Ethics in Archives: Blogging for Transparency

Despite only having six letters, ethics is a pretty big word, and can be a tough subject to talk about or explain. When coupled with explaining archives, the task grows, especially when the audience of that explanation is the general public with likely minimal understanding of how the two fit together.

At North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, we believe it’s vitally important to have those conversations and establish a standard of transparency about archival work. For the past year, Jessica Serrao and Taylor de Klerk have published blog posts on what archivists think about as they face ethical decisions.

The series supports the department’s goal to use its blog as a tool to provide behind-the-scenes access to Special Collections and increase transparency. It also provides an opportunity to spark a broader conversation about ethics and archival practices.

The series consists of six posts and each post relates to a different area of archival work. These are described in more detail below:

Ethics in Archives

NCSU Libraries' Special Collections Research Center Reading Room

NCSU Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center Reading Room

As the introduction to the series, this post discusses how and why ethics are important in archival work, and the various topics that the series will cover. It provides a foundation for the discussion based on the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics.


Ethics in Archives: How Special Collections Protects Your Privacy

Shelves of restricted boxes from NCSU University Archives

Shelves of restricted boxes from NCSU University Archives

This post discusses issues of confidentiality and how NCSU Libraries’ Special Collections protects the people documented in our collections. It includes visual examples of how we redact personally identifiable information and references laws relevant to the archives.



Ethics in Archives: Discoverable Description and Accessible Arrangement


Written description on folder label

Describing and arranging archival collections is an ethical act because it is easy for inherent biases to creep into finding aids and arrangement schemes. This post covers how some of the decisions archivists make affect ethical and fair archival description and arrangement, resulting in improved discoverability and access.


Ethics in Archives: Preservation Despite the Odds


Degraded tape and a micro spatula

This post tackles how archivists’ preservation decisions can affect an object’s fate. It argues that preservation decisions prioritize certain items over others, and that archivists should consider the ethical consequences of their decisions on the historical record and on user needs.


Ethics in Archives: Conscientious Collection Curation

A sea of tubes containing architectural drawings awaits pickup by NCSU Special Collections staff.

A sea of tubes containing architectural drawings awaits pickup by NCSU Special Collections staff.

Curators have to consider many ethical decisions when acquiring new materials. From building strong donor relationships and managing donor expectations to understanding how acquisition decisions affect which stories are preserved and which are silenced from the record. This post points out some of those ethical considerations that arise when curating collections.


Ethics in Archives: Diversity, Inclusion, and the Archival Record


Brickyard Diversity Project, 2013, Edward T. Funkhouser Photographs

Archives have a significant amount of social responsibility on their shoulders. This post covers several approaches for upholding that responsibility, including making records available for institutional accountability and incorporating diverse voices in the archival record.



Keep an eye out for the next post in this series–it will address digital collections and the ethical aspects of acquiring, processing, and providing access to digital archival materials.

This blog series works to positively complicate understandings of what archivists do by turning a spotlight towards the tough ethical decisions archivists make. Ultimately, these posts are intended to further spark discussion about archival ethics and how others address similar issues at their institutions.

By: Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries

2 thoughts on “Ethics in Archives: Blogging for Transparency

  1. danielteolijr says:

    Enjoyed your article/s! Transparency is very important. Many archives offer nil in this area. Liked the photos and behind the scene details of your archives as well. Interesting to see how various archives handle their collection.

    Thanks for preserving history!

    Liked by 1 person

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