SAA Seeks Member Comment on Draft "Code of Ethics for Archivists"

Society of American Archivists
CODE OF ETHICS FOR ARCHIVISTS

Draft Revision for Member Comment (February 1 – April 4, 2011)
Send comments to saahq@archivists.org or post them below.

[NOTE: The following is a revision of the 2005 text. Proposed deletions appear as strikethroughs; proposed additions appear in italics.]

Preamble

The Code of Ethics for Archivists establishes standards for the archival profession. It introduces new members of the profession to those standards, reminds experienced archivists of their professional responsibilities, and serves as a model for institutional policies. It also is intended to inspire public confidence in the profession.

This code provides an ethical framework to guide members of the profession. It does not provide the solution to specific problems.

The term “archivist” as used in this code encompasses all those concerned with the selection, control, care, preservation, and administration of historical and documentary records of enduring value. 

I. Purpose

The Society of American Archivists recognizes the importance of educating the profession and general public about archival ethics by codifying ethical principles to guide the work of archivists. This code provides a set of principles to which archivists aspire.

I. Introduction

Archivists support standards that bring fairness and transparency to their professional responsibilities and that inspire public confidence in the profession. Because archival holdings make possible alternative narratives toward the path of truth seeking, archivists seek to ensure that the power of archives will be open equally and fully to all members of society.

The Society of American Archivists is a membership organization comprising individuals and organizations dedicated to the engagements that arise between researchers and documents past, present, and future. Archivists are defined here as those individuals who are concerned with the selection, control, care, preservation, and administration of historical and documentary records of enduring value for the benefit of current users and future generations. Archivists endeavor to ensure that the materials in their care will be available and reliable as evidence of human activity.

The Society endorses this Code of Ethics as standards for the profession. This Code is linked with the “Core Values for Archivists” within the context of providing guidance to archivists, and of serving as an introductory overview of the archival enterprise to the rest of society.

This Code exists to increase awareness of ethical issues among archivists, their colleagues, and users. It also validates guidelines that members may consult for reflection on actions and decisions that occur within the profession and that influence the authenticity of the archival evidence that belongs to every community, state, and nation.  As advocates for documentary collections and cultural objects under their care, archivists aspire to carry out their professional activities with justice and equity.

II. Professional Relationships

Archivists select, preserve, and make available historical and documentary records of enduring value. Archivists cooperate, collaborate, and respect each institution and its mission and collecting policy. Respect and cooperation form the basis of all professional relationships with colleagues and users.

Archivists cooperate, collaborate, and respect other archivists and other archivists' institutions’ missions and collecting policies. In their professional relationships with colleagues and users, archivists are fair, unbiased, respectful, honest, and courteous.

III. 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.

Archivists exercise professional judgment in acquiring, appraising, and processing collections in order to ensure their preservation, authenticity, diversity, and enduring cultural and historical value. Archivists should carefully record their collections-related decisions and activities to make their role in the selection, retention, or creation of the historical record transparent to researchers. Archivists should consult with colleagues, relevant professionals, and communities of interest to ensure that multiple perspectives inform their actions and decisions.

IV. Trust

Archivists should not profit or otherwise benefit from their privileged access to and control of historical records and documentary materials. They execute their work knowing that they must ensure proper custody for the documents and records entrusted to them. Archivists should demonstrate professional integrity and avoid potential conflicts of interest with their institutions. They strive to balance the sometimes competing interests of various archival stakeholders.

V. Authenticity and Integrity

Archivists strive to preserve and protect the authenticity of records in their holdings by documenting their creation and use in hard copy and electronic formats. They have a fundamental obligation to preserve the intellectual and physical integrity of those records.

Archivists may not alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.

Archivists ensure the authenticity of records in their holdings by documenting and protecting the identities of records and guaranteeing that the intellectual and physical integrity of records is not compromised by tampering or corruption. Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence. They document any actions that may cause changes to the records in their holdings.

VI. Access

Archivists strive to promote open and equitable access to their services and the records in their care without discrimination or preferential treatment, and in accordance with legal requirements, cultural sensitivities, and institutional policies. Archivists recognize their responsibility to promote the use of records as a fundamental purpose of the keeping of archives. Archivists may place restrictions on access for the protection of privacy or confidentiality of information in the records.

Recognizing that use is the fundamental purpose of keeping archives, archivists promote open and equitable access to the records in their care by minimizing restrictions and obstacles and maximizing access tools. Archivists work with donors and originating agencies to ensure that any restrictions are appropriate, well documented, and equitably enforced, and that they contain an end date. Archivists minimize psychological barriers to access by providing timely and helpful reference service. Archivists know their own holdings well enough to formulate and disseminate institutional access policies and strategies that maximize responsible use.

VII. Privacy

Archivists protect the privacy rights of donors and individuals or groups who are the subject of records. They respect all users' right to privacy by maintaining the confidentiality of their research and protecting any personal information collected about them in accordance with the institution's security procedures.

Archivists recognize that privacy is sanctioned by law, but protected in practice by their own actions. Archivists review records carefully to protect the interests of the donors, individuals, and groups whose public and private lives are recorded in them. As appropriate, archivists place access restrictions on collections to ensure that privacy and confidentiality are maintained, particularly for individuals and groups who have no voice or role in their creation, retention, or public use. Archivists promote the respectful use of culturally sensitive materials in their care by encouraging researchers to consult with communities of origin, recognizing that privacy has both legal and cultural dimensions. Archivists respect all users’ rights to privacy by maintaining the confidentiality of their research and protecting any personal information collected about them in accordance with their institutions’ policies.

VIII. Security and Protection

Archivists protect all documentary materials for which they are responsible and guard them against defacement, physical damage, deterioration, and theft. Archivists should cooperate with colleagues and law enforcement agencies to apprehend and prosecute thieves and vandals.

Archivists protect all documentary materials for which they are responsible. They take steps to minimize the natural physical deterioration of records and guard them against accidental damage, vandalism, and theft. Archivists cooperate actively with colleagues and law enforcement agencies to apprehend and prosecute vandals and thieves.

IX. Law

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

 

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Please see the following reports submitted by the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (CEPC) to the SAA Council at its Jan. 27-30 meeting for background and details regarding revision:

Code of Ethics Revision Action Item: 0111-III-B-EthicsCode

Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (Annual Report): 0111-V-K-CEPC

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AttachmentSize
0111-III-B-EthicsCode.pdf67.46 KB
0111-V-K-CEPC.pdf67.74 KB
12 Comment(s) to the "SAA Seeks Member Comment on Draft "Code of Ethics for Archivists""
guariche says:
Access

I am disappointed that the words cultural sensitivities was removed from the revised version of Access in the Code of Ethics. I think cultural sensitivities are important to consider when giving access or denying access and archivists need to be aware of them. Also, what do you mean with "psychological barriers to access"? That is a strange phrase to have there, you mean that patrons will be damage psychologically if they don't get good reference service? I am not sure that phrase make sense. I will drop the word "psychological" completely and just say that "Archivists minimize barries to access...."

Cordially,

Marisol Ramos

bridgerocket says:
Draft Code of Ethics

In the first paragraph of the introduction, third line, I do not understand the phrase "the power of" and think the text should read "archivists seek to ensure that archives will be open equally and fully to all members of society."

Paul Morris 

lmiller510 says:
My problem with "open equally

My problem with "open equally and fully to all  members of society" is that it applies only to research or collection archivists, not corporate or institutional archivists. Corporate or institutional archivists do not have an ethical mandate to open their archives to anyone, at all, ever.

ldeloach says:
Code of Ethics

Suggested revision to the Introduction: delete the words "the power of": Because archival holdings make possible alternative narratives...archivists seek to ensure that archives will be open equally and fully to all members of society.

Rationale: I am familiar with Jimerson's book, Archives Power (and his presidential address); including the phrase "the power of archives" in the Code's introduction lacks sufficient context (e.g.., the power of archives to promote social responsibility, democratic accountability and community empowerment) and, inevitably, not all archivists agree with Jimerson's view of archives power. Moreover, given the confines of the introduction, the power of archves lacks clarity. Specifically, I asked several of my colleagues (an archivist, a librarian and three other staff familiar with our archives) to read the introductory text and tell me what the power of archives is. There was no agreement on what the phrase meant: the holdings? alternative narratives? should we guess? 

Overall, the draft is right on point!  It may also have broader appeal to the general public, and promote better understanding of archives and archivists.

Lynda DeLoach

susanedavis says:
Code of Ethics

I was involved in the drafting of the last Code and, frankly, was not satisfied with what we came up with.  In part there was frustration with guidance from Council and legal counsel regarding what we could and could not say.  But also, we drafted the Code with the notion that other complementary documents on professional behavior and institutional best practices would follow, which did not occur.  This draft version greatly improves the 2005 version.  I have no specific suggestion but wanted to weigh in that this addresses many of the weaknesses of the current Code.  I am curious as to the status of the core values statement which would nicely complement the Code and provide additional support and guidance to archivists.

lmiller510 says:
Two general concerns

 

I agree with Karen that this is an improvement. I especially appreciate the way the document recognizes social justice, communities of interest, and cultural sensitivity.

I’ll send specific comments as an attachment, but in general, I have two overall concerns. First, the document doesn’t directly address the mandate of archivists to approach their work in a discipline or ideologically objective manner. It instead promotes the opposite view that archives are somehow historical, or at least, more historical than sociological, anthropological, religious, planetary astronomical or any other discipline. I would like this document to directly state that archivists are not to slant their work toward history or any other academic, religious, or ideological field, but instead have an ethical obligation to approach their work in a discipline-neutral or discipline-objective (as Rand might prefer, but it somehow doesn’t sound quite right) manner.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this document grossly favors research or collection archivists at the expense of corporate or institutional archivists. It almost ignores the vast, vast majority of archivists who work in corporate (or institutional) settings. That is part and parcel of a longstanding SAA favoritism toward research or collection archivists that has severely harmed the profession as a whole. As only one example, it’s the central reason SAA lost ARMA and NAGARA, resulting in a shattered profession weakened by division and competition for resources, as Peter Gottlieb so well pointed out in his SAA presidential address.

This document is certainly not unique in this (the worst example is probably the “Association of College and Research Libraries-Society of American Archivists Joint Statement on Access to Research Materials in Archives and Special Collections Libraries,” which almost refuses to admit that the more than 90% of archivists who work in corporate settings even exist).  The fact that this is part of SAA’s historical character is no reason, however, for this committee to be complicit in perpetuating it. Peter’s presidential address is only one example of how SAA is finally realizing that serving only a tiny fraction of archivists has damaged the profession as a whole. I’d like for this committee to be part of, and supportive of, that long overdue sea-change in attitude.

Therefore, dismissing the vast majority of archivists with catch phrases such as “in accordance with their institutions’ policies” is insufficient (indeed, if I were a corporate archivist, I’d consider an attempt to dismiss my entire field with a six-word phrase offensive).  Instead, this document should clearly define the differences between research and corporate archival ethics, with an explanation that while different, they are both valid and both rooted in fundamental archival principles.

As it stands now, this is a divisive document. Fully acknowledging the existence and validity of corporate archivists and their differing ethical mandates would, I believe, make this document a profession-wide force for archival unity. That is long overdue.

Lee Miller
Tulane University 

flecknerj says:
Revised Code of Ethics

Creating regular updates to a code of ethics is an essential professional task.  It sends a message to the profession and the wider society that we take this statement seriously.  I applaud the current updating effort. 

My only substantial comment is to urge a careful look at the wording suggested here and to apply serious word-smithing to the current version.  Because the code was drafted point by point, a final editing should look over the document as a whole. Exellence in expression is not simply an aesthetic matter.  The code must invite readership -- by archivists and by the many others who cross ourprofessional paths -- not simply sit as text to be suffered through.  It should be inspiring and memorable.

I offer one example knowing that a more skilled editor than I could do far better:

Access:  Recognizing that use is the fundamental purpose of keeping archives, archivists promote open and equitable access to the records in their care by minimizing restrictions and obstacles and maximizing access tools. Archivists work with donors and originating agencies to ensure that any restrictions are appropriate, well documented, and equitably enforced, and that they contain an end date. Archivists minimize psychological barriers to access by providing timely and helpful reference service. Archivists know their own holdings well enough to formulate and disseminate institutional access policies and strategies that maximize responsible use.

Use is the fundamental purpose of keeping archives.  Archivists promote open and equitable access to records by adopting institutional access policies and strategies that maximize responsible use.  Archivists minimize restrictions and obstacles and maximize access tools.  Archivists work to ensure that restrctions on access to records are appropriate, fully documented, equitably enforced, and contain an end date.  Archivists minimize other barriers to access by providing timelly and appropriate reference service. 

John Fleckner, mostly-retired, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

elenad says:
Code of Ethics

I have been reading the ethics section of the CLIR report on digital forensics, and wonder if we should include something on the digital side of authenticity and security???? Some principles are the same as for paper documents, but is the scale of the problem so much bigger that it changes the nature of the issues....- Elena

jimerson says:
SAA Code of Ethics revisions

In almost all respects, I think the proposed revisions to the Code of Ethics redress problems with the current Code, clarify the language of the Code, and provide a better statement of ethical concerns for archivists. In particular, I am glad to see more explanations of WHY certain ethics statements are made, and the purpose for adopting these principles of professional ethics.

Although a Code of Ethics cannot address all of the considerations that archivists need to bear in mind when trying to sort out competing demands and interests, there are a few points that I would like to raise regarding the current draft of a revised Code.

Under "II. Professional Relationships," I think that relations with donors and records creators shoud be addressed. In the second sentence, I would suggest modifying the first phrase to read: "In their professional relationships with donors, records creators, users, and colleagues, ..."

In this same sentence, I am concerned about the term "unbiased." As I have discussed in my book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (SAA, 2009), I do not think that archivists can be neutral or unbiased. Our personal views and opinions do (and, in the end, I think should) affect our professional work. What we can and should strive for is objectivity (based on professional best practices, standards, and honesty) rather than neutrality or lack of "bias." So I would strongly urge substituting "objective" for "unbiased" in the second phrase of this same sentence. I also think a new word order would clarify the most important of these qualities.

With these two changes the sentence would read:   "In their professional relationships with donors, records creators, users, and colleagues, archivists are honest, fair, objective, respectful, and courteous."

Under "VIII. Security and Protection," I urge adding a phrase to clarify the purpose for ensuring security and protection for archival materials. I recommend adding a phrase to the first sentence, to make it read: "Archivists protect all documentary materials for which they are responsible to ensure that such materials will be available for future use."

Finally, I am uncomfortable with a Code of Ethics that ends with the words "vandals and thieves." I urge the addition of either a final commentary, or a section that points to the Code of Archival Values (yet to be adopted by Council). At the very least, it would be good to add another sentence or phrase to section VIII, with more positive language. My preference would be the former option.

May I then suggest adding this language:

IX. Values

In fulfilling their professional responsibilities, archivists adhere to certain core values, as articulated in the SAA statement "Core Values of Archivists."

 

My thanks to everyone who has contributed to the process of revising the Code of Ethics. Please let me know if I can provide any further explanation for my recommendations.

 

Best regards,

Rand Jimerson

Western Washington University

Bened4653 says:
draft Code of Ethics

I think that you did an excellent job with the revision of the Code of Ethics.  When CEPC wrote the last revision it was following strict guidelines furnished by SAA's legal counsel.  That code as written met with legal approval, but I agree that it was flawed and did not provide the guidance that the membership desired.

I don't know what you have encountered in the way of legal approval for this draft, but I suggest that you stand your ground.  I see nothing in the draft that would expose the society to any legal problems.  Good luck.

 

Karen Benedict

gjackson61 says:
Draft Revision to SAA Code of Ethics

I think most of the changes are positive.  However, I don't believe that removing the statement in section III noting that personal beliefs should not affect our actions is helpful.  While I think we all realize that our beliefs do affect almost everything we do, we should still strive suppress them to ensure we are carrying out the mission of our institutions, not our own personal agendas.

szyman98 says:
Professional relationships section

As an archives student who has been studying the evolution of archival thought, I have really enjoyed reading these revisions.  I think they are good adjustments.  I only have two minor comments.  The first is very minor: I suggest that the statement in the Professional Relationships section that reads, "Archivists cooperate, collaborate, and respect other archivists and other archivists' institutions’ missions and collecting policies."  should be re-worded to "Archivists cooperate, collaborate, and respect other archivists and the missions and collecting policies of other archival institutions."  Secondly, I think it may be very beneficial to briefly mention other professions with whom we as archivists interact.  I'm thinking about the excellent things that can come from working with librarians, museum curators, and other information professionals to expand access to primary sources.  I'm also thinking about the broad range of community partnerships that can be a benefit to users and great public relations for the archives.  Possibly something like this: "Archivists understand the importance of collaboration with members of other professions and see the benefits of forming partnerships among diverse organizations.  When possible, archivists leverage partnership and collaboration opportunities to enhance outreach to their users."