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:
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.
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?