Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Teaching, Researching, and and Preaching Archival Ethics or, How These New Views Came to Be

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Teaching, Researching, and and Preaching Archival Ethics or, How These New Views Came to Be

Article excerpt

Defining the Basics

If one wants to get poor teaching evaluations, challenge students with a topic such as professional ethics. This is not to imply that ethical behavior in the workplace or any profession is unimportant. Treating people with integrity and respect, protecting the broader public against wrongful behavior by all kinds of organizations, and having the sense of any professional community's necessary bond to support a broader public good are all attributes we must address in the academy, professional conferences, and public venues (see Allen, 2004; Paul and Elder, 2003). Challenging students about such matters is necessary, but it will not always lead to acclaim by students or professional colleagues. Indeed, it has the possibility of making you a controversial figure. Doing this puts you in the position of needing to make critical assessments of your field and your colleagues (soon to be former colleagues), considering difficult issues that can veer far from the practical nuts-and-bolts matters many students want and expect, and running the risk of making you sound like a pompous ass.

There are many ways to consider how to address approaching ethical issues (see Buchanan and Henderson, 2009). We can study beliefs about morality and ethics, making no judgment (descriptive). We can approach ethical matters in a normative fashion, discoursing about how people ought to act. We can consider ethical issues, and this makes considerable sense in a professional community, in an applied manner, investigating ethical issues as they play out in real-world situations. And we study ethics itself, probing into what ethics means and dissecting the language of ethics itself (meta-ethics). Looking at the range of ways we can consider ethical concerns discourages many archival educators and practitioners from contending with the ethical realm. They feel that it is too conceptual, leads them into the murky waters of religion and metaphysics, and drains their time from more important practical matters. Many students agree with this assessment.

Not to deal with ethics is, in my opinion, potentially far worse than trying to wrestle with this area. Two commentators on information ethics provide an explanation about why this might be the case: "If we accept the importance of information, the power of information, then, we, as information professionals, are dealing with enormous power on a daily basis. We should know the value of what we've dealing with and be able to defend our actions and positions within these positions of power" (Buchanan and Henderson, 2009, p. 21). Given the nature of records, with both their information and evidence, it stands to reason that such an assessment applies equally to archivists and what they handle.

Scholars and commentators considering ethics in the modern information age argue that the rapid advances in information technologies are accelerating the density of ethical issues and even creating new ethical challenges. They point to matters such as the freedom of information; economics of information; privacy, secrecy, and confidentiality; intellectual property; control over the access to information; information security; and other issues such as intercultural information ethics (Rudinow and Graybosch, 2002). Archivists have long seen the technical issues of the new digital and networked information and records systems as their major obstacles and challenges, but these technologies also create a range of ethical dilemmas.

And we can read or hear about archival ethical issues generated by the sweep of the new technologies. For example, physicist Robert Laughlin writes, "Our society is sequestering knowledge more extensively, rapidly, and thoroughly than any before it in history. Indeed, the Information Age should probably be called the Age of Amnesia because it has meant, in practice, a steep decline in public accessibility of important information. This is particularly ironic given the rise of the Internet, which appears to spectacularly increase access to information but actually doesn't" (Laughlin, 2008, p. …

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