ruin their careers in vain. The dramatic success stories– like Verne Harris saving apartheid documentation by going to the press and the ANC–are exceptions to the rule. The legal safeguards for whistleblowers do not work very well. They also cautioned that individuals often only know part of the story and their complaints are easy targets for good lawyers. Working together as a profession seems to offer the most effective strategy.

2. Ruth Cody - March 3, 2010

I agree with both Elena and Kate that strengthening the profession as a whole will strengthen the abilities of individual professionals. As a student working on an archives degree, I found it both heartening and frustrating to read the stories of people such as Verne Harris. This issue is touched on in a much more negatively dramatic manner in a book written by Richard Cox entitled Ethics, Accountablity and Record Keeping in a Dangerous World. Cox includes much less positive examples than those of Verne Harris, such as Enron and Watergate and calls for drastic measures of accountability to be incorporated into an archival code. I think advocacy and education can be a deterrent just as well. If people thought that archivists and records managers had a social responsibility as part of their professional code, then they may be less likely or find it more difficult to use/abuse records in a socially detrimental fashion, especially if this is shared by an alliance of professionals, as Elena mentioned. As a student, I stumbled across these books by Cox and Jimerson on my own. Ethics has not been a big part of my degree. While I am fascinated by this side of things, I wonder how important those of you who work in the field consider these discussions to be for archival students.

3. Elena Danielson - March 4, 2010

The Cox/Wallace book Archives and the Public Good is very useful. It is much better to read about such cases in the classroom and be armed with some awareness amd information in advance, than belatedly realize on the job that there might be an issue that needs to be addressed. No need to be alarmed about the profession. Most archivist do not have to contend with such drastic conflicts of interest. Instead, there are many opportunities to use our special skills to do small positive things like renegotiate a donor restriction in time for a journalist to have relevant information in a public debate or for a researcher to use the material in a book.

4. Alison Stankrauff - March 4, 2010

I think that it’s key for archivists – at all levels – to be vocal and advocate for openness on all fronts.

That being said, I agree, that practically speaking, it’s perhaps most realistic – definitely, I think, generally, speaks the loudest – when archivists, with our associated professions, do so as one voice…

And that really calls for us – as Jimerson notes – to be a unified voice – and perhaps to put aside so many of the barriers and hierarchies that we put up for ourselves within our own profession (“big cats” like national archives archivists/etc. vs. lone arrangers/etc.) – as well as outside (i.e. archivists vs. librarians, etc.).

And Ruth: Yes – I think that it’s VERY important that archival students read this book, for sure! As I think it is for anyone – at any level… It really gives us all (I think) a framework on which to lay much of the daily work that I do. I think it provides the “big picture” issues, if you will, that got me into the profession.

5. seattleareaarchivists - March 5, 2010

Kate, I liked your framework of personal, professional, and organizational. It’s a good way to mentally slice up the section.

What I liked most about this section is Jimerson’s general approach to the issue of archivists’ involvement in seeking social justice.

He never presents this issue as value-free, simplistic, or as a binary opposition. You never hear how someone’s career has been killed or severely limited by whistle blowing. You usually only hear about the heroic stand that someone takes.

He is realistic in saying that not every archivist will be able to (or want to) tackle social justice and advocacy issues. It’s easy to say that everybody “should” jump into the social justice fight. It’s a lot harder to explore the reasons why archivists can’t or don’t.

This might be jumping the gun to the conclusion a bit, but I really liked his focus on professional diversity. He was careful not to speak only to one section of the profession. There are many different types of archivists. Likewise, there are many different types of people who become archivists. It didn’t seem like he left any archivists out of this book.

Josh Zimmerman - March 6, 2010

Ooops! Sorry, forgot to logout of “little saa’s” website. It’s Josh. These views do not reflect Seattle Area Archivists.

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