Ethics in Archives
This chapter covers ethics in archives and lays out a code of ethics.
The ethics of archival acquisition, preservation and access work in tandem with legal provisions as outlined in the previous chapters. Ethics intend to understand how actions in archives can affect and be affected by individual and organizational action and entrenched social practices. For instance, an archive may have full legal control on an object. But a researcher’s use of the object could inflict harm on the creator of the object, even if the use cannot be legally restricted.
A code of ethics is a guiding principle for a profession to abide by in the conduct of its work. It seeks to establish standards to which the profession holds itself in fulfilling its role in society. For the archiving profession this is the role of preserving tangible and intangible culture for posterity. Archivists receive, appraise, select, describe, organise, conserve and make available records of historical value. Archives underpin the writing of history and are important to humanity as a whole in understanding their place in the world. They serve the purpose of documenting the memory of humankind. Archives take many different forms and shapes and this fosters a diversity of narratives in how we tell our stories.
The Code of Ethics is committed to upholding this diversity. It follows the assertion of the archivist, Terry Cook: We Are What We Keep.1 It recognises that the ways in which we create, contest and assert facts about our history, society and culture are deeply embedded in what we choose to keep and, equally, what we do not keep. Archives, as Verne Harris famously argued, are but a distorted sliver of a sliver of reality.2 Our effort as archivists is to preserve as many of these slivers as will assist us in telling our histories in a multitude of voices and cadences. To achieve this, ethical codes for the archival profession must include all aspects of the archival process – acquisitions (and in some cases creation), custody, description, organisation, preservation, access, and outreach.
This Code of Ethics was produced by the Working Group on Ethics that comprised 12 archivists from across the country. This Working Group met as part of Milli Sessions 2022, organized by the Milli Archives Collective,3 a network of individuals and communities interested in the nurturing of archives, especially in South Asia. These are archivists from government archives, corporate archives, community archives, art archives, archives of universities, oral histories, and music, digital humanists, and historians and archivists who have worked at archives in different capacities. This section of the guidebook is voiced in the first person plural to reflect upon the collective effort of having arrived at this code. Each statement in this code reflects a consensus in the working group on what constitutes ethical practice in the archives. The first person plural voice also indicates an aspirational ethic that we are committed to pursuing and supporting.
The Code of Ethics aims to be as flexible as the archives we work in. They are a point of departure from which archives are encouraged to take their own paths relevant to their specific contexts. It has evolved over years of debates about archival ethics within communities that work with archives in India. It has emerged from a consultative process with participating archivists from various institutions and individual archivists across India. The code is accompanied by commentary that emerged during these discussions to help those who refer to it unpack the thinking that informed them. It recognises that archives are very diverse, and often faced with very specific ethical questions that cannot be addressed by a blanket statement or code. The code seeks to outline a framework for the practice of care and integrity that we aspire to bring to the archives and help archivists apply it to their collections and practices.
This code follows the traditional archival workflow. We recognise that in some archives these may run simultaneously and that there are other parts of the workflow such as co-creation, digitisation or born-digital access that it does not currently address adequately. This code also draws on governing principles outlined in the ICA’s Universal Declaration on Archives (2011),4 Code of Ethics (1996),5 and Principles of Access to Archives (2012).6 We are putting together this code as a rough guideline for archives in India to work toward, but not as a prescription or pledge. We envision that the code will develop with feedback from the archival community to be more inclusive of these practices.
Archival Ethics: A Code
We will develop acquisition policies that provide selection criteria for accepting collections and records in archives, and implications of access.
We aim to ensure transparency about the archives’ ability and resources to preserve a collection.
We undertake to document all actions in the archive on archival materials, recording any change in the content or structure of the archive and its rationale.
We undertake to preserve material against wanton destruction and document the rationale of deaccessioning or disposal.
2. Donor and Community Relations
We undertake to recognise, respect and uphold the rights of record creators in preserving the contexts of collections.
We aim to unambiguously articulate relationships with donors about custody and intellectual ownership of deposits.
We advocate for communities to have rights over their collections, especially when such rights are not upheld by structures of social exclusion.
We aim to ensure that donors have clarity about the implications of archiving their collections.
When archiving in collaboration with vulnerable communities we aim to create and select material with a sensitive understanding of the communities’ interests, decisions and knowledge sharing traditions.
3. Preservation and Care
We seek to preserve collections in the contexts and forms in which they were created, with an aim to retain information about materiality, function, order, and provenance.
As archivists we undertake to demonstrate care in our preservation practice.
We undertake to preserve material to its fullest capacity, including preservation of digital material against obsolescence.
We recognise that the integrity of the archive should not suffer in the process of description, organization, preservation, digitization, transfer, and access.
We recognise that the materiality and intrinsic properties of archival material in our care are as important as their content and that preservation includes both these aspects.
We shall endeavor to provide digital access to physical objects where physical access poses a severe risk to its preservation.
4. Access to Archives
We assert that the right to information in public archives should be underpinned by a system that allows transparent retrieval of information.
We strive to develop a fair approach to access through clear policies that explain the ways in which a collection can be accessed.
We recognize that radical openness in archives can be harmful for certain vulnerable communities and account for this in access policies.
Encourage a more inclusive and welcoming attitude to an interested and diverse public, ensuring accessibility to people with disabilities, the aged, the neurodivergent, and those who require additional support.
5. Inclusive Descriptions and Metadata
We encourage the democratization of the process of creating metadata for a collection to ensure it serves the public and communities, and enriches understanding of the archival object.
Seek to develop metadata and archival descriptions to support increased discovery, access and interoperability between archives.
6. The Archive as a Space for All
We seek to make information about the archive available and intelligible to those from different linguistic backgrounds.
We look to expand equitable access by reaching out to peoples and communities who are stakeholders and subjects of our archives.
We commit to making the archive a safe space for donors, staff and users.
We advocate using multi-modal techniques, transmedia strategies and other solutions to making the archive accessible, to address the limitations of archives as being a space for only those with a degree of text literacy.
7. The Archivist as a Professional
We strive to be accountable and exhibit professional conduct in making decisions on description, organization, appraisal, preservation, digitization, transfer, access, and disposal.
We recognise that archives and archivists are bound by legal requirements set out by national and international laws.
We undertake to preserve the trust that donors, stakeholders, and the research community bestow upon archives.
We seek to foster archives and collections that enable us to correct and counter singular narratives of a place or people’s history.
We commit to self-improvement through systematic training in skills and best practices in the profession available locally and globally.
We commit to collaborate and support other archives and archivists and those engaged in the work of nurturing archives in building, cultivating and sustaining their archives.
8. The Archive as a Workplace
We commit to equitable representation – and setting up structures to support the same – in employment in the archives.
We strive toward paying employees equitably and fairly, and making the workplace more accessible to those who are not from a background of privilege.
We aim to be open and transparent about the remuneration and benefits being offered to a candidate for potential employment.
We encourage archives to support archivists to grow professionally through capacity building that benefits archives everywhere.
- Cook, T. ( 2011). ‘We Are What We Keep; We Keep What We Are’: Archival Appraisal Past, Present and Future. Journal of the Society of Archivists 32(2):173–89. doi: 10.1080/00379816.2011.619688↩
- Harris, V. ( 2002). The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa. Archival Science 2(1):63–86. doi: 10.1007/BF02435631↩
- Milli Archives Collective. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://milli.link↩
- International Council on Archives, and UNESCO. (2011). Universal Declaration on Archives. Retrieved from https://www.ica.org/en/universal-declaration-on-archives-uda↩
- International Council on Archives. (1996). ICA Code of Ethics | International Council on Archives. Retrieved from https://www.ica.org/en/ica-code-ethics↩
- International Council on Archives. (2012). Principles of Access to Archives. Retrieved from https://www.ica.org/en/principles-access-archives↩