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Give the people what they want – EAC and whether we should care

10 Aug

‘Tis the season. The Society of American Archivists’ conference has come to DC, and yesterday dozens (dozens!) of us descended onto the National Archives and Records Administration for a pre-conference meeting about EAC-CPF. By the way, I left my gold and red metal water bottle in the auditorium — I would love a heads-up if anyone found it.

Unsurprisingly, the proceedings provided the basis for a lot of twitter chatter, and one of my favorite digital historians chimed in to ask for context:

Asking why this all matters is really, really smart. And, with respect to the TOTALLY RAD presenters at the workshop on Monday, I think that this step of standing back and explaining why this is important in the first place is the part that might have been missing. So, I’ll do my best to explain why this might be important to different audiences/practitioners, how implementations may change researchers’ experiences, and how I think this fits into the varieties of archival practice that the profession encounters. BTW, this post is a much better run-down of what was discussed than I’ll be providing.

Standard disclaimers apply.

  1. I am a Johnny-come-lately to EAC. I’ve poked around, read the announcement, and briefly entertained the idea of coding some records. I came to the workshop to listen and talk and think about why this is important and how it might be used.
  2. I am a pragmatist about this sort of thing, and I believe in using the proper tool for the job, but I also think that we’re all going to want compelling reasons if the adoption of a new standard requires extra time, labor, or thought. I think that those of us who want to change archival practice and want wide-spread participation in these practices owe the profession a really good elevator speech, a killer manual and friendly answers when asked “naive” questions.
  3. I am not a data nerd. Strong opinions aside, I may not be explaining this with the elegance and precision that others may offer.

Wait, Mo. Wait. What exactly are we talking about here? Um, here’s some official language, written in nerd:

Encoded Archival Context – Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) primarily addresses the description of individuals, families and corporate bodies that create, preserve, use and are responsible for and/or associated with records in a variety of ways… [C]urrently [EAC’s] primary purpose is to standardize the encoding of descriptions about agents to enable the sharing, discovery and display of this information in an electronic environment. It supports the linking of information about one agent to other agents to show/discover the relationships amongst record-creating entities, and the linking to descriptions of records and other contextual entities.

Let’s see if I can provide a gloss. When archivists describe records in our collections, we write about the records, but we also understand that the records don’t speak for themselves. We also have to contextualize how they came to us, who might be found in the records, and what the historical circumstances were around the records’ creation. So, bundled together in a finding aid, we have description (marked-up in EAD) with a bit of context in the middle there. Strictly speaking, I’ve heard the argument that description is description (what a researcher can find in the archives) and context is context (this is information that isn’t necessarily discovered within the records, but is about the records’ circumstances), and that we shouldn’t be mixing context and description. I’ll come back to this point (preview: I find it weak).

There’s a pretty good tradition among our cousins in libraries and museums for giving special attention to people. The Library of Congress maintains the NACO authority file, which is a big, fat list of people who have created published works (or something – the “why” bit on the NACO website makes me want to stab). Basically, it’s a way for us to all know if we’re going to talk about Samuel Clemens, or if we’re going to talk about Mark Twain. We certainly don’t want to do half and half, and have a researcher only encounter half of the available works when she wants to find everything written by that person. So it makes good sense to keep a list, to decide which form is preferred and also to get a sense of what other names we might encounter, and to know that someone has done a bit of research about when this person was born and when he died. There’s something similar for museums that the Getty maintains — ULAN, which is the union list of artists’ names. This is the same idea, and requires a lot of research, because those artist mofos can be cagey.

And a lot of us use NACO (and/or ULAN), but NACO doesn’t have everyone and it’s frankly not worth our time to contribute to the authority file, and we might want to say more about the person than their name and dates.

So, EAC-CPF is a way for us to take information about people in our records, tell machines that these are indeed people that we’re talking about (as opposed to places or folder titles or whatever else is in a collections guide), and when we have a bunch of these records, get a sense of the larger universe of which people are out there in the archives. Using search technologies, we have the data we need to ask better questions and get better results.

The cool thing about structured data is that it lets us compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and see right away when we have ended up with an orange apple. Basically, in the case of EAC, you might see a situation where I have the Walt Whitman papers, you have the Walt Whitman papers, and some podunk archives that no one ever heard of ALSO has a long-lost Walt Whitman letter. Podunk archive didn’t know this was a big deal, in fact, it was in a collection that didn’t have much to do with Whitman at all, the other archives didn’t know that Walt Whitman was in this collection or this archives, and it’s really only a researcher who would have thought to make a big deal of this.

The situation I just described happens when all of these EAC records sit in one place, and can be searched or browsed in the context of one another — but (and I think that this is a huge reason why EAD wasn’t adopted as widely as it might have been), the situation is trickier if you don’t have one home where all of these records sit, so that you can compare them to each other and sort through them. There’s a lot of inside baseball in the archival world about who should be hosting such a home (may I point out that the Europeans and Australians don’t seem to have a problem figuring this out?), and that’s where the imperative to be able to have these records work with each other in a de-centralized way comes in.

So a lot of the discussion at the workshop was of really cool projects where EAC records were brought together (btw, EAC records are being made en masse from NACO files and bits and bobs of EADs) to do exactly this — to make it possible to look at the Walt Whitman EAC entry, see all of the institutions that have Walt Whitman records, and compare how they’ve written his biographical notes.

Small side note here — no one at the workshop mentioned issues of intellectual property. I predict that amalgamation may reveal a few notable instances of processing archivists “borrowing” copyrighted material. It’s also been suggested that EAC records may be useful for re-purposing — for “dropping” someone else’s EAC record into a new finding aid. I wonder if the community will be willing to give away their intellectual labor.

In any case, we end up with a lot of duplicate legacy data (and situations in the future where it may be perfectly appropriate to add overlapping new data). And here I’d like to go back to the problem of description/context. Let’s remember how history is actually made — we go to our records, learn about people who lived, sift through variously reliable and unreliable accounts, and synthesize this data into history. I know that the biog/hist (contextual) notes that I write when I write my finding aids are influenced by the records that I just processed — they have to be, because if these records didn’t give insight into the people I’m describing, they wouldn’t be worth having. And even if my contextual notes are entirely divorced from these records, they’re based on some other historical trace that was synthesized by someone else, written in a secondary source, or popularly known. In this way, everything is description, and I don’t think that it makes sense to pretend that description and context are pure and separate.

So, back to Shane’s question of why this would matter to a historian. Well, it’s possible that EAC may give us the structure to present history to you differently. After all, for the most part, historians don’t write about records, they write about people. I can imagine that as a historian, I would much rather discover archival sources from a main entry about a person than from a record group. And I would also say that historians can help contribute to this conversation about how we can most transparently represent the people in our collections and the traces they’ve left behind.

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Why I also don’t post to Archives & Archivists

28 Jul

In honor of Ben Bromley’s post, I thought that I would keep the ball rolling about why I don’t find A&A useful, and also talk about professional development resources that I do find useful and how I think the A&A could be improved.

I will make a caveat that I’m something of a crankypants about fluffiness entering my worklife. This is partly because I’m extremely busy — I’m near the beginning of my career, trying to learn a lot, and responsible for a large project — and partly because I think it’s important to separate my work life and my personal life. If I’m going to read jokes on the internet, I’m going to do that after hours. Same for looking at images of flowers. Same for thinking about picnic menus. I’m friendly, I’m cordial, and I’m personable at work, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to send my colleagues those kinds of emails. And frankly, I think that we would all be better off if we thought of members of the list as future colleagues or supervisors. It’s unprofessional to interrupt my inbox with dumb crap in a professional forum.

I also like to separate my work and personal life because I consider it in my best interest as a woman. There are two very good books about this that I would recommend,* and they both come to the same point that women are expected to do more “care” work in the workplace — they have to be feminine, nurturing, and sweet-voiced, they’re expected to un-ruffle feathers and tend to do more bullshit administrative work, but are held to a higher standard of competence.** So I don’t really talk about my personal life, I don’t send dumb jokes, I’m not on the party-planning committee and I don’t bring baked goods to work. I don’t offer to take minutes at meetings, unless we’ve already set up a system and it’s my turn. I don’t take work home. I do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then I leave.

Anyway, here’s why I don’t post to the A&A:

  1. I’ve never gotten a helpful response. Okay, that’s not true. At my previous job I offered to give away some sound recordings, and someone accepted them. That was cool. But usually the discussion isn’t terribly practical, and high-volume posters are more likely to pontificate or willfully misinterpret a position than offer advice based on experience or technical know-how. Do not get me started on the fact that offering a Google search is not a helpful contribution. I’m not going to argue that every archivist needs a graduate degree, but I will argue that every archivist needs to be able to perform a skilled search.
  2. Many archivists who might be able to offer advice don’t hang out there, or are dissuaded from offering responses because they don’t want to deal with others on the list. This is an extension of my previous point, but I don’t think that I will go to the list for help anymore, because I don’t think that the majority of highly-innovative archivists hang out there. For instance, my project is using the MIX standard for technical metadata for digital images. LC has samples of MIX 1.0 files, but not MIX 2.0, and I wanted to work from an example. So, I asked the list if anyone could send me a sample of a MIX 2.0 document. Crickets. Is this because archivists aren’t using MIX 2.0? No. Is it because archivists don’t like to share? Certainly not. It’s probably because archivists who could help me just don’t hang out there.
    I don’t learn about exciting new archival projects from the A&A — I just don’t. It isn’t my source, and it wouldn’t be a very good source. The people who are conducting them don’t post there. Plus, there’s a weird strain of professional conservatism that feels the need to challenge innovations in practice in histrionic tones. Look, dudes, there’s enough un-processed, un-researched, possibly not very important crap out there that we should encourage each other to figure out new ways of getting through it. I would almost say that there’s a strain of “BUT WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” [replace children with precious, precious old crap] to some of these discussions. There’s a class (dare I say generation?) of archivists who understand protecting the longevity of individual objects, but don’t do much for the sustainability and accessibility of repositories.
  3. Some of the content makes me cringe. The spam email took up the bulk of discussion for like… three days.

Let me just say, though, that there should be a place for good-hearted, thoughtful musing (for the record, I get a kick of of Maarja’s posts and I like how much she’s thought through her responses). But damn it, I also want a listserv that’s helpful, interesting, professionally relevant and not quite so pedestrian. Does it bother anyone else that with American institutions’ wealth and brainpower, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders are (on the whole) kicking our butts when it comes to innovations in archival practice?

So, how could the listserv be improved? Here’s my modest proposal for a list of rules and attitudes we could all adopt:

  1. If you wouldn’t send it to the director of your institution, don’t send it to this list.
  2. If your argument doesn’t offer new facts, isn’t immediately helpful, or is plain cantankerous, don’t send it to the list.
  3. Check the list archives before posting a question. It may have been already answered.
  4. If you have past or immediate experience with a problem someone is posing, help a sister out. Do send it to the list, and if you can, tell us about your process. What other solutions did you consider? Why did you go with this one? How easy was it to implement? What would you do differently if you were to try again? The list at its best could be a repository of  tried-and-true practices.
  5. Don’t be too cool for the list. If you’re doing something interesting, tell the list about it. Tell us why you’re doing it, how you’re getting around budget restrictions, and how you think it might be applicable to other institutions.
  6. Try to remember that you’re a professional. The profession has some pretty serious problems to face (dwindling funds, new formats, a society that’s only producing more records, forces that try to restrict sensitive records). The listserv too often doesn’t represent this seriousness of purpose.

I don’t think that anything is going to change, other than hoping that the profession becomes  more… professional… over time. And I do have out outlets for what I’m looking for from the professional listserv — blogs, twitter, conferences, geeking out with archivist friends (okay, this is an area where I permit my professional life to enter my personal life). But can we all agree that the A&A is kind of embarrassing, and all do a bit more to make it better?


*  Wajcman, Judy. Managing like a man : women and men in corporate management. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998 and McDowell, Linda. Capital culture : gender at work in the city. Oxford UK ;;Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. These are both very good sociological resources that combine data and theory to make a compelling point that life in the workplace is different for women, and that they tend to be at a disadvantage.

** I’m not interested in talking about this in comments with anyone who doesn’t have a grounding in feminist theory. It’s my house. That’s all.

NARA snooze and EXTREME EPISTEMOLOGY

7 Jul

The National Archives is redesigning its website. Like most government website redesigns, anything will be better than what they have now. Anything.

If you don’t think I’m serious about how bad their site is, just look at this flow chart about ARC, their catalog, published one click into their site:

This is what a useless flow chart looks like.

I could go into detail about why it’s useless, but let’s just say that if you’re not an archivist this means NOTHING to you and if you are an archivist, you wonder what’s so complicated about the idea of file hierarchies that a flow chart is required. This is a pretty good representation of the rest of the site — a lot of useless information at the wrong level of granularity, confusing, busy, all getting in the way of the core tasks that visitors to the site might want to perform.

So, they’re dong a website redesign. But they can’t seem to shake their acute case of the BORINGS.

Yaaaaawwwnnn.

If you click through, you’ll see that they desperately need a copy editor. “Veteran’s service records” vs “Teachers’ resources”? Spot the mistakes in “9 billion permanently valuable records.” Ugh.

English-language problems aside, the site makes me think that doing research at NARA is going to be a bloodless, anesthetized affair, where I’ll be hassled to fill out six zillion forms all duplicating the same information and then sit in a freezing reading room where I look through almost-useless catalogs and finding aids, on one hand hoping that they have what I need and on the other hand secretly delighted that if nothing turns up, I can leave this god-forsaken place.

As my colleague Jordon Steele reminded me this morning, none of us got involved in archives because we wanted to be bored… right?

About a year ago, a friend asked me to speak at career day at the high school where she was teaching in Fishtown (that’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia). It was a good time in my career as an archivist — I wasn’t yet at my “all of my efforts are for naught because the institution doesn’t actually care about research or researchers, they just want to complain and do their work poorly” phase. Indeed, I was still in my “with enough smiles and patient explaining, surely we can at least put some shit up on the internet!” phase. Anyway, it was a nice time in my Philadelphia career. It was a time that reminded me why I wanted to be an archivist.

Basically, I wanted to be an archivist because I love the philosophy of history. This comes from my natural disposition toward being a big, staring-over-my-glasses, brutally honest, hater. I have no use for nostalgia, living history museums make me ill, and as far as I’m concerned, big books about founding fathers are most useful for throwing through the windows of living history museums. I love some good queer history, some subaltern studies, class analysis… and I love it because I don’t think of history as an avocation.

History, to me, is a mode of analysis so that we can understand and perhaps gain leverage on our situation. History helps us understand that there’s nothing natural about the way societies and economies and (DARE I SAY?) families operate, that these systems are the products of centuries of habits and traditions, and that there were times in the past where great ruptures occurred. I find this tremendously liberating because it means that it doesn’t always have to be like this, it won’t always be like this, and my situation isn’t what it is because of my inherent worth or any other form of fundamental justice other than that which we enforce.

And who, I asked myself, would find this more compelling than under-served urban teenagers? After all, when we’re teenagers, so many of us assume that the world HAS to be this way (and our parents are responsible for making it so!). High schoolers often have no conception of the scope of the world, either geographically or chronologically, and I wanted to give them the same sort of brain melt that I first encountered (if they haven’t already had it) when I started asking questions about the veracity of historical sources and other questions of authority.

Really, I had three messages I wanted to convey:

  1. There world has more to offer you than you know exists in it.
  2. How do you know what you know? Who’s your authority, and does this source deserve your trust?
  3. The people who make judgments about what happened in the past are people, just like you, and hopefully they took the time to make careful considerations. You could do this too.

So, I brought some effin’ cool images from the archives about archaeologists, anthropologists, ancient civilizations and living peoples from around the world.

This is one of my favorite images, because it shows the lengths that museums go to in order to move objects from their indigenous context to elsewhere. Sometimes we all forget that monuments weren't born in museums. Workers moving Altar 1, Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1931. Photograph by Linton Satterthwaite. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum, image #15658.

These images, I hoped, would speak to goal 1 — exposing us all to the breath and depth of opportunities in the world, and showing us all something new. Broadening horizons, I guess.

Then I talked about how as an archivist, I keep track of these images and their associated records so that we can all read them carefully and understand more about the past. I talked about how in archaeology, once we dig up a site, all that’s left is the record of that site — we couldn’t visit it again if we wanted to. This is why we need records so that we can read or imagine the past. I talked about how things change, and while we leave traces of these changes, the past can never be wholly reconstructed.

The question then becomes a question of interpretation. Why are we trying to figure out the past in the first place? Is this to make some claim on the past? To right wrongs previously committed? And how are we consuming the past?

I asked the students how they learn history — from their teacher, they say.

Okay, how does the teacher know? From the textbook.

And, well, how does the textbook know? Was the author around in 1944 to know for sure that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Or in 1066 to see the Battle of Hastings?

No.

Well, then how does he know?

He knows, we discussed, because of primary sources like letters and newspapers and diaries and also from oral tradition (sort of like how you know because your teacher told you).

But, I asked, can’t newspapers and letters and dairies lie?

Whoa. These kids, who were honestly not giving me much indication that they were interested up until this point, had their minds blown at this moment. One of them kind of freaked out.

“But if they can lie, how do we know ANYTHING?”

“Well, let’s say something happens at school and you weren’t there. How do you find out what happened? You talk to some people. If you have someone who you always, always trust, you might just ask that person. But maybe the first person you ask is the kind of person who likes to start rumors, or who isn’t always honest. You might start by asking that person, but you would probably talk to more people too. Historians do the same thing. They evaluate their sources — they try to figure out if the person writing down the story has any reason to be dishonest, and when they can, they check the story against other peoples’ stories, people who might have been there.”

So there were goals 2 and 3 — understanding that history is a human, not natural process, that human beings have to interpret this information, and that these students, with some deliberation, have every bit as much of a right to interpret sources as anyone else.

And what does this all have to do with NARA and their boring, boring, BORING existence?

Well, let’s just say this. I’m really tired of whiny archives and archivists complaining about fighting to stay relevant. History IS relevant. It just is. It’s the production, dissemination and access to history that we’ve clouded in mystery and technology and worked hard to make “specialized” or “professional” or otherwise IRRELEVANT to the people who might draw power from it. So, NARA, if you really want to redesign your website, make it clear how much your holdings are going to blow my mind. Tell me how you’re going to give me the story behind the story, how NOT BORING history inherently is (particularly the history of the actions of the US government, hoo-boy), and stop building barriers with flowcharts and jargon and archival bullshit.

K, THNX.

“We are the They” – training beyond the credential

26 May

Another example of how annoying the SAA listserv is…

So, someone writes in asking, more or less, how to be an archivist — she asks in terms of where she should go to school. And since everyone on this list has, assumedly, gone through some sort of process to become an archivist, everyone declares himself entitled to an opinion.

And then the career gripes start. I have a degree! I can’t get a job! I have no degree! I can’t get a job! The prevailing question in this thread seems to be “what sort of credential do I need in order to convince someone to hire me?” rather than “what’s the best way for me to prepare myself to be an archivist?”

I don’t know, man, but I’ve never been into the idea of a degree as a credential. Like, what’s the point? It should be, and has to be, so much more. You’re immersed in a community of faculty and researchers that have proven themselves to be among the best thinkers in the field! Make something of that! A really cool thing about going to a graduate school that has PhD students in archives is that I was exposed to so much research and new thinking — there are people there who are solely devoted to imagining how the profession can be better and different. If it were up to the practitioners, this could never happen. We’re all too broke — all research and innovation would be left to government agencies and big corporations — fine, but do we really want to be at their mercy? Wouldn’t it be better if we were all trained to anticipate challenges rather than to simply perfect current practices?

This leads me to my current koan — “we are the they.” Instead of complaining that “they” haven’t developed good digital infrastructure for archivists, let’s remember that we’re just as smart and capable of thinking about digital stewardship as anyone else. Let’s try to think of a better solution. Let’s join a consortium. Let’s at least review the current archival literature before we assume that nothing has been done. My favorite thing about the PACSCL conference last fall was an unspoken but strong admonition to quit whining already and come up with creative solutions.  For my money, the best way to learn to do this is in a creative, risk-free, sandbox environment — graduate school.

Being an archivist is just getting harder. We’re dealing with new preservation challenges, new formats, and possibly new ways of approaching the records that we already have. Graduate school is more than a place to learn how to be an archivist -– it’s also a place to think about archives differently, in a setting where no one yet cares about how many linear feet you’re getting through. It’s a place to talk about critical appraisal theory (the central site, I believe, of enduring issues of archival ethics) -– few entry-level archivists get to do any appraisal work at all. I also liked that I got to hang out with librarians and people doing human-computer interaction and people working on information policy, etc. I’m not saying that you can’t develop these ways of thinking without graduate school, but it’s a pretty efficient avenue.

On the other hand, there are MANY weaknesses in the current model of graduate-level archival education. One could have finished the program I was in without ever having read or written a finding aid. Faculty mentoring isn’t the same thing as an internship/apprenticeship model, and the flipside of having a bunch of computing kids in the program (I went to an i-school) is that there are plenty of non-archives faculty who just don’t get archival practice. The push toward interdisciplinarity doesn’t extend to historical practice – colleagues of mine from graduate school have mused that they don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of the kinds of questions that historians are trying to answer.

If one learns best by the apprenticeship model, maybe it makes more sense to devote the resources (debt, time) of graduate school to some unpaid internships. What I appreciate about the SAA reports, and what I would love to see more of, is a list of things that archivists need to know and the best ways of learning them.

The Mysteries of LC

6 Oct

How to create LC subject headings (a group effort by myself, Bill Cron* and Beth Panozzo):

To do LC headings, simply take the first two letters of the author’s middle name. Pick a random number between 40 and 80, and multiply it by 162. Add the letters to the numbers, then type it out in MS Word, convert font to Haettenschweiler Narrow, and enter into the free iGoogle German to English translator.

I seem to remember that in the case of anonymous authors, I need to find someone who had chinese take-out for lunch, add the first and third numbers of the fortune cookie, and multiply by current longitude. Then, if Mercury is retrograde, plug this number into WorldCat, close my eyes, take a walk around the block, and the subject heading will be on a postit in my middle desk drawer when I get back.

However, I was later reminded that this technique only works for videodiscs.

*Forgive the color scheme. Bill’s site is a throw-back to the days when the internet was wild and slow.

My Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus with the command line

5 Jun

So let me say here and now that I always KNEW somehow, intuitively, that I should learn the command line, that it would change my life. Proselytizing from a good friend (of Escape Characters fame) for months has told me that automation is the way to go — if librarians deal with information overload, well then, we’re going to need the right tools for the job. Why spend hours clicking from page to page searching for a certain character string or file type when we can batch download all of these pages and then extract the information we need in just a few keystrokes? Sure, the command line LOOKS scary, but it’s really the smart way to go.

Of course, she puts it better than I ever could.

If you’re a librarian, I think part of your skillset should include knowing how to use the command line. You might say that you’re not that type of librarian, we hire other people to do the work with the computers, librarianship isn’t about this kind of technological skills, someother explanation — but, hrm. No. I respectfully, wholeheartedly disagree. You need to know this. You really do. If you’re a librarian, and you’re working with lots of information — and I mean, lots, like information overload lots — you need to be equipped with a way to handle this information without resorting to mind-numbing data entry methods. No, really. Every time someone says, “I guess I have to do this exhaustingly repetitive task by hand, I cry a little. It doesn’t matter if you’re one thousand miles away; I know, and I weep.

So please, visit Escape Characters and her series on useful ways to use the command line in your everyday work.

And I’ll keep you updated on how this is changing my life.

The SAA Code of Ethics

8 May

I alluded to this in an earlier post — it’s interesting to me that while I’ve heard snide comments about the SAA code of ethics and its inefficacy since I came here, and heard a bit more in the same vein at last weekend’s conference, I’ve noticed almost no enthusiasm for reforming the code or moving SAA in a new direction.

So, what exactly is wrong with the code?

Deirdre Stam from the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University spoke at the conference about what makes codes of ethics effective. A useful code usually includes four elements – justice, integrity, competence, and utility. Every code should contain these elements. By justice is usually meant treating others as we would be treated ourselves (I would add here my new favorite guiding mantra, Derrida’s maxim that the antonym of forgetting may not be remembering, but rather “justice”). Integrity means that we’re honest about our successes and our mistakes and are transparent. Competence demands that we do our work well, especially considering that when we’re working with the records of powerful bodies, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make these bodies accountable. Utility demands that these ideas are transformed into some kind of social good, beyond the archivist’s personal moral satisfaction.

How does the SAA code of ethics perform against this rubric? Let’s start with opportunities for justice:

IX. Law

Archivists must uphold all federal, state, and local laws.

So, there are a few things that are kind of funny here. I’m sure that the authors of the code meant that archivists must uphold all laws in the context of their work – but I love the idea that it’s somehow a breach of professional responsibility to jaywalk.

More pertinent to issues that might face an archivist, though, is what to do when laws contradict responsible archival practice. There are very few laws that protect whistle-blowers, and in most cases, leaking government records, even when doing so would be considered a public good by most, will land an archivist in jail. Don’t we as professionals have a responsibility for not just the contents of our archives but the societal contexts and consequences of them?

If this code is just guiding us to existing legal standards, why have a code in the first place? Journalists have ethical standards that make sure that they act in the public good even when doing so may be illegal — for instance, the laws of the United States don’t allow journalists to protect their sources but journalists do so anyway because they’ve decided as a profession that this will help keep a check on power. Sometimes journalists go to jail, and sometimes lawmakers write journalist-friendly laws; laws aren’t static, and professional organizations could be a powerful force to change them.

However, the SAA would have to have a deep, thoughtful conversation with itself about what exactly we do and how our work contributes to society before we could have anything approaching this kind of power. As it is now, this idea that we must obey laws without thinking about how we could affect them or challenge them is a huge mistake and does nothing to protect archivists.

Indeed, the SAA code of ethics doesn’t seem to recognize that archivists are people, guided by experiences and ethics and values and beliefs.

II. Judgment

Archivists should exercise professional judgment in acquiring, appraising, and processing historical materials. They should not allow personal beliefs or perspectives to affect their decisions.

This sentiment isn’t just silly, it’s also wrong-headed. Margaret Hedstrom made the spot-on comment that it doesn’t make any sense to encourage diversity within the profession if we’re then going to discourage differences in beliefs or perspectives. Archivists make choices; they interpret history and interact with communities. Whether we like it or not, we’re making judgments every day. We would be better off if we embraced our subjectivities and worked through how to approach our work ethically rather than continuing the fiction that we can approach it with dispassion and a gods’-eye view.

Here, I think the idea of integrity should come into play. If we inevitably bring our personal experiences and points of view into our work, isn’t it more honest and fair to be upfront about it, rather than burying our biases and promoting them as neutral and natural?

Finally, I think that the SAA code of ethics is the least useful in the realm of utility. While it does say that archivists may not alter or destroy evidence and that we must protect the privacy of our users, the ALA has done much, much more in an activist role to make sure that librarians actually have the power to fight back against the powers that might try to access this information. As we know, archivists are under-funded and don’t have much of a profile. What exactly is the SAA offering to the archivist caught between a rock and a hard place?