Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Locating Agency: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Professional Ethics and Archival Morality

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Locating Agency: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Professional Ethics and Archival Morality

Article excerpt


The world is on fire. Societies all over the world struggle incessantly and aggressively over the control of information to shape commonly held understandings of the present and the meaning to be derived from the past. These constructions and reconstructions have the potential to both legitimate and operate in opposition to structures of domination and injustice. Such dynamics feature regularly in the mass media. Consider the following:

* Scholarly access to the world's largest Holocaust archives- the International Tracing Service (ITS)-had, until recently, been denied for over sixty years. This is remarkable given that these files were likely to reveal the names of unknown victims and shed new light on the structure and administration of forced labor and extermination camps.

* Japan's ongoing struggles to remove from its high school textbooks long acknowledged responsibility for major war crimes committed by the Imperial Army during World War II.

* How political considerations regularly confound attempts in the U.S. to formally recognize the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century. Turkey continues to forcefully deny its responsibility for this genocide, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and uses its geostrategic importance to the U.S. to defeat recognition.

* Key portions of Serbia's military archives from the Bosnian war were withheld from the International Court of Justice, leading several insiders to comment that such secrecy helped to absolve Serbia from charges of genocide and exempt it from monetary reparations.

* Access to Bulgaria's cold war intelligence archives was contested amidst charges that they would identify current political and business leaders as collaborators with the communist era security services.

* Brown University recently mined its archives as part of an effort to investigate its historical culpability in slavery and the slave trade. It launched a series of public events to stimulate discussion on institutional responses to the relationship between the present and past injustices.

* In 2006, a U.S. National Archives audit found that up to one-third of 25,000 documents secretly removed from public access at its facilities since 1999 were inappropriately re-classified by various agencies.

What is striking from these examples is not isolated to their profound nature. Equally remarkable is their ordinariness. A myriad of similar struggles could have easily been highlighted. The intersection among archives, professional ethics, archival praxis, the agency of individual archivists, and struggles for social justice is constantly at play across the globe. In such settings, archives and archivists can serve as instruments for sustaining, undermining, and challenging power and injustice. Yet, normative discussions of archival ethics largely evade these issues, and the promulgation of professional codes of ethics provides little value for understanding and reacting to these complexities.

Given these evasions, this paper examines how voices within disciplines external to archives have engaged their own professional ethics as a means for illuminating these deeper issues. It notes how they have done so by recognizing and acknowledging professional ethics as a terrain far more complex and difficult than normative constructions allow. Although I point to this problematizing of professional ethics witnessed in anthropology, sociology, business, medicine, bioethics, philosophy, communications, history, post modernism and even the maturing ethics practitioners profession, I do not offer their insights as direct analogies to archival contexts per se. Instead, I contend that these literatures and discourses can assist the archival profession in deepening and enriching its construction and reconstruction of professional ethics. This knowledge and insight is organized along a number of key themes: professionalism; professional codes of ethics; professional and individual psychological connectedness; historically informed analyses, and strivings towards social justice, which is given sustained treatment. …

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