Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Values and Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Values and Ethics

Article excerpt

Essential Principles and Values

The importance of focusing on goals rather than methods also applies, I believe, to the professional life of an archivist. In order to meet their obligations to employers, or to society (in the broadest conceptualization of their public role), archivists should keep focused on the end results they hope to achieve through professional endeavors. As the venerable civil rights song says, "Keep your eyes on the prize." Archivists should not be distracted from their ultimate purposes by the daily obligations of work (putting one foot carefully in front of the other), nor concern for what others are doing (looking leftor right), nor the shorter time frames of projects and deadlines (looking ten feet ahead). To keep such a focus, archivists can begin by articulating their underlying principles, their core values as members of a service-oriented profession. These core values provide a basis for defining archivists' ultimate objectives-the prizes they seek to achieve-and for articulating the rules of ethical behavior they should follow in meeting their societal responsibilities.

With many obligations and limited time and resources, it is easy to get tangled up in daily or weekly "to do" lists. Working archivists usually focus on the what and how of professional duties, often with little time to reflect on why they are accessioning records, arranging disordered files, preparing finding aids, and answering reference inquiries. Considering professional values and goals openly and mindfully will help archivists to remember the ultimate purposes and societal benefits of the archival enterprise. It will help them to provide better services for researchers, employers, and their fellow citizens. If archivists do this well, it should reinvigorate the archival profession and enable them to fulfill their crucial role in modern society.

Such an approach embodies what James O'Toole calls "a moral theology of archives": "When archivists appraise and acquire records, when they represent them in various descriptive media, when they make them available for use, they are engaging in activities that have moral significance beyond the immediate concerns of managing forms of information." As O'Toole states, these archival responsibilities suggest "how a concern for historical accountability is a part of the archival mission, a way of elaborating a practical moral theology of archives."1 Such a perspective, I think, must come from a combination of attention to the core values of the profession and consideration of the ethical framework within which archivists fulfill their responsibilities.

Archival Codes of Ethics

Defining standards of professional conduct provides a key component of establishing the societal role of any group of professionals. It marks a significant difference between an occupation-people working at similar tasks-from a profession, which has both public and private responsibilities to carry out, based on specific expertise, training, and obligations. Codifying ethical standards is one step in achieving professional autonomy, according to Elena Danielson. In defining professional ethics, she writes, "The requirements of the employing institution are harmonized with the principles of the occupation and with its code of ethics."2 For archivists, she states:

The goal is to establish a standard of integrity that inspires confidence in the documentary record. ... It should serve as a trusted source for historians, journalists, and policy makers. It should have a baseline of truthfulness that will encourage a respect for factual evidence. It should serve as a corrective to the wild interpretations that periodically invade political and civil discourse. The result is a community with a vivid but accurate shared memory, one that is periodically reconceptualized to enhance an awareness of social responsibility.3

In defining the moral components of professional actions, a formal code of ethics may either prescribe or proscribe certain forms of behavior or define the outcomes desired by members of a profession as they carry out their responsibilities. …

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