Elena S. Danielson, Philip B. Eppard, And Sara S. Hodson 2014-02-10 17:12:36
The “scholar-archivist” may be a quaint idea to many—it’s certainly not as common as the “scholar-librarian.” Richard Wendorf, a former librarian of the Houghton Library at Harvard, has lamented those in the research library community who see librarians as separate from the researchers they serve, “with their own reward systems and with technological skills that many faculty members could not begin to comprehend.” Wendorf makes a strong case for the importance of librarians, though not all librarians, being engaged in scholarly research. The same case can be made for archivists as scholars, specifically as scholars doing research in their own collections. But archivists should be aware of the ethical red flags such efforts can raise. The Controversy Disputes about the role of archivists as scholarly researchers have a long lineage.Maynard Brichford has written about the differing views of Dutch archivists Samuel Muller and Robert Fruin after the publication of the famous Dutch manual on arrangement and description. Fruin gave precedence to archival description, suggesting that selecting sources and guiding research “made the archivist a true historian.” Muller, on the other hand, eventually came to argue for the importance of “writing history and publishing sources.”Brichford also writes of Eric Ketelaar’s comment that “the archivist-turnedhistorian feels like an epicure who has become a confectioner, or a drunkard who has chosen the trade of liquor merchant, and then discovers ‘that public service takes precedence over the fulfillment of one’s own desires.’” Yet Ketelaar suggests that archivists who research and publish from their own collections are, in fact, performing a kind of public service because they are demonstrating the possibilities their archives hold for researchers. Through the Years: Archivists as Scholars Historically, the most common form of research and publication by archivists using their own collections has been documentary editions. Although archivists have largely abandoned documentary publication to a separate group of documentary editors, digitization of archival documents could result in a revived documentary editing role for archivists if the appropriate scholarly apparatus is provided with digitized documents. Several factors have helped to diminish the involvement of archivists in scholarly research. Fewer archivists have doctorates in history compared to thirty years ago. Most now receive their professional training in schools of library and information science.The demands of information technology and electronic records have posed new challenges for working archivists already dealing with an avalanche of contemporary records. Still, there is a case to be made for the scholar-archivist. The oldest code of ethics for archivists, developed by Archivist of the United States Wayne C. Grover in 1955, cautioned against archivists taking unfair advantage of their position for commercial gain or to favor one researcher over another.However, he said an archivist should “take every legitimate advantage of his situation to develop his professional interests in historical and archival research.” Red Flags So, where does the would-be scholararchivist face ethical and professional challenges? We can identify five different areas where there are potential pitfalls. 1. Equal Access When publishing from one’s own collections, the first principle is to preserve equitable access for all qualified researchers. In the 1970 Loewenheim case, the American Historical Association investigated the accusation that documentation had been withheld from historians so that archivists could publish about it first. Sequestering documents in order to publish results from them first can quickly lead to resentment from scholars Who are denied access. Generally speaking, open and equal access is the most effective policy. Let all researchers, including scholararchivists, see the same documents and draw their own conclusions. Technological advances such as scanning have facilitated this principle, so that more than one reader can examine a document at the same time.The scholarly process thrives when different researchers draw different conclusions from the same documentation. If researchers are confident that the repository and its employees promote equal access, a lot of resentment and contention can be avoided. And the work of the scholar-archivist becomes a welcome contribution. 2. A Trusted Relationship with Management No employer wants to pay staff only to find out that they are exploiting the paid work time for personal benefit. It is self-evident that no responsible archivist should be working on a personal publication while neglecting official duties for which he or she is being paid. (The exception to this rule is the few archives in which staff publications are considered a professional contribution worth supporting with paid time.) Transparency is the best policy in this situation—as it is in so many. It is best to provide full disclosure to management in advance, even for work done after hours. Fair or not, without the supervisor’s formal consent as well as informal support, publishing out of the archives could jeopardize job security. 3. A Trusted Relationship with Colleagues No archivist wants to work extra hours to compensate for a colleague who is distracted by his or her own private research and publishing work. With colleagues, perception is just as important as reality. To maintain a good working relationship, not only should the scholar-archivist be carrying his or her own weight on the job, but it should be obvious that the job is not being slighted for the glory of personal publication. 4. Weaknesses and Strengths Over time, archivists can develop a fine sense of detail. They often spot errors in names, dates, footnotes, and details that even Pulitzer Prize–winning historians can easily miss. This is a strength that needs to be recognized, fostered, and utilized. On the other hand, sometimes attention to detail creates a “forest and trees” problem for archivists in that the details distract from the broad context. Often traditional historians have a better handle on the big picture than do the archivists laboring in the trenches.Achieving self-awareness is perhaps the most difficult challenge that the scholar-archivist Needs to negotiate. In an ideal situation, archivists and professional historians review and comment on each other’s work in the research and writing process, aware of both the trees and the forest. 5. Costs and Benefits Publication confers a form of prestige. And prestige can breed competition and envy. Competition can also be healthy. Over time, both the archival and historical professions have much to contribute to and benefit from each other’s work. As technology provides new tools for effective collaboration, the give and take of the scholarly process becomes more productive. Although these five elements are not always easy to negotiate, they are not impossible to manage either. The scholar-archivist is certainly not a role that every archivist need aspire to. It is perhaps more important in certain types of institutions—the Houghton Library, the Huntington, and the Hoover Institution being good examples. As Sara S. Hodson’s work on Jack London demonstrates (at the Huntington Library), for those who have the time and talent for research and writing, the benefits are immense. Through scholarly research, archivists can become more fully engaged with many of the key users of archives. Research stimulates their minds, and such stimulation inevitably spills over to their more traditional archival tasks. Researching in one’s own collections is not the only option for archivists to pursue, of course, but it is surely the most convenient one. It offers the greatest benefit to the institution by increasing the archivist’s knowledge of his or her collection and by publicizing the work of the institution’s scholar-archivist to the larger research community. Although there are ethical pitfalls, they are recognizable and can be avoided. The digital revolution has opened up fresh opportunities for the scholar-archivist. It would be unfortunate to allow ethical concerns to shut down what can be an important and invigorating activity for archivists to pursue. This article is based on Session 709, “Mining Our Own Archives: The Ethics of Archivists Publishing about Collections They Oversee,” presented during Beyond Borders: San Diego 2012, the 76th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists. Ethics in Practice Sara S. Hodson, The Huntington Library We archivists love our jobs, and we can become deeply interested in the collections we administer. So it should come as no surprise when archivists seek to do their own research and publish based on their own collections. I myself decided to pursue this very aspiration, knowing I had to carefully adhere to the ethical tenets for archivists. I decided to go forward with publishing a volume of the photographic work of author Jack London, covering his journalistic assignments in Korea for the Russo-Japanese War (1904), in the East End of London documenting the poor (1902), in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake and fire, and other documentary work. The Issues I directly oversee the London Papers and ordinarily administer all aspects of their use. I would have to behave with the utmost rectitude to avoid violating ethics. Beyond the most basic and obvious matters—such as notifying my administration and reserving personal time to work on the project—I also knew I had to tread carefully with the many London scholars who come to The Huntington Library to use the London Papers. As SAA’s 2012 Code of Ethics advises, archivists must not take unfair advantage of their privileged access to material. In my case, the London photographs had been available and used by researchers for more than forty years, so I was not gaining special access that others weren’t privy to. Beyond that, I was sensitive to the possibility that researchers might seek to undertake projects similar or identical to my own. In fact, I was contacted by a researcher considering working on a book that was exactly like the book I had already launched. In reply, I told her about my project, outlined its progress, and assured her I had no exclusive rights or access. I informed her that my associate would assist her to avoid any conflicts of interest. Other issues included expenses, which included paying for photographic work and research trips from my own pocket.The most challenging issue, however, involved permissions. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, one of my curatorial colleagues handled all the permissions related to the book and a series of traveling exhibitions based on the publication, as well as a French translation. There are still times when the distinction between my own publishing work and my curatorial work is fuzzy, but the process seems to work. Advantages There are definite advantages to publishing work based on our own collections.One is an increased empathy for, and understanding of, the researchers we help every day. Another is an enhanced, deeper knowledge of our collections and their subject fields, enabling us to better assist researchers as they approach the collections. A third advantage is the personal enrichment we can gain when we undertake a project that interests us intellectually and fulfills us personally. In all these ways, repositories also can benefit from allowing or enabling archivists to do their own scholarly research and publishing. It is indeed possible for archivists to undertake such projects while still hewing to the ethics of our profession. The SAA Code of Ethics (January 2012) states: “Trust. Archivists should not take unfair advantage of their privileged access to and control of historical records and documentary materials. . . . Archivists should demonstrate professional integrity and avoid potential conflicts of interest.” An earlier Code, from 1992, is more explicit, stating: “Research by Archivists. As members of a community of scholars, archivists may engage in research, publication, and review of the writings of other scholars. If archivists use their institutions’ holdings for personal research and publication, such practices should be approved by their employers and made known to others using the same holdings.”
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