Assignment 6: Exploring an Ethical Dilemma

Kenny Martin

Info 256

Assignment 6


Prompt I chose: You discover a bag full of records in the basement of the company you are working for as a corporate archivist. On the face of it, it is clear that the documents contain very sensitive information on slush money paid by your company and bribery by the Chief Executive Officer. Apparently, the bag has been put there to be destroyed or to be put out in the trash. What do you do?


My answer to this question is that the archivist SHOULD NOT take the bag of documents they found and work to process them and add them to their collection. This argument is based primarily on the Categorical Imperative.

I don’t think it is a good idea to have “archivists can incorporate records that aren’t given to them into the archives” as a universal maxim. It seems like an action unbecoming of a professional in any field, and in the case of archivists it creates a mess when it comes to preserving context and authenticity. If there is only one collection that is obtained in this manner, and it is clearly documented how it was found, then overall the archives still has order because all of the other collections were accessioned normally. But if there are lots of collections obtained in this dubious manner, even if they are documented as such, it throws the entire archives into chaos and doubt. In this one instance, perhaps the archivist will be acting in the interest of the public and researchers, but in the long-run they are establishing a precedent that can cause harm to the public, as well as their own company. Obviously, the creators of the records in this case are not abiding by the Categorical Imperative, either, but that doesn’t make it right for archivists to then break another Imperative. I do not believe someone should hold as a maxim “Archivists will not add documents that are not given to them explicitly for use in the archives, unless the information will expose another’s wrongdoing.” This assumes the archivist knows all of the facts surrounding the information, and it is impossible for the archivist to know everything (because they only have some paper records). To have this as a maxim runs the risk of violating the privacy right of the CEO, which is to publicly reveal information of the CEO which paints him in a false light. Also, the archivist would have to define wrong-doing. If the archivist defines wrong-doing as everything that is not on the up-and-up, they run into the problem of having an archives filled with unofficial documents. If the archivist uses a sliding scale to define degrees of wrong-doing, then it is a subjective scale, which is inherently problematic.

I reject the teleological view of ethics in this situation, where the ends justify the means, because it is really hard for an archivist (or anyone) to predict what the consequences of making the slush money information public will be. While justice may be served to the corporate higher-ups and CEO, there may be unforeseen consequences to other employees. For example, maybe this will lead to the ruin of the company and everyone who worked there will be out of a job.

The SAA Code of Ethics appears to contradict my view when it says, “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” However, I choose to read this as items entrusted in their protection, and not to apply to records not given to them. It is not an archivist’s job to donate materials, but rather to receive donated materials. When an archivist receives materials, even though likely only one person is giving them the records, but other people are mentioned in the records, at least the archivist has the chance to ask the donor (who can usually be thought of as a representative) if there is any sensitive material that requires consideration. Essentially, there is some consent, but in the case of using records meant for destruction, there is no consent.

This situation also has parallels to what the Web Archive does. The Web Archive has many web crawlers that are constantly taking screen-shots of web pages everywhere and saving them for the public to view. One example that is very similar to this prompt is when the Web Archive was the only place you could find the post by Igor Girkin saying, ““We just downed a plane, an AN-26.” Shortly after posting it, the post was deleted, but the Web Archive managed to preserve it. (Lepore 2015). One could say that a snapshot of a post that is subsequently deleted is equivalent to picking up a document that is marked for trashing, but posting on the Web is much different than throwing a piece of paper in the recycling bin. When you post something on the Web it is understood that it can and will be seen publicly, something which does not apply to a company’s recycle bin. I do not believe the Web Archive is breaking a Categorical Imperative in this instance because it can be said that everything that is posted to the Web is equivalent to a collection being donated to an archive, simply because of the nature of the Web.


Dingwall, G. (2004). Trusting Archivists: The Role of Archival Ethics Codes in Establishing Public Faith. The American Archivist, 67, pp. 11-30.

Lepore, J. (January 26, 2015). Can the Internet be archived? The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Society of American Archivists (1997). SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics. Retrieved from


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