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Conclusion, “Rethinking Archival Ethics” March 8, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Conclusion.

I will confess to finding this concluding section a bit hard to summarize. It appeared to me that Jimerson presented evidence that the role of ethics in the archival profession in the United States should be reconsidered, but I did not see him make strong specific recommendations presenting an alternative, which is what I was expecting to find.

The volume concludes with some observations about the value of codes of ethics and the potential conflict archivists may face between adhering to a code of ethics and advancing social justice. Jimerson argues that codes of ethics can present problems for practicing archivists because they emphasize “abstract concepts with little context for analysis, such ethics codes can be interpreted in numerous ways and often provide only the vaguest sort of guidance for archival practitioners.” (348) He then presents the argument that for archivists responding to the call for social justice, codes of ethics may “interfere with this obligation to personal morality.” (349) For example what if your code of ethics compels you to comply with an unjust law? Should one follow a code of professional ethics or a higher moral calling?

Jimerson seems to be calling for a stronger code of professional ethics than the current SAA model (p. 350), in part to “help bridge the gap between the archival profession and the public it strives to serve.” He concludes this section with, “This will not resolve moral dilemmas, but it will establish a solid basis for individuals to make ethical choices and to explain the resulting decisions to the rest of society.” (351)

He then presents the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials as “a test case” of the tension between archival ethics and social justice (354-358). The protocols challenge traditional archives practice and ethics, and Jimerson concludes that in this test case, archivists should respond to the higher call for social justice and “support the essence of the Protocols.”

I’m only highlighting some of the contents of this section, but do you agree with my general impression of this chapter, or am I missing something? I also wonder how Jimerson thinks future revised and rethought codes of ethics should be enforced–see for example Richard Cox’s lengthy post “Not Enforcing Ethics” on the sadly discontinued Reading Archives blog. I admit that I am somewhat disappointed that a book called Archives Power didn’t end in a more powerful way. Given the inherently complicated nature of discussions of ethics, I’m not sure that the book could have concluded with a powerful statement on the topic, but I do feel as if it’s missing a more complete summation of all the themes of the book.



1. Alison - March 10, 2010

I think that you’re quite right with your impression of this chapter, Kate (by my reading also)… I absolutely heard Jimerson calling for a stronger ethical code, and he was pretty assertive illustrating this (which was a good thing, for sure) in his discussion of the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials – using “should”, “need to” and “insisting on” as operating verbal phrases.

Perhaps there should have been a more assertive end to the book, but I will say that I absolutely appreciated how Jimerson made a strong case for being pro-active archivists.

2. Rand - March 15, 2010

Part of the mea culpa on these matters to which Kate has taken me to task is that this book was completed while I was still serving as chair of the SAA Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct. The committee was then (and is still) conducting a review of the Code of Ethics, and I may have pulled a few punches here rather than intervene in the discussion “from the chair.”

Now that I do not have responsibilities in this context, I have written a statement of concern and my personal (not official) recommendations to the committee about the Code of Ethics. I encourage all archivists interested in these matters to review the current Code and send comments and recommendations to the committee. Also, please do keep up with proposed revisions and add your thoughts during this process over the coming months. There should be some discussion of this at the SAA meeting in August as well as in upcomin issues of “Archival Outlook.”

I do hope that the low response rate to this Conclusion and Kate’s posting is due to fatigue in reading the book and not a lack of interest in these very important concerns about professional ethics. We need your help if we are to improve the SAA position on ethics.

3. Lincoln Cushing - March 15, 2010

I’d suggest that the book and the broader issues it raises within the field would benefit from drawing upon lessons from similar struggles within the sister profession of librarianship. There are many factors that go into using archival skills for social justice, and ethics is just one of them. Although I certainly support a more robust ethical framework for SAA, I think that’s more of a stick than a carrot. How do we stimulate archivists to really think outside the box, to search for creative ways that their skills can be used in the community, to demand more resources to do that work – these are the organizing challenges that are really tough. I hope that each and every one of those who signed up for this discussion will be pursuing such paths in their own ways. Best of luck to all.

4. Kate T. - March 15, 2010


Ah–that explains it! I can see how that would have prevented you from being as bold as I wanted you to be!

I do think that part of the problem is that people just aren’t interested in talking about ethics. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think for the most part the discussions take place on an abstract level that is difficult for people to really engage with. Unless there is a concrete question or issue–such as the Native American Protocols, and even that is a bit abstract–I think most people just tune out. Part of the difficulty may be that even when the profession is confronted with a case where ethics may have been violated, there is little that can be done. (See Richard Cox’s blog post.) What is the purpose of the code of ethics other than something for archivists to call upon in defending our actions? I’m being deliberately provocative, but I think if you want to engage more people in the larger discussion of ethics you might want to make an argument for why the discussion matters and provide concrete scenarios to draw people in. Maybe a regular column in the newsletter where an ethical scenario is presented and discussed?

5. Alison Stankrauff - March 15, 2010

I think that you may well be right, Kate… I think that a surprising number of people within our very ranks of the profession don’t see the connection between what we do daily and the larger “big and real world” issues, concerns, and considerations that are sewn into our work… I think that putting forward such scenarios would be really beneficial to those for whom these issues need to be amplified…

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