Core Competency G: Know the legal requirements and ethical principles involved in records management and the role the recordkeeper plays in institutional compliance and risk management.
What do you understand this competency to mean?
Archivists and records managers are tasked with complex duties that extend beyond the simplicity of caring for records. They are the custodians of information, and must be mindful of ethical and legal concerns that may arise in their facility. They must make decisions that will protect the records in their care as well as comply with laws governing information transparency, protect the privacy of individuals named in records, and maintain risk management policies that will protect all involved parties. Ethical and legal risks must be addressed by the recordkeeper in order to maintain full compliance with professional and legal standards.
When records in an archive present a question of ethics regarding their content, there are several courses of action available, including restricting access and redaction. Restricting access to archival materials can limit who and when the materials are opened to the public. In some cases, materials are given time limitations during which a collection is restricted from public access for a designated number of years to ensure that the persons in question are deceased or that any events, such as investigations or trials, have concluded prior to the collection being made available.
Redacting portions of a collection is another effective way to protect individuals or institutions that may be made vulnerable by the content of a collection. The act of redacting requires the offending pieces of information to be removed from the copies accessed by the public – a photocopy can be made of the original, the redacting portions marked out with black marker and photocopied again to ensure that the wording does not show through. The original is then placed in restricted access storage, the first photocopy is properly disposed of, and the second photocopy with the redacted information is made available with the rest of the collection.
Ethical issues also arise from basic management activities, such as employee conduct. Procedures should be in place in the archive or records center to protect the collections from negligent activities, such as incorrect de-accessioning activities, theft, unauthorized access, or the mishandling of documents that result in their physical damage or deterioration. It is the ethical responsibility of the archivist to ensure that proper procedures are followed in the archive in order to protect their collections.
Some records have legal ramifications attached to them as well. Government records fall under this category, as do records that pertain to ongoing legal inquiries or contain confidential information regarding criminal investigations, prison inmate files, fingerprints, court transcripts, tax records, or personnel files with social security numbers, addresses, and other personal information. Archivists must be aware of their responsibility toward legal compliance regarding the provision of access to these types of records in their collections.
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?
To provide evidence of my mastery of this competency, I am presenting pieces of work from LIBR 256: Archives and Manuscripts, MARA 249: Electronic Recordkeeping Systems and Issues in Electronic Recordkeeping, and MARA 211: Records Access, Storage and Retrieval. From LIBR 256 I am submitting participation responses; from MARA 249, a participation response; and from MARA 211, the final paper, titled An Archivist’s Dilemma: Restricted Access.
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 Responses
This piece of evidence from LIBR 256 is comprised of two participation questions and their corresponding responses. The first describes a situation in which a conflict of interest has arisen amidst an impending acquisition: at a theoretical university, the photograph curator has recommended the purchasing of a photograph of a prestigious member of the faculty taken by a renowned photographer; the high price of the photograph makes the rest of the Acquisitions Committee uneasy, and it is later revealed that the photograph curator and the photographer are in a romantic relationship. This type of ethical question requires a weighing of the facts in order to determine the course of action. That the photograph curator failed to make his romantic involvement with the photographer known immediately casts the acquisition proposal in a negative light. It would be unethical of the photograph curator to be pushing the acquisition in order to share the money received from the photograph with the photographer, as well as unethical to encourage the acquisition in order to earn his girlfriend further notoriety for her photography.
Without a clear motive for the push for this acquisition, my response opined that the acquisition should not go through. Only if the photograph curator recused himself from the negotiations should the photograph be purchased. It is critical that an archivist be aware of the operations ongoing within their archive, and ethical violations should be dealt with swiftly in order to eliminate any whiff of impropriety associated with their facility.
The second scenario requires the archivist to choose between pleasing their boss and acting in accordance with their own ethical principles. The president of the university where the archivist works orders the archivist to destroy a portion of microfilm that contains the university founder’s admission of his homosexual experiences. In this situation, the university president’s judgment is clearly clouded by their opinions about homosexuality. Their order to destroy part of an archival collection – even if a full copy of the microfilm is housed at the Library of Congress – is unethical and clearly a violation of the archivist’s responsibility to maintain the collection and ensure that collections are accessible to users.
In my response, I chose to err on the side of professional conduct rather than out of fear for one’s position in an at-will job. Regardless of the president’s preferences, destroying the microfilm is contrary to the codes of conduct and ethics to which an archivist subscribes. As stated in the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values of Archivists, “Access to records is essential in personal, academic, business, and government settings, and use of records should be both welcomed and actively promoted” (SAA, 2011). Acting on the orders of the university president would be in direct contradiction of this core value. Archivists must act in accordance with the ethical principles that protect the records and uphold the core values of archivists.
2. MARA 249: Electronic Recordkeeping Systems and Issues in Electronic Recordkeeping Week 12 Participation Response
The ethical implications of electronic recordkeeping was the subject of this participation response for MARA 249: Electronic Recordkeeping Systems and Issues in Electronic Recordkeeping. My response reflects my opinion of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomenon and its impact on the ethical and legal issues faced by archivists dealing with electronic recordkeeping.
As corporations continue to promote the use of BYODs among their employees, they will need to address the ethics attached to their use. Privacy must be respected while securing the devices against hackers and archiving the records they generate, all while maintaining ethical and legal archival standards. Questions regarding which records generated by the BYOD is property of the device owner and which records are the property of the corporation for which the records were created; who is liable for the security of the device also falls under the ethical and legal responsibilities of the records manager. Should records from a personal device be mined for a corporation’s records center, the ethics of retaining personal records belonging to the device owner will come into question, and it is the responsibility of the corporate archivist or records manager to determine which records are necessary for the maintenance of the corporation’s legal compliance. Complying with legal requirements to retain records that pertain to business transactions is a critical aspect of corporate records management.
If a corporation allows employees to use their smart phones for company business, it is necessary for the records manager to develop principles governing the collection of records created by the smart phone on behalf of company business and the security programs installed to protect the proprietary information on the smart phone. It would be wise to address the separation of personal and business records on smart phone devices; perhaps the drafting of written agreements allowing a company access to an employee’s smart phone when that smart phone is used for business purposes would be helpful, especially in the event of legal action regarding the privacy of the smart phone user.
3. MARA 211: Records Access, Storage and Retrieval Final Paper
My final paper for MARA 211: Records Access, Storage and Retrieval, addresses restricting access in an archive and the sometimes controversial issues an archivist may face should they choose to do so. Some of the decisions that an archivist must make in order to uphold ethical standards may fall into a gray area – restricting access can be regarded as censorship, but it can also be used to protect the reputation or personal information of an individual or institution, which would be the ethical path.
Restricted access can be cited as an ethical necessity for a variety of situations and extenuating circumstances, but restricted access also falls under the realm of legal requirement as well. According to the Freedom of Information Act, there are nine exemptions that legally allow the restriction of access to certain records. Compliance with these restriction exemptions is a legal responsibility by which archivists and records managers must abide.
This paper demonstrates my understanding of the complexities of access restrictions in an archive or records center and the legal ramifications associated with the choice to restrict – or not restrict – access. While transparency is promoted in the archive, restricting access can sometimes be the ethic option or legal responsibility of the archivist. For example, if a collection contains information regarding an individual’s extramarital activities and that individual’s spouse and children are not deceased, it may be prudent for the archivist to impose a time-based restriction to ensure that all associated parties are deceased before public access to the records are granted. This is not a legal issue, but it could be considered an ethical one. If only a portion of the collection contains potentially damaging information, then the portions considered for restriction could be redacted and the rest of the collection could be open for access.
What have you learned?
Archivists have an ethical responsibility to the records in their care and to the activities performed in their archive. Ethical questions often arise during the processing of archival collections. These issues may arise from the presence of potentially damaging information regarding an individual’s sexual preferences, political activities, controversial opinions, or criminal activities. How to approach records in an archive that have the potential to damage an individual’s or an institution’s reputation requires the application of ethical principles set forth as best practices.
It is the responsibility of the archivist to determine the seriousness of the ethical query and how best to resolve the issue at hand without letting their own political leanings or personal preferences dictate how they handle archival materials. An archivist must suppress any personal agenda to maintain an impartial view of the materials in their collections – doing so will allow them to make sound ethical decisions and maintain a high standard of ethical practices within their archive.
The responsibilities that fall to archivists are numerous and far-reaching. Risk management – both ethical and legal risks – must be recognized and swiftly dealt with in an archives or records center in order to protect records, users, and the facility itself. Understanding the professional obligations and best practices required for ethical and legal compliance in a records center assist in the application of effective risk management policies.
The ethical obligations of an archivist require them to be impartial judges of each unique situation that arises in their archive. As collections vary widely in their content and purpose, so do the ethical implications that may be impressed upon them from internal or external sources. Archivists must monitor all activities taking place in their facility – employees found in breach of ethical practices must be retrained, and the importance of adhering to legal requirements must be reinforced with scheduled training. Following ethical and legal principles in an archive will protect the records, the archivist, and the institution.
As written in the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values of Archivists, “Archivists seek to contribute to the formation of public policy related to archival and recordkeeping concerns and to ensure that their expertise is used in the public interest” (SAA, 2011). The public interest is served through the exercising of unbiased ethical principles and legal compliance within the archive, while keeping the best interests of the records at the forefront.
SAA core values statement and code of ethics. (2011). Society of American Archivists. Retrieved from http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics.