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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.