Core Competency A: Articulate the ethics, values, and foundational principles of archives and records management professionals and appreciate the important role record keepers play in social memory and organizational accountability.
What do you understand this competency to mean?
While the purpose of archives and the role of archivist can appear to be straight-forward, it is, in fact, a multi-faceted discipline with many complex considerations, including ethics, legal liability, privacy, and usability. Archivists are often faced with a variety of challenges in their facility, to which they must apply best practices to resolve potentially sensitive or complicated issues. Archivists and records managers operate within a structure of foundational principles that set forth best practices for collections and records center management, and serve to protect the archive, its collections, its staff, and its users.
Archival ethics and values are shaped by these foundational principles. According to the Society of American Archivists, the core values of archivists include access and use, accountability, advocacy, diversity, history and memory, preservation, professionalism, responsible custody, selection, service, and social responsibility. Archivists are tasked not only with making good choices for the records in their facility, but also for exercising sound judgment regarding their employees, both paid personnel and volunteers. Ensuring that all members of archival staff have received proper instruction in best archival practices and ethical standards will help protect archival collections.
The Code of Ethics for Archivists as set forth by the Society of American Archivists lists professional relationships, judgment, authenticity, security and protection, access and use, privacy, and trust. Adhering to this ethical code ensures that archivists are maintaining their facility and the collections in their care fairly, upholding the core values of archivists in even the most complicating situations.
An archivist’s role in social memory is shaped by their involvement with the records and the level of processing completed for collections. Collections processed at item level are generally accompanies by thorough finding aids, which contribute to social memory collective accessed by users in the research pursuits. At the folder level, social memory is produced as a ‘bigger picture’ by which researchers can access a broader comprehension of a collection before narrowing down specific research criteria.
It is inevitable that an archivist’s role in the preservation of social memory is critical not only to the records in their care but also to the user experience. Creating finding aids is one area of records management in which the archivist has the ability to promote social memory and possibly influence the user’s experience with the collection. As Sue Breakell wrote in her chapter of Jennie Hill’s The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader titled ‘Encounters with the Self: Archives and Research,’ “Although archivists strive for objectivity in their own engagement with the archives for the purposes of cataloguing, many have commented on the invisible impact of the archivist, shaping the archive as it is experienced by the user” (Breakell, 2011).
Archivists act as guardians to their records collections and the information held within, tasked with protecting those records as well as providing access when feasible. Breakell asserts that “This is an interesting time to be an archivist, with archives becoming not only embedded in people’s daily lives but also emblematic in political and social culture. In the popular imagination, archives seem to be associated with control, order and stasis; or imagined as dusty basements, treasure-troves of dramatic stories and truths untold” (Breakell, 2011).
What course assignments or other work products are you submitting as evidence of your mastery of this competency? Which source or class is your evidence drawn from?
As evidence of my mastery of this competency, I am submitting pieces of work from both academic and professional sources. The academic sources provided include a participation response from LIBR 256: Archives and Manuscripts and the final report for MARA 293: Professional Projects. The third piece of evidence is the annotated box and folder list that I maintained during my processing project conducted at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
Why did you select these particular work products as evidence for your mastery of this competency? How do your selections show not simply learning by also application?
- LIBR 256: Archives and Manuscripts: Theme One Participation Response
I chose this set of participation responses from LIBR 256: Archives and Manuscripts for its demonstration of my understanding of the critical role of an archivist in maintaining ethical standards in their archive.
The first scenario presented is one that poses an ethical quandary and requires a plausible resolution: the recommended purchase of a pricey photograph has been called into question over the legitimacy of the sale due to the romantic relationship between the photographer and the photograph curator who has facilitated the purchase of the photograph. This conflict of interest calls into question the motive of the purchase – if the photograph curator will profit from the transaction, then ethical propriety should be examined. Accompanying the scenario are several questions, which direct focus to the status of the situation, if the transaction should be completed, and how to proceed if the transaction were to be continued.
In addressing the photograph curator’s relationship with the curator, I recommended that the negotiations be suspended due to the ethical violations apparent in such a transaction. That the photograph curator initially concealed his romantic involvement with the photographer prior to and during his pitch for the purchase of a photograph for the university’s special collections indicates some impropriety on his part. In is unclear if he will profit from the university’s purchase of the photograph – which would further my argument to halt negotiations for the purchase of the photograph. If the purchase were to occur, I recommended that the photograph curator recuse himself from further negotiations in order to eliminate any whiff of impropriety on his part.
It is important to protect archival collections from potentially harmful behavior enacted by any members of staff. The disregard for ethical conduct displayed by the photograph curator could have harmed the integrity of the entire collection, as every transaction brought about by the photograph curator could have been called into question.
The second scenario dealt with the ethical implications of censorship in an archive, and the appropriate action to take when asked to perform unethical activities in the archive: the memoirs of a university’s founder reveal his formerly-concealed homosexuality, and the dean of students has ordered the archivist to remove and destroy the portions of the collection that allude to his sexual preference and experiences. In my response I indicated that the censorship of the collection was unethical and contrary to the foundational principles of the archival profession. Complying with the dean’s wishes to destroy a portion of a collection based only on his beliefs regarding homosexuality would be contradictory to the role of the archivist – to care for all records subjectively without imposing their own beliefs on the materials, and providing access to information whenever possible. Censoring these records violates core archivist principles, and would be highly unethical.
In responding to this second scenario, I also addressed the lack of implied privacy expectations demonstrated by the university’s founder in his donation of his memoirs. In making a point of documenting his homosexual experiences in his memoirs, in fact, he appears to be comfortable with making that part of his life public knowledge. It is therefore not the job of the school dean to tamper with the memoir or order anyone else to do so – privacy is not violated when information is given freely without the expectation of censorship.
I believe that these participation responses reflect my thorough understanding of not only the ethical code of conduct within which archivists operate, but also the necessity for organizational accountability in an archive and the role an archivist plays in maintaining and upholding organizational accountability. If an archivist repeatedly censors the records in their holding or makes acquisitions on behalf of their institution for personal gain, they face the deterioration of accountability for their collections, and any records from their facility would lack professional integrity.
2. MARA 293: Professional Projects: Final Project
I chose my Final Report, written for MARA 293: Professional Projects, as evidence of my mastery of the competency because of its ability to demonstrate the role that archivists play in protecting and promoting social memory.
The report opens with an overview of my project, followed by the status of the project, an evaluation of the client (which has been omitted from the provided copy for privacy concerns), a discussion of any challenges presented while completing this project (also omitted from the provided copy for privacy concerns), unexpected outcomes of the project, a discussion of any future opportunities afforded by the project, a discussion of the learning outcomes met during the project, and attached deliverables at the end of the report.
The nature of the project reflects the magnitude of the impact that archivists have on the preservation of social memory. As detailed in the project overview, I was tasked with processing a large collection of diaries, photographs, and other papers that had belonged to a lifelong Maine resident. In processing this collection – including carrying out arrangement and preservation activities and creating a finding aid – I realized the inextricable link between archivists and social history. These diaries are filled with reactions to historic events – such as the Iranian hostage crisis – as well as first-hand accounts of popular trends and shifting social norms.
The work expended on this project also serves as evidence of my mastery of this competency. Organizational accountability is reliant upon the quality of work conducted in an archive and the judgment exercised therein. While processing this collection I – at all times – maintained the ethical standards expected in the Maine Historical Society’s archive, acted in accordance with foundational archival principles in mind, and took care to perform my archival activities to meet the expectations of the archive, the donor, and myself.
The attached appendices serve as the deliverables of the project, and provide ample evidence of my comprehension of the impact that archivists have on social memory. Finding aids are often the chief result after processing a collection, other than a well-organized and preserved collection. Finding aids allow users to gain access to pertinent information within a collection without compromising the arrangement or the structural integrity of the collection, and should be able to convey the relevance of the collection to a collective or specialized social memory.
3. Notes of Beadle D Correspondence
The final piece of evidence is an annotated box and folder list that I maintained during a processing project completed as part of my internship at George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. While interning in the archive, I was tasked with processing a small portion of the vast collection of correspondence regarding the nursery business once operated on the Estate. The previous order of the records was being improved and I was assigned one alphabet letter of the correspondence to arrange. My mastery of this competency is evidenced in the annotated portions of this box and folder list – these notes reflect the historic value gleaned from the various pieces of correspondence and my interpretation of their value to social memory.
Where the list has been annotated, beneath each folder are descriptions of items that may be of interest during the execution of a research query. These items include quotes from, summaries of, and explanations of letters to Chauncey Beadle, Biltmore’s second superintendent and director of nursery operations, or orders placed with the nursery.
I believe that this annotated box and folder list is demonstrative of my understanding of the role that archivists play in the preservation of social memory. While processing this portion of the collection, I took careful notes of the content of letters or nursery orders that I believed may be of use in future research endeavors. Social memory is served by the preservation of archival collections and the creation of finding aids that are informative and user-friendly – finding aids that convey the nature of the collection and the depth of information contained within can assist users in their research endeavors, thus strengthening the core of social memory surrounding the history of a collection. Through this annotated box and folder list of Beadle correspondence, parts of the collection of particular importance were denoted with further explanation.
What have you learned?
The role of an archivist or records manager is comprised of many responsibilities, molded by codes of values and ethics. Maintaining adherence to fundamental principles and best practices ensures the best outcomes for the preservation of social memory and organizational accountability. Acting in the best interests of one’s collections requires careful consideration of fundamental archival principles and the ethics and values that govern one’s behavior toward those collections. Managing archival collections requires a subjective attitude to ensure the fair treatment of all records regardless of an archivist’s personal reactions or beliefs; once accessioned into a collection, records become sacred relics of social memory, to which archivists owe their careful and unbiased attentions.
I have been fortunate to have the ability to put into practice archival theory learned from various coursework throughout the MARA program. While volunteering at the Maine Historical Society, I have been faced with ethical issues that pressed me to consider my obligations to the records, library patrons, and the author of the collection, and determine the best course of action to satisfy all parties involved. Resolutions for ethical qualms require flexibility and creativity in order to meet the demands of both the archive and the patron.
An obligation to the preservation and promotion of social memory is perhaps the most intrinsic of the lessons I’ve learned through both hands-on experience and classroom learning. The wealth of knowledge to be found in an archive or repository is vast and exponential with the passing of time – one day even our methods of preservation and storage will be considered old enough to learn from – and the importance of preserving these records for future generations is a great responsibility for archivists and records managers. Social memory shapes our recollections of the past and conjures images of bygone eras – the accuracy of these images and recollections relies on the extensiveness of archival holdings and the preservation of records that bolster memory with fact. Without social memory supported by archival collections, society would lack the rich fabric of history that adds luster to our present and our future.
Breakell, S. (2011). Encounters with the self: archives and research. In Jennie Hill (ed.) The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader. London: Facet Publishing, p 23-24.