2014 Ethics Forum Notes
Thursday, August 14, 2014, 12:00pm–1:15pm
Forum: Ethics Case Studies
Balcony A Marriott Wardman Park
Description: Interested in writing or hearing about ethics case studies based on the 2012 revision of the Code of Ethics for Archivists? If so, join members of SAA's Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (CEPC) to discuss how to write and submit case studies to be published online. CEPC members also provide an update of their work. Ample time is allotted to answer questions and exchange ideas regarding case studies.
The meeting started at 12:00. Attendees included members of the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (CEPC): Nancy Freeman, Robert Riter, Tiffany Schureman, Cybil Powers, Marc Brodsky. The final attendance count was 19 plus the committee.
Nancy Freeman, current co-chair of the Committee opened the session with an explanation of the purpose of the committee and an introduction to the purpose of the forum as it related to the call for case studies. She also introduced the members of the committee. Lastly, she introduced Tiffany Schureman, who would present a brief history of the SAA’s Code of Ethics.
Tiffany reported that the first official SAA Code of Ethics was adopted in 1980. Prior to 1980, only The Archivist’s Code, developed by the National Archives in 1955, offered official guidelines to the profession. In 1992, commentary on the various principles was added. In 1995, that commentary, on the advice of legal counsel, was removed, as were guidelines and procedures for interpretation of the Code and the mediation of disputes. Also removed were portions of the Code that addressed matters of individual professional conduct or institutional best practices, rather then ethical principle, as such. In 2005, again on the advice of legal counsel, the Code was revised further, but in 2006 dissatisfaction with the Code grew and the suggestion to make the code more aspirational was put forward. Two years later, in 2006, the CEPC submitted a proposal to review and rewrite the Code and in 2012 the current Code was completed and approved by the SAA membership.
Tim Pyatt added that the Core Values Statement that accompanies the current Code was added in place of the commentaries that had, in the early 1990s, been part of the Code itself. He said that the Statement was added to work in conjunction with the Code.
Nancy Freeman asked the group to indicate whether they were familiar with Karen Benedict’s book, Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, which had been published in 2003 and based on the Code of 1995. Most in attendance indicated that they were. Nancy’s suggestion that with a new Code in place, there was a need for new case studies served to introduce the Call for Case Studies that had recently been issued by the CEPC.
The Call was a request for case studies that were based in real-life situations and that addressed one or more of the sections of the Code of Ethics: Professional Relationships, Judgment, Authenticity, Security and Protection, Access and Use, Privacy, and Trust. Further, they could be used as teaching tools or as tools for reflection, while addressing new emerging topics as well as established “classics.” Nancy reported that two case studies that could serve as examples were already available on the CEPC website and that a fair bit of publicity surrounding the Call had been sent out. Additionally, handouts were available onsite should folks want the information. Nancy also volunteered herself if folks had further questions, saying that potential submitters could always seek an opinion or assistance. She also told the group about the rubric for submissions that was available online. Lastly, she announced that our plan was to provide decisions regarding publication of submitted papers in five weeks from the date of submission and that in the three weeks since the call had been issued, five inquiries had been received, as had one completed case study.
With that, Nancy turned to Chris Prom, Asst. University Archivist at University of Illinois and Chair of the SAA Publications Board, for his comments. Chris said that the publications program was among the most important of SAA’s activities and that SAA publications help define us as a profession in the public eye. He noted that these case studies will be freely available and published under the rules of open access. Also, he said that any SAA group can set up a similar publishing program. Among the new and ongoing publishing projects, Chris mentioned the new Trends in Archives Practice series, in which each volume or module—to be sold at a modest price—will treat a discrete topic relating to the practical management of archives and manuscript collections in the digital age. The original Archival Fundamentals series of publications will remain available online. With regard to other Case Studies series, he reported that the Diversity Committee was already getting submissions and that a series on Processing Strategies was in the works.
With that, Nancy opened the floor for questions and discussion.
Tim Pyatt reminded folks that the case studies presented in the Benedict book were all fictional and that there will be challenges in the real life, “ripped from the headlines” approach being taken by the current series.
Nancy replied that case studies can be anonymized, and that one of the two studies already online was produced in that fashion, while noting that this process can be problematic.
A questioner pointed out that many folks work very closely with donors and that there is often a significant relationship in place and asked after the implications of potentially—if indirectly—involving a donor in a case study.
Bill Landis said that there were a couple of ways to approach this. While one might involve a single incident in the case study, one might take a single issue and make a composite of several instances, thereby avoiding having to anonymize the approach of the composite to get one’s point across. One could also seek the feedback of CEPC members when submitting a potential piece.
Speaking to the inquiries received so far, Nancy said it was/would be helpful to identify the element of the Code or Core Values Statement that were being addressed. Also, if one knew of an institution that had a similar situation to that intended for the case study, as was mentioned earlier, a composite could be drawn to avoid over-identification.
Another questioner asked about the intended goal of publishing these studies.
Nancy replied that the first goal was to present an issue and a story for teaching purposes.
(We also ask for discussion questions.) Secondly, the texts should provide a basis for reflection on one’s own professional practice.
She went on to describe the first of the published studies that had to do with an online exhibit that had received negative comment due to the selection of materials included in the exhibit. The case study describes the process that addressed the problem. Within three days of the case study being posted, a comment had also been posted.
Another attendee said that she uses Benedict’s book and likes it very much. Also, that students love it for the examples it offers.
Bill Landis noted the advantages of posting the studies online, including the ability of an author to get into the conversation. In fact, an online reader with a different opinion might be prompted to write a related case study to illustrate another perspective, one from a different context and, perhaps, with a different outcome. This is something we would encourage, as it would leave a broader view of how an ethical quandary might be negotiated. Our goal, as Bill said, is to get people to think.
Tim Pyatt noted just how complex legal entanglements are these days, with donors, for example, saying one thing and legal counsel saying another. The point would be to get a lot of guidance through consultation; that it is best to bring others in to consult, thus offering additional viewpoints that, perhaps, had not yet been considered.
Another person raised the question of institutional resistance to the publication of an ethical case study that might be seen as damaging to the institution’s reputation.
Nancy said that we haven’t encountered this, though we’re quite new at this. She suggested that it would be possible to anonymize a situation by picking out part of what occurred and addressing the relevant part of the Code. Of course, once a piece is published, it is out there, and the author (and the editors) must be comfortable with it.
Someone else brought up the point that medical ethics were different from archival ethics, that the medical world would not allow the kind of discussion that we do. Nancy agreed that this was very appropriate. Someone else noted the kinds of restrictions that FERPA and HIPPA place on access to specific kinds of information.
Bill Landis pointed out that in the area of access and ethics, the business world, too, has differences with the academic sphere. How might these be negotiated, he asked. For example, might a situation arise when future donations are anticipated from a current and ongoing corporation that had already donated materials?
Tim Pyatt brought out another example of potential conflict of interest when a choice to make the historical record accessible might only be accomplished via potentially unethical behavior. He cited the example (and told the story) of a group of Warren G. Harding letters, which had recently been released (after having been sealed for fifty years by a judge in 1964), and where the family’s wishes had been for material not to be made public. Does the end result justify the actions taken to make this material public, was Tim’s question. What of the struggle between being responsible to a donor and to the historical record?
Nancy made the point that since these situations are often not a matter of black and white, this precisely suggests the value of the Case Studies, to illustrate the often unclear nature of situations that we all may or may have already encountered in our work.
Nancy ended the session by thanking all present for their attendance and by reminding folks about the handouts, should more information about the Call for Case Studies in Archival Ethics be of interest.
The session ended at 12:45.