Archival Ethics with Changing Practices: The Impact of Technology

Reporting again from the SAA conference, I attended an excellent panel this morning on “Archival Ethics with Changing Practices: The Impact of Technology” (program; wiki page), featuring some excellent presentations on the way new information technology is spurring new ethical dilemmas for archives and archivists of all shapes and colors:

Technology is changing the way archivists perform their jobs, but are archivists’ ethics changing under the strain of technology? As technology changes, archivists must reexamine their ethics. Ethics standards rooted in a paper and limited-access world are no match for the ethics required in an on-demand, multi-format world. What are the ethical standards that archivists should be employing in this technological world? How do archivists view their ethical role as technology pushes practices?

I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Katie Shilton, a PhD student at UCLA. Her talk, “Ethics in the Digital Archive: Balancing Privacy, Participation, and Representation”, articulated key privacy concerns that arise given that archives are increasingly storing more granular and personally-identifiable information about subjects. She also called for a more contextual notion of privacy to help archives deal with the acquisition, storage, and potential access decisions related to personal information. Shilton also highlighted the increasing permanence of archival data, and suggested that perhaps archives should “forget” certain pieces of personal or sensitive information in their holdings. A controversial position for an archivist, but one that deserves further consideration.

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