A review of Karen Benedict’s “Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies”

The Society for American Archivists produced the first code of ethics for the profession in 1980 and revised it in 1992. In Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies Benedict attempts to provide a practical guide for integrating this code of ethics into regular archival practise with three chapters on the nature of professional ethics and how they interact with other factors in the archivists professional life, followed by a collection of case studies. The code has been updated twice since then which leaves the book a little outdated, but no equivalent work has been produced so Benedict’s work is still recommended today.

She begins by defining professional ethics, and how they are governed by the ethical handling of the archivist’s relationship with both the employer/employing institution and the public, as well as by the archivist’s personal ethical code. [i]Her explanation is succinct and clear and a necessary grounding for properly understanding and implementing the code. Benedict goes on to address whether professional ethics can make room for, or even require, unprofessional behaviour or circumventing the law.[ii] Benedict does not shy from depicting the consequences of either action in her examples and, having laid out the facts for the readers observation, ultimately leaves the answer in each case up to the conscience of the individual archivist. She  is not willing to take responsibility for the readers decisions on whether or how strictly to adhere to the professional codes and is very clear that ethical considerations cannot protect archivists against the law should they break it. She is keen to impress that archivists must know the law, and provides a very helpful guide to privacy and business laws as they might apply to archives in the US.[iii]

Benedict provides some valid critiques of the ethical code, namely that it is too general and features some important omissions. By design the SAA left some important institution-specific areas uncovered in order to make the code universally applicable, something which they see as an advantage but which Benedict recognises as a distinct flaw. Her proposed solution, that the institutional affiliation subsections of the SAA produce their own ethical codes, would resolve this issue very well. However, her further suggestion, that each organisation produce their own code[iv] would remove some of the advantages of having a code of professional ethics: that of continuity and consistency across the board. That continuity is important not just for archivists, who can thus carry a consistent set of principles between institutions and know that they will be shared by others of their community, but also for building trust with the public. As Dingwell says, an ethical code handed down from an official source makes the profession seem more unified and more like a profession,[v] which builds public trust.  A different code produced by every archive, (even assuming the smaller ones had the staff and resources so to do), with no consistent oversight from an official body because the SAA and other organisations would not have time to sign off on every individual code, presents a distinctly unregulated image. Horn’s suggestion of combining both ideas[vi] might seem like the ideal solution but as is often the case with ideals the problems of who would provide the resources and, in the case of smaller institutions, who would fund it, remain.

On a smaller scale she also criticises the code and its attached commentary for failing to provide guidelines on the following matters: institutional records that have been lost or stolen only to reappear on the market or in another institution’s collections, or which have been inadvertently destroyed; what counts as “legitimate competition” and who exactly gets to decide; how to decide which institutions are the “best” for housing contested collections or how to mediate disputes between competing institutions. [vii] With the exception of restricting competition, as the modern code does not admonish against it,[viii]these are all still legitimate concerns. Though she does not attempt to solve them all, making only a few suggestions, this seems to come from a recognition that her book is not the venue for doing so. In the case of deciding which institutions provide the “best” home for materials she notes a lack of benchmarks and standards needed to create any standard means of assessment rather than attempting to solve a problem she is not equipped to answer. Her position on replevin on the other hand, and the duties of both the original archive and the current holder of the material are practical and ought to serve both institutions well.  Benedict appears to take the view that it is her job to make the reader aware of the issues with the code so that in absence of any official guidance they can make their own decisions as best they can rather than to speak with an authority on those issues that she does not possess.

The selection of case studies presented, some written by Benedict and others supplied by contributors, examine a variety of different ethical problems that could occur under each section of the code. None of the studies are based on real events and all take place within a fictional setting created by another archivist. The shared fictional setting gives the scenarios a sense of realism by adding depth to the world, whilst the detachment from real events ensures that the reader cannot be influenced by partisan feelings they might otherwise have held when considering the example. The solutions consider the motives and intent of all parties involved as well as the facts of the case, something which is more likely to produce a result acceptable to all parties, particularly when, as is often the case with ethical issues, the situation itself is somewhat grey.

One way in which the book shows its age is that of digital records, or the utter lack thereof amongst the case studies. Though Benedict acknowledges the dawning of the digital age and the host of new privacy concerns it presents[ix] she does not attempt to address any of them, instead staying within the realm of the familiar paper record. Though less of a problem when the book was published, the prevalence of digital records at this point makes her failure to address any of the issues relating to them problematic as far as its usefulness to modern archivists goes. However, the representation of issues that can occur with paper records and physical collections is fairly wide ranging. As noted by Barry in his own review of the book they could happen to any archivist, in some cases without warning,[x] and Benedict does a good job of covering most of the issues an archivist might face with physical records. Interestingly not all of the examples are actually covered by the code at all, Barry contests as few as forty percent.[xi] Certainly Case 19 attempts to solve some of the issues an archivist may face that, as Benedict has already noted, are not covered by the code,[xii] but I would argue that Barry’s interpretation is too rigid. While the other examples may not directly relate to individual sections of the code they are issues that the code relates to, and Benedict is merely demonstrating the wide range of events to which it can and should be applied.

The majority of the Case Studies propose sound solutions to the issues raised, in particular Case 20 provides sound legal advice[xiii] and Case 6 provides a simple solution to a seemingly complex problem. [xiv] However, Case Four[xv] leaves a decision which could land the archive in legal trouble in external hands. Even if the reading archivist comes away with the conclusion that its sometimes necessary to break the law in order to uphold archival ethics it does not seem an ethical way to treat ones employer to take so passive a stance on an issue with such significant consequences. This Case Study is an aberration however, and the rest of her examples are careful of the archivists’ duty to her employer.

Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies provides a wide ranging and useful set of examples from which archivists can learn to implement the SAA’s code of ethics into their own working lives in a practical manner. It can also, thanks to the case study format, be used as a teaching tool for trainee archivists. Though Benedict neglects the entire digital world and some of her criticisms are out of date as of subsequent updates to the SAA’s ethical code her book is still a useful one, as paper records remain a huge part of archiving and the examples she uses are still relevant today. Her guide to law and ethics at the beginning of the book are useful ones and, perhaps most importantly, Benedict refuses to make ethical decisions for the reader. She posits suggestions only, forcing the reading archivist to really think about the issues raised and from there how to apply them to similar situations in future.

 

                                                                                Bibliography

“SAA Core Values and Code of Ethics” The Society of American Archivists. Web 23/10/12 http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#core_values

Barry, Richard E. “Karen Benedict, Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies” American Archivist 67.2 Fall/Winter (2004): 299 – 305

Benedict, Karen Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003)

Dingwell, Glen “Trusting Archivists: The Role of Archival Ethics Codes in Establishing Public Faith” American Archivist (2007): 11 – 30

Horn, David E. “The Development of Ethics in Archival Practice” American Archivist 52 Winter (1989): 64 – 71

 


[i] Karen Benedict Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003) pp 1 – 16

[ii] Ibid 16 – 21

[iii] Ibid 14.

[iv] Karen Benedict Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003) pp. 14.

[v] Glen Dingwell “Trusting Archivists: The Role of Archival Ethics Codes in Establishing Public Faith” American Archivist (2007): 11 – 30 pp. 20.

[vi] David E. Horn “The Development of Ethics in Archival Practice” American Archivist 52 Winter (1989): 64 – 71 pp. 70.

[vii] Karen Benedict Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003) pp. 11.

[viii] “SAA Core Values and Code of Ethics” The Society of American Archivists. Web 23/10/12 http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#core_values

[ix] Karen Benedict Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003) pp. 18.

[x] Richard E. Barry “Karen Benedict, Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies” American Archivist 67.2 Fall/Winter (2004): 299 – 305 pp. 300.

[xi]Ibid  300.

[xii]Karen Benedict Ethics and the Archival Profession: Introduction and Case Studies, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003) pp. 49.

[xiii] Ibid 50.

[xiv] Ibid 35 – 36.

[xv] Ibid 27.

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