Statement on Ethical Acquisitions of Campus Protest Materials

The Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct acknowledges that the protests and police responses occurring on university campuses across the United States are a fast-moving, politically and emotionally charged situation that may leave archivists struggling to make decisions about how—or whether—to document current events. Ethics provide a foundation for action in times of crisis. We encourage archivists to ground their decision-making at this moment in the principles set forth in the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, and to consult resources developed by colleagues from across the profession, including toolkits created by SAA’s Crisis, Disaster, and Tragedy Response Working Group, Project STAND, and Documenting the Now.

We acknowledge, in line with our profession’s core values, “that the power wielded to select materials does not diminish or usurp the authority held by the creators or sources of these materials.” In this vein, we highlight the following ethical imperatives:

  • Professional Relationships: In their professional relationships with donors, records creators, users, communities, and colleagues, archivists should be as respectful, honest, transparent, empathetic, and equitable as possible.
  • Judgment: Archivists strive to exercise their ethical, professional judgment in the appraisal, acquisition, and processing of materials. Archivists should be transparent about their role in the selection, retention, and creation of the historical record by carefully documenting all collections-related decisions.
  • Trust: Archivists should not take advantage of their privileged access to and control of records and collections. Archivists should demonstrate professional integrity and avoid potential conflicts of interest. They seek to balance the rights and interests of all people and groups affected by archival decisions.

Archivists feeling the imperative to document current events should pause to consider the ethical and legal implications of collecting physical and digital materials related to protests, counter-protests, and police actions. Ownership of materials gathered in the aftermath of violent confrontation—including clashes between protesters and counterprotesters and between protesters and police—may be disputed or difficult to determine. Photographs, video footage, and social media posts related to these incidents may also be used to identify, harass, and prosecute participants. Archivists should be aware of, and proactively plan to manage, these and other risks associated with documenting protest movements. Questions to address include:

  • Are materials of this nature within the repository’s collecting scope and stewardship capacity? Is the repository able to comply with best practices for documenting social movements and activism?
  • Are materials’ creators and subjects willing and able to provide full, informed, and uncoerced consent to being documented?
  • Do individuals seeking to contribute materials to archives have the legal right to do so—did they create the materials in question, and if not, how did they acquire them?
  • Is sufficient information available to confidently appraise materials without the benefit of historical distance and context?
  • Are events and experiences being documented adequately through other means or by other repositories, including community and grassroots archiving efforts?

In times of social and political upheaval, archivists need to acknowledge the importance of trust between archives, the communities we serve, and the communities we document. Concurrently, we must recognize the position of power archival appraisal and acquisition holds in shaping the historical record and social memory. Archivists have a duty of care in executing their responsibilities, not just in stewarding the historical record but also to the individuals and groups whose memory, identity, and experience are reflected in the materials we acquire. We should strive not to compound through our own actions the primary traumas these materials document. Likewise, archivists and archival administrators should take steps to mitigate the risk of secondary trauma in managing difficult materials.

While archives cannot be neutral, archivists can engage in good faith with the communities we serve and document, and be transparent about our own priorities, and about the priorities of the institutions with which we are affiliated. Professional values, ethics, and standards are meant not only to guide our practice, but to ensure the trust and power dynamics inherent in archives are executed in a socially responsible manner. To acquire materials outside or in contravention of these values represents a breach of professional ethics and values.

Resources and Further Reading


Books and Zines

  • Chidgey, Red, and Joanne Garde-Hansen. Museums, Archives and Protest Memory. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2024.
  • Lawson, Margaret. How to Archive a Protest: A Field Guide for Southern Memory Workers. Jackson, MS: Invisible Histories, April 2024.
  • Morrone, Melissa. Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2014.

Articles and Book chapters

  • Behrnd-Klodt, Menzi . “Acquiring Archives: Transferring Ownership and Rights.” In Navigating Legal Issues in Archives, 39-59. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008.
  • Caswell, Michelle and Marika Cifor, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives.” Archivaria Spring 2016, 81: 23-43.
  • Danielson, Elena S. , “The Ethics of Acquisition.” In The Ethical Archivist, 47-86. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2010.
  • Grimes, Lorraine, Kathryn Cassidy, Murilo Dias, Clare Lanigan, Aileen O’Carroll, and Preetam Singhvi, “Archiving “sensitive” social media data: ‘In Her Shoes’, a case study,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 10, Article 19 (2023).
  • Jimerson, Randall C. “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice,” American Archivist Vol. 70, No. 2 (Fall-Winter, 2007), pp. 252-281.
  • Sloan, Katie, Jennifer Vanderfluit and Jennifer Douglas, “Not ‘Just My Problem to Handle’: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 6, Article 20 (2019).
  • Velte, Ashlyn, “Ethical Challenges and Current Practices in Activist Social Media Archives.” American Archivist 1 March 2018; 81 (1): 112–134. doi:
  • Wicker, Amy. “Recognizing Co-Creators in Four Configurations: Critical Questions for Web Archiving,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 6, Article 23 (2019).