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Ethical dilemmas or football?

June 19, 2012

Many thanks to Anne and Alexandra for the following write-up of the last meeting on ethics…

Nothing like an ethical dilemma, we had hoped, for drawing a crowd and provoking a good argument.  And so it proved as we welcomed several new attendees (and achieved our best ever turnout) to the Marquis of Granby on 11th June to discuss the new ARA Code of Conduct.  And to best of our knowledge, we only lost the one archival soul to the football (or as she put it, a case of pub misidentification, you decide) – although what our fellow diners at the Marquis made of it all, we shall presumably never know.

Noting that the Code of Conduct is heavily based on the ICA Code of Ethics, we spent some time discussing the purpose and audience for each, and whether in fact a distinction could or should be drawn between the two.  Maybe the ARA Code should be renamed to make it more transparently an ethical framework?  Those present found it difficult to determine who the code was aimed at, i.e. users, archivists, records managers? Some felt that the Code of Conduct was not really aimed at archivists or records managers, but more like a description of how the public/user could expect an archivist/records manager to behave.  The other end of the table would in fact have liked the Code to move more decisively into the wider societal contexts relevant to recordkeeping and recordkeepers, and felt the current version was weakened by the attempt to twist its function into a disciplinary code for the ARA.  We discussed the synergies between a code of professional ethics and wider moral paradigms such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and tested the robustness of the code against a variety of practical and fictional ethical scenarios.  To what extent is the Code a document “of its time” (ICA Code of Ethics=1996)?  How does the Code stand up in the light of the last 16 years of experience of digital recordkeeping?  What relevance might the Code have to recordkeeping issues current in Syria or Yemen?

We were concerned by the contradictions in the code, whereby one ethical transgression could perhaps be justified by recourse to other statements in the document, although appreciative of challenges of drafting a suitably broad yet not nebulous framework.  As a disciplinary document too though, it is unclear how the Code could be enforced.  For unlike the legal or medical professions, there is no requirement to be a member of the ARA in order to practice as an archivist, therefore what effective sanction could be imposed?  We would be intrigued to know whether the Board and Honorary Secretary of ARA has ever been called upon to make a ruling as to the “proper standards of professional behaviour” as the Code outlines, and how the Code of Conduct would be called upon in these circumstances.  Perhaps the answers will be found at ARA London’s own discussion on ethics this coming Thursday, 21st June?

A lot to think about then and, as well as the ARA London meeting, there will also be one final chance in June to discuss the ARA Code of Conduct – namely the Cardigan Continuum Twitter chat, which will be held on Monday 25th June at 8pm. Not long to wait so if you have any questions you want to raise, get them in soon and comment below!

And finally, looking futher forward, the next face to face meeting will be held on 2nd July at 6.30pm in the usual place (The Marquis of Granby), and the subject for debate will be around the role of scholarly publishing in the profession and the impact of social media and open access publishing in this context. To get a sense of what we mean by this, please read the following blog entry (thank you, Richard) on ‘Deprofessionalization and the library blogosphere’ and also a recent article from The American Archivist (also available here) on ‘Open Access Publishing and the Transformation of the American Archivist’.

One Comment
  1. I agree with many of Alexandra’s comments and found the ‘objectivity and impartiality’ with which records should be appraised particularly hard to swallow after having spent most of my academic years revelling in postmodern literature. Is this code another sign that the professional associations are lagging behind modern archival thinking and practice?

    The code is clearly inspirational but I still have a previous Cardigan Continuum discussion in mind about the archives accreditation scheme where professionals were lamenting a lack of resources to achieve the high standards laid out. I often think that setting standards and codes high is good on an aspirational level but it needs to be accompanied by some mechanisms to help members achieve such standards. How is the ARA supporting archival training and ethical education? This might not be part of a discussion of the code itself but that was my initial reaction reading what would be expected of me.

    Also, having been pleasantly surprised by the open consultation process for the archives accreditation scheme, I wonder why members were not consulted about a draft code?

    This leads me to questions for the Twitter chat:

    Would members have liked the opportunity to comment on the code?

    How will members’ conduct be assessed in cases of potential breach and by who?

    Looking forward to the chat on Monday!

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