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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Archival professionalism and ethics : An assessment of archival codes in North America May, Trevor Ian


This thesis explores the subjects of professionalism and ethics as they relate to archivists and seeks to assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of the ethical codes adopted by two national archival associations in North America. The archival profession in North America is in its infancy compared to its status in Europe. Having been identified with serving scholarship and other "non-essential" pursuits, archivists have begun to involve themselves in more vital records management tasks involving access to information and privacy issues. As the archival profession strives to achieve greater public recognition and trust to better carry out these and other sensitive tasks, the need for a code of ethics has become more acute. Both the Society of American Archivists and the Association of Canadian Archivists have developed codes in the last few years in an attempt to set standards of conduct in the face of rising responsibilities. However, many of the elements have been borrowed from other codes and with the need to ensure that such codes will be observed by members and enforceable by sanction, it seems timely that some means be established for analyzing their effectiveness. This thesis attempts to establish the tools for analysis of archival codes of ethics. To this end, it examines professionalism and ethics and the relationship between them. It draws upon the literature on emergent professions, establishing some of the characteristics of recognized professions. It also draws upon the literature on professional ethics to determine how one might look at existing codes from an ethical perspective. It examines the nature of archives and archival work to identify ethical principles regarding archival material and its treatment. Ultimately, the elements of these foregoing discussions form the basis for analyzing archival codes of ethics. The thesis generally concludes that ethical codes must be placed in an ethical infrastructure which reinforces the values and principles embodied in a code of ethics. Moreover, a better understanding and consensus about the purpose or goals of the profession needs to be achieved and stated in the codes themselves. Greater attention needs to be paid to formulating basic principles which can be applied in unpredictable situations. Greater use of logical relationships between code components is also needed. Finally, to become truly useful, the North American codes need to be made more comprehensive and to this end, it is suggested that professional archival groups abandon their attempt to provide ethical guidance solely in encapsulated form.

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