Archives have many stakeholders: users, donor organisation, archivist, and people
occurring in documents. Any relation between them can cause dilemmas, and the
archivist plays a pivotal role. A typical object of ethical study in this domain is
privacy (Garoogian, 1991; Svensson et al., 2016). Preisig et al. (2014): "Librarians,
archivists and other information workers had to face ethical conflicts and ethical
dilemmas long before digital media and the Internet started to reshape the whole
information sphere. Francis Bacon's aphorism knowledge is power (scientia
potentia est) refers to the fact that limited access to information and restricted
education were prerequisites of ruling elites in pre- and non-democratic societies."
(p. 11). Many ethical dilemmas are about access but plenty others arise between
archive stakeholders. For example, Preisig (2014) mentions that unlimited freedom
of expression collides with protection from defamation: archives may contain
information that, when published freely, could cause harm to individuals
(rendering a conflict with the owner or the subject of the archival matter). Ferguson
et al. (2016) introduce a list of 86 real-world ethical cases and cluster them by
dilemma. Similar to Preisig et al. (2014) dilemma is the "privacy versus potential
harm to individuals" but also included are "privacy versus organisational ethos or
requirements" - where obligations to core customers were in conflict with the
organisational interests, for example when a professor requests reading records of a
student suspected of plagiarism - and "ethics versus law" - where librarians or
archivists have a conflict between their ethical convictions and what they see as
"unjust laws". An example of the latter was where the government instructed
librarians not to buy books from a specific country. Next to data privacy, increased
digitalization of archives and their use also creates challenges for intellectual privacy
(Richards, 2015; van Otterlo, 2016a), which is the right of an individual to access
and read whatever he wants without interference or monitoring and which is a
fundamental requirement for intellectual growth, freedom of thought, and
Access is the most important issue with ethical repercussions in archival practice.
Danielson (1989): "Providing fair access to archives may appear to be a
fundamentally simple operation, until one examines specific cases." (p. 53). It often
comes down to balancing many interests of stakeholders, ranging from overzealous
researchers who want to gain access to legitimately privileged papers, to archivists
who disagree with institutional policies, and to donors who have difficulty
relinquishing control over their papers. Danielson distinguishes three distinct cases
concerning access: restricted collections, open collections, and the topic of fair
access. The first two deal with ethical issues of various forms of (legal) access
restrictions by donors because of privacy, or sensitive materials (e.g. government
documents and possible war crimes). According to Danielson (1989): "Just as
individuals are responding to a candid society with a renewed sense of privacy, so too
are institutions showing a heightened awareness of security." (p. 59). Danielson's
third case concerns equal intellectual access. In large archives it costs lots of work44
and money to find interesting things. One idea to help users is to inform them when
researchers are after similar items. Practically it is questionable whether this works.
Danielson (1989) describes several hypothetical examples related to ethics. For
example, do professors get priority over access to sources just because they are better
researchers? Do fees for copy services influence the access, and should profit and
non-profit making patrons pay the same fees? Should the judgment about the
quality of a researcher make a difference when prioritizing access to particular still
unpublished sources? And should ethical decisions be made when a journalist (who
has a much faster publication medium) asks for the same information the archivist
knows a researcher is working on?
The related study by Ferguson et al. (2016) lists five dilemmas where access to
information comes into conflict with another important value. The first is
censorship. For example, archives can contain materials about groups of people
which some people might see as offensive, so a balance is needed between publishing
information and protecting groups. The second is privacy: access to information and
records of that access could be in conflict if the latter need to be shared, for example
with authorities. The third dilemma concerns access and intellectual property. The
example that is mentioned here is translating something into braille without
copyright compliance. The fourth conflicting value consists of social obligations.
This one is personal for the archivist: should he or she work (partially) for free in the
context of budget costs, just to maintain the level of service? The last one concerns
organisational ethos or requirements. Here the specific case was about making
university theses publicly available (with pressure for "open access") even though
this might jeopardise publication of the results.
Given the many ethical dilemmas in accessing archives, the big question is how do
archivist know how to make the right choices? Several scholars all point to the use of
so-called "code-of-ethics". A code of ethics formalizes rules, guidelines, canons,
advisories and more for the members of a particular profession. Well-known
examples are the ten commandments45 of the Christian bible and Asimov's three laws
of robotics46. Another influential code is the universal declaration of human rights
which deals47 with fundamental ethics of human life. Usually codes of ethics are
used by high-visibility institutions and big corporations48, but in principle any
profession could define one. The main objectives of a code of ethics are five-fold:
Disciplinary: to enforce professionalism and the integrity of its members,
possibly with penalties.
Advisory: to offer members advice when difficult ethical decisions need to
be made, professionally.
Educational: to educate new members and show them the do's and don'ts
of the profession.
Inspirational: to (indirectly) inspire members to "do the right thing".
Publicity: to show externally that a profession and its members have clear
values and moral behavior.
archives in liquid times
44 An interesting case here is the one on Cybersyn, the socialist big-data-avant-la-lettre project from the
seventies in Chile, which was extensively described by Eden Medina in her fascinating book "Cybernetic
Revolutionaries" from 2011. In 2014 Evgeny Morozov wrote a piece in the New Yorker on the exact same
project (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/planning-machine). This created some
controversy because some people accused Morozov of plagiarism, and quite interestingly, his rebuttal
consisted of showing photographs of his own extensive search efforts in the archives of Stafford Beer
(the main person in the Cybersyn project). The issue was never fully resolved (http://leevinsel.com/
martijn van otterlo from intended archivists to intentional algivists.
ethical codes for humans and machines in the archives
47 In previous work (van Otterlo 2014b) I analyzed this code and found several necessary alterations needed for
the digital age. Recently more interest in such issues has risen, due to advances in AI and robotics (Van Est,
R. and Gerritsen, J. 2017).
48 See for example one by IKEA (http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_JP/about_ikea/our_responsibility/iway/index.
html), by Sony (https://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/csr_report/compliance/index3.html) and McDonalds