Are You Willing to Go to Jail for What You Believe?

Since the election, just a month ago, there have been a lot of expressions of fear concerning what the new president might or might not do. Some of these fears have been exaggerated and others have been wrapped in bigotry and hatred. Some seem well founded. Some seem paranoid or hysterical. The important thing in all this is to reflect on our own beliefs and convictions and to be prepared to defend those worth defending. This applies to our vocations as well. And since a considerable portion of our time is devoted to the work we do, it is an important task all of us must tackle. My reflection, as I near retirement, will be different from that of my students who are just starting out in their careers. Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to tackle this task.

What aspects of archival work and mission are worth defending, in proactive and visible ways? In totalitarian societies there are many archivists as well, and we in a democratic society often have wondered how they function. This is because we have associated our archival work with broad access, accountability, transparency, and other such values. Yet in Nazi Germany the vast majority of archivists were Party members, often involved in managing records associated with atrocities against Jews and other groups. Throughout the world truth commissions have been established, often with a mandate to create and maintain archives separate from national archives, the latter sometimes seen as complicit with political movements jeopardizing the rights of citizens. While there has developed a stronger archival literature about social justice and human rights, debates still rage about how such matters connect to our professional mission. While I do not believe we are moving toward a totalitarian form of government, I am concerned that the new president does not understand the difference between running a corporation and leading a democratic government.

For many archivists, having a code of ethics or professional values seems satisfactory. Yet, we know that these statements are not enforceable and for many only represent targets to aspire to – ideals, not practical attributes. However, as we enter into this new post-truth era where fake news not facts reign and where Twitter is used to bully individuals who express different views than the President-elect, we need to ask whether such mushy views of ethical conduct are sufficient. It is one thing to battle over academic issues on the inside of professions and disciplines; it is quite something else when careers and lives may be threatened for speaking one’s mind. The specter of television news transformed into reality shows with journalists, if there are any left, simply there to try to manage various “experts” or “surrogates” talking over each other is disconcerting, but it seems possible, even likely, that this may spill out to mangle old traditional archival values. Archivists, as do other professionals, need to know precisely what they believe and to commit to protecting and speaking up for these beliefs. Simply pointing to a framed code of ethics hanging on an office wall is no longer sufficient (if it ever was). New pressures, public scrutiny, and even new laws may challenge them in the future in unprecedented ways.

I have taught and written about archival ethics for many years. One of my common themes is urging individuals to investigate their own ethical sensibilities, in order to be prepared for the workplace and societal challenges they might face. Archivists, and other professionals, often take for granted the idea that they will not face any serious matters that might involve ethical challenges. We should be able to dispel such a notion by just imagining our basic principles against those not only of the incoming administration but also from politicians, business leaders, and others from around the world. While the most we used to worry about was the occasional restriction placed on certain records by donors or a thorny intellectual property issue, now archival challenges include deliberate destruction of records to conceal criminal and other nefarious activity, hatred aimed by extreme groups because of providing access to documents about past events, and the creation of false facts distorting history.

Just like we can never know beforehand whether a thief is going to walk into an archives, now archivists must be prepared to contend with a more extreme form of security, the possibility of terrorist attacks on them, their holdings, and researchers using the documentary materials. Already we have heard about the Trump transition team wanting to know the names of individuals at the Environmental Protection Agency who have worked on the global warming reports and regulations. I would not be surprised if the new administration targets federal funding programs providing support for the arts and other cultural programs presenting views that it does not agree with. The President-elect has called the television show Saturday Night Live biased and bad because of the way it parodies him. So, make sure you do not go our of your way to be critical or to collect materials that might be construed to be critical.

We can look at this in another way. The next few years could present the archival community with many golden opportunities to speak out about its mission. No one knows if Mr. Trump will keep using Twitter the way he has this past year or two, but if he does he will daily give archivists, librarians, historians, scientists and others interested in honest and truthful visions of our society and its past opportunities to present documents and other materials providing a counterpoint. Archivists, in particular, will be able to explain themselves and their mission on a regular basis and in ways that will likely gain public and media attention. Just think of the possibilities, reflecting back on some of the topics that have emerged in the past year – refusing to disclose tax records, denying various rumors and false stories, leaked classified records, and hacking into emails. All we need to do is to start practicing composing Twitter-length responses. But, first, you must determine if you are willing to lose your job or even go to jail for what you believe and practice.

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