When Good Archivists Go Bad: The Role of Ethics and Values in Everyday Archival Decision-Making

By Sarah Davy – Director, Collect [Division], Acquisition and Research, NZFA

Image: http://www.zazzle.com/be_nice_to_archivists_stickers-217305967026347798

Image: http://www.zazzle.com/be_nice_to_archivists_stickers-217305967026347798
Image: http://www.zazzle.com/be_nice_to_archivists_stickers-217305967026347798

Archivists all have bad days at work. Internally, in the face of decreasing resources we are consistently asked to do more, faster, better, and cheaper; while external expectations, such as those of users seeking greater digital access to the collections we care for, are also intensifying. These may lead to decision-making situations where we feel compromised and pressured, generating the potential for poor choices. For some of our fellow archivists overseas the consequences of their actions in these instances have included, at worst, a criminal conviction, and a jail term.

The yellow bumper-sticker above features a furtive looking character about to file a document from their desk into an adjacent recycling bin. This darkly humorous image encapsulates the risks of the profession – where a stressed, overworked, underpaid and under resourced archivist considers the consequences of professional anarchy. It reminds us that we archivists have great responsibility to make good decisions every day, no matter how we may be feeling personally. What to do in difficult times? Do our professional codes of ethics support us? What roles do personal, professional and organisational values play here? How can we look after ourselves to ensure we are in better shape to confront and work through the professional challenges we face?

These are some of the issues I explore in an article recently published in Archifacts, a journal published by the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand. Writing this article offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on these questions and more. For details on how to access the full article, visit the Archifacts website.