Guiding Principles of the Code of Ethics
These ethical statements emerged from a discursive understanding of the needs of archiving in India (see the ‘About’ section). While the statements are pithy, they are underpinned by many nuanced positions that cannot be contained within them. They reveal the positions and commitments that inform the statement of ethics. They also reinforce that ethics must respond to the context of the archives, the condition of their production, and their impact on their users, stakeholders and history. These positions are indicative of the intent to foster social justice, equitable representation, and a diversity of narratives. While each archive and archivist will implement ethical practice differently, the goal is to build archives that serve to promote these ideals. Some of these positions are expanded on here.
Archives and archivists are accountable to a range of stakeholders both internally and externally. Archivists are ethically accountable to their publics, subjects, communities, and history. They should therefore seek to be accountable to them by being transparent about processes of acquisition, access, and capacity to care for collections. Accountability also includes maintaining clear records of actions in the archives explaining why collections have been included, excluded, barred from access, or disposed of. Archives hold collections in trust for their institutions, subjects and users. Accountability must include demonstrating responsible stewardship for the needs of all its stakeholders.
Archives are also accountable to their donors, especially when these donors are marginalised, to preserve and protect their collections in their interests. Clear donor relationships that are sensitive to historical power imbalances, ethical understandings of intellectual property, subject rights and public interest are important to upholding the interest of the donors and the archives. Archives must also communicate clearly to the donors the implication of depositing collections with the archives.
Demonstrating Care for Material
The preservation of collections for long-term use is a primary archival principle. We acknowledge that preservation can be an expensive challenge, especially for small archives. Archivists should aim to extend the best available care that does justice to the archival objects in their collections. Preservation must be a well formulated strategy and a long-term preventative measure. The ability to demonstrate care is essential when archives propose to hold the collections in their care, especially archives that hold collections of marginalised and vulnerable communities.
Digital preservation has an integral role in modern archival collections. While seeking to preserve digital objects against obsolesce, archivists should also take note of the dangerous propensity to destroy original archival objects once they are digitised for preservation. Today, in most situations, digitisation is a tool and not a substitute for preservation of physical collections. Archives are more than their contents, and preserving the materiality of the archive is a critical component of preservation. Where a collection must necessarily be disposed of after digitisation, the decision must be taken carefully and in consultation with subjects, users, and communities that are likely to be affected by the destruction.
Archiving with Vulnerable Communities
Many archives in India have emerged as the consequence of archival documentation with vulnerable communities (see, for instance, the work of the Keystone Foundation in the Nilgiris in south India). Often these archives are research documentations of projects in the community. It is important for archives to recognise cultural and intellectual rights of the communities over research in which they are participants or subjects.
If community archives are built in partnership with the community, policies for acquisition, access and preservation should be created with community consent. Many peoples have their own practices and traditions of archiving and knowledge sharing. Community archiving practices would benefit from an undertaking to understand these practices to develop sensitive archiving frameworks. When dealing with communities, processes of consent and access should be available in a language and medium that is accessible for informed decision-making.
It is also important to acknowledge that ‘community partnerships’ do not imply consensus, and the consent of some members does not amount to representation. When archives are in possession of material that pertains to community members who may want to withdraw the material, these archives must review these requests with sensitivity. While it is important to respect privacy and cultural rights, archives may also encounter lobbying for deliberate elisions and omissions of violence and discrimination. Safeguarding against these is vital to the health of archival collections and of history.
Archival descriptions are powerful ways of inscribing history. They determine how history and people are represented and written. Archivists should look to undo the damages of descriptions that perpetuate discrimination, social trauma and exclusion, especially in the ways in which caste is described and represented in collections. Archival descriptions should include voices of the people that are affected by them through collaborative metadata practices bound by an ethics of care. This includes expanding an understanding of metadata and description to reflect the ways in which archival subjects would choose to describe themselves.
Descriptions also have the capacity of being triggering and traumatic, especially when the archival material pertains to subjects such as war, riots, genocide and lynchings. Archivists should seek to build environments of support where warnings about the nature of the content and its possible impact are communicated to both other archivists and archive users.
Archivists should be committed to building support systems for their professional growth. This includes encouraging and facilitating archive-specific training and skills in addition to broader capacity building and sensitivity training. This support should be built both formally and informally through archive visits, shared resources, and a mutual exchange of expertise and knowledge. Archivists should aim to build an environment where they are able to consistently progress in their careers, and archives benefit from a growing professional community with a range of expertise.
Public archives should aim to find diverse users, and acknowledge that there are many publics. Archives are agents of nurturing multiple narratives and perspectives. There is a need for more wide-ranging policies with regards to bringing the archives to the people. The aim is to maximise access as far as possible without causing harm to archive stakeholders who are marginalised or vulnerable, and to urge attitudes and practices that are sensitive to the needs of different demographics and abilities. Being open includes working towards archives that build infrastructures and sensitivity for access for those with different abilities, the aged and the neurodivergent. The goal is to counter assumptions of ableness or neurotypicality reflected in the ways in which archives are organised and made available. Committing to creating a safe space for all users of the archive involves recognising the need for differential access in some instances such as for the historically oppressed and stigmatised communities, especially Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, minorities and those discriminated against on account of their sexual orientation or abilities. These spaces need to be created in consultation with such communities.
Archives may sometimes need to dispose of archival objects. Archivists must undertake disposal only after careful consideration and after determining that this disposal shall not be detrimental to public interest in the present or the future such as the destruction of deeds that establish indigenous land rights. All disposal and changes to the archive must be documented, and the condition for the change or disposal must be made explicit. While archivists may be inclined to preserve all material in view of the legitimate argument that all things are valuable to someone, it is not always in the interest of space, environmental sustainability or the archive’s own mission.
Archivists should seek to preserve against malicious disposal, or the loss of history at risk. An archive must carefully consider the damage to the subjects and users of their collections before disposing of any material. One aim is to resist pressures to write convenient histories through archival interventions. Disposal decisions are very specific to each archive, and one must consider public interest as a guiding principle when making these decisions.
Access and Outreach
Archivists should advocate for access to archives in physical and virtual spaces, through proactive outreach and through dismantling of exclusionary structures and practices that limit access. There needs to be an intent of access in all archives whether public, publicly funded, or private. Access should be combined with outreach to let subjects of archives know that archives are in possession of records that concern them as a people, region or community. This communication is especially important as one understands that information in archives can be vital to disenfranchised peoples claiming their rights.
Archivists should try and disavow the practice of judging the worth of a request to access by the affiliation or recommendations of the requester. The right to information and the process of accessing records in public archives have been at odds ever since the Right to Information Act (2005) was enforced. The ‘bona fide’ researcher vetted for research worthiness by the state has no place in public archives when seeking access to records mandated open by the Act. Archivists should refuse to judge a research query or a researcher by the credentials of the institutions that back them, or bar people from archives based on a practice that dates to a colonial past.
As long as the points of entry into archives are dominated by the English language, archives cannot hope to be accessible to people with different linguistic backgrounds in the country. Archivists should seek to explore ways in which translations, multimedia interpretations, or visual aids can enable and transform access to archives. They should strive to make catalogues available to the widest possible public through a range of entry points as far as institutional capacity allows. Where material is at risk from physical access they should strive to provide access through digital surrogates.
The Archivist as a Professional
The archivist as a professional is responsible to their employing organisation and the society that they serve. The interest of the society and the organisation can be in conflict. Archivists should act in the interest of public and social justice, as long as that act does not jeopardise personal security. The goal is to build a community that can collectively support archivists in upholding ethics when the interest of an organisation is in conflict with public interest.
Archivists should be conscious of their own role and power over their archives, and endeavour to build practices for the archive to be a valuable service to their organisations and communities. They should also seek to build attitudes and practices that encourage the use of archives by the widest possible public.
The Archive as a Workplace
For archivists to successfully push for ethical archival practice, archives themselves need to evolve into spaces that foster and encourage these standards. This includes advocacy with the employing organisation, funders and board. The ability of archivists to implement best practices is also affected by job security, a conducive workplace, and supportive environment. Archivists should advocate strongly for fair pay, equitable and fair recruitment and support for the personal and professional development of all employees in the archives.