A Presidential Reader? Not Likely

By all reports, our current President is not a reader. President Trump’s many gaffes in statements about American history and his glaring lack of contextual knowledge about political, religious, and many other topics all suggest he is not a reader or a reflective individual. Many of our Presidents have been avid readers. Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) tells us about our first President’s interests in reading.

George Washington has generally not been recognized as one of the more intellectual founders of our nation, seen more as a man of action and practical application, but, in fact, he loved reading and owning books. He believed that studying was an important activity to be done through life, not just in his youth. As it was for many of the Revolutionary generation, Washington read with particular aims in mind, such as running his plantation, understanding politics and economics, but also for leisure and recreation.

For those interested in archives, Hayes provides many references to manuscripts and various sorts of documents. Washington’s library was full of pigeonholes where he stored personal papers extending back to his adolescence (p. 16). Washington maintained journals and was a dedicated letter writer, and his writing was clear and often powerful, no doubt a result of his reading habits. Washington was also a careful bibliographer, who kept a record of his book acquisitions and books given to him as gifts or as part of inheritances. Hayes describes how after the Revolutionary war ended, Washington brought back to Mt. Vernon a “vast amount of personal and professional writings, many carefully recorded in letter books, all with an eye towards helping to document the founding of the new nation (pp. 215-216). Even during Washington’s lifetime, individuals came to Mt. Vernon to consult his papers, along with painters and sculptors seeking to capture likenesses of the Revolutionary leader. And there was also publication of selections of his letters before his death. There is no doubt that reading had a substantial impact on Washington’s writing ability, enabling him to compose such classic documents as his Farewell Address. When he was on his deathbed, Washington instructed one of his aides to care for his “letters, papers, and financial accounts” (p. 312). Given our current President’s activities, it is difficult to imagine him doing anything but ordering the concealment or destruction of his archives; he is more fixated on seeing his name on hotels, golf courses, and other economic ventures.

All of this is quite a contrast to President Trump who seems to be obsessed with watching cable news, surrounding himself with advisors who will only tell him what he wants to hear, and reacting quickly and emotionally with Twitter messages when he feels offended or questioned. Trump has not and will not compose anything of worth; Twitter does not lend itself to that.

Among Hayes’s conclusions is this: “Books form an essential part of the history of the US presidency” (p. 287). At least they did until the present chief executive. We can get a sense of President Trump’s priorities by examining his just released federal budget proposal. As SAA reported, “ The Trump Administration on May 23 released a Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2018 (under the moniker “A New Foundation for American Greatness”) that would ultimately eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The proposal also would zero out FY 2018 funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and cut funding for the National Archives and Records Administration by $16.6 million.” There are a lot of other harsh realities in this budget, but I just want to emphasize this President’s utter disregard for arts and history, the result of a life of not reading (at least as far as I can tell). Rebecca Solnit, in her book about hope and despair, writes, “Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change”; Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. xix. I contend that amnesia can result from a purposeful avoidance of reading and reflection.

Professional Schools and Social Responsibility

I have spent my academic career in a professional school and, as a result, I continue to read new studies that emerge about this aspect of higher education. Duff McDonald, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite (New York: Harper Business, 2017) is a lengthy recent addition to this genre. McDonald, a freelance writer and editor, presents a rich, detailed portrait of this important business school, one he contends has become the center of Harvard University. While I think it could have used some editing, it really did not need to be so long, it is still worth the effort for anyone interested in this aspect of higher education.

McDonald provides a detailed history of this school over its century, its changing purpose, search for ideas and principles, and societal influence. For example, the much touted and well-known case method is placed in its institutional context, showing both its value and weaknesses as a pedagogical approach. We also obtain information about how HBS has been connected to the management consulting industry “has been joined at the hip to the business school complex . . . almost since the founding days of each” part of it (p. 199). We learn about the struggles to include women in the faculty, the uneven results in educating leaders and entrepreneurs, and the uphill battle to promote a social conscience for the school.

A topic of particular interest to me is how the HBS has handled, or in some ways, mishandled, business ethics. It is also a topic that fascinates McDonald, who states, “Over the course of its hundred-plus year history, one thing that the Harvard Business School has never figured out is how to truly integrate ethics into the curriculum” (p. 429). This is a statement that could be made, of course, about many professional schools. The first full course on the topic was not introduced into the HBS until 2003. A preoccupation with business school rankings and helping its graduates make money seems to have pushed social responsibility and accountability matters to the wayside. McDonald laments the “marriage of profits and politics.” He concludes by stating, that if the HBS wants to be “relevant – to be important – to the future well-being of us all, then it’s time they stopped pretending to make the world a better place and actually started doing so” (p. 578).

The Golden Passport will make anyone involved in a professional school reflect on what it is doing and how it benefits society. Some reviewers have complained that the book is too critical of the HBS. However, I doubt that it is.

On Tyranny

It is difficult to keep up with the political controversies in our country and abroad. Just when you think that it cannot get worse, or more bizarre, it does. There are, of course, many issues raised by these controversies archivists and other records professionals must ponder for their work and careers. The political environment’s transformation is affecting much of what we have assumed to be part of the archival mission in a democratic society, mainly because our democratic traditions and forms are fundamentally threatened. To understand these threats, I recommend a reading of Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

Snyder, a historian of the Holocaust and European history, in his brief book gives us a poignant cautionary tale about American politics. You can read it in one sitting, although I found myself having to put it down in order to reflect on what he is saying. There is a lot of powerful stuff in its pages. Drawing on historical events, he reminds us why history is important and because of its importance why it is being neglected, twisted, and rewritten by contemporary politicians and commentators.

There is much in this book that should resonate with archivists, if they bother to read it. Snyder urges us to “remember professional ethics,” with this chilling assessment: “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor” (p. 38). He adds, “If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable” (p. 41). In other words, if we think we should not be involved politically, recognizing that in our case records are political creations and exists within a political context, then we risk the possibilities of becoming irrelevant or, worse yet, pawns in the process of undermining democratic governance.

Snyder urges us to “stand out,” not just to follow along in the pack. This has proved to be difficult for many archivists and their allies. Some say we must be quiet and objective, so that we do not draw attention to ourselves instead of our records. However, this presents the very real risk of undermining our mission to preserve the documentary materials that allow us to understand the past and, hence, the present. We need to understand that our mission is to preserve documents for this purpose not to preserve our profession or jobs.

This historian also urges to be more reflective by getting off of the Internet and reading books. In my years as an academic, I have seen my students, fortunately not all of them, spend more and more time on social media and less and less time in reading and reflecting about serious texts.

Snyder also urges us to “believe in truth,” something that is not particularly popular these days, even among some archivists. He writes, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle” (p. 65). Snyder makes an argument that “post-truth is pre-fascism” (p. 71), and his book is an exploration of why fascism can happen here. We know that there were archivists in fascist societies, happily plying their trade and serving the state. I believe that the archival mission is about serving a greater public good, but this takes conviction and courage. It means that a code of ethics is not about archivists being law abiding but about knowing when the high road is breaking the law in order to preserve important documentation, such as what we have seen some doing with evidence about global warming. A true ethics code must now incorporate into it a statement about resistance.

Throughout this brief tome, Snyder discusses the importance of knowing the past, arguing that a decreasing knowledge of history is a major factor in why so-called populist movements have taken hold and way politicians and pundits present lies as truth without hesitation or shame. Acknowledging the importance of the past and truth ought to make archivists happy. Indeed, a new element of the archival mission ought to be the role of societal fact-checkers. We present the documentary record in order to provide the materials for legitimate understanding of our history. At the very beginning of this book, Snyder states, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct” (p. 9). That instruction is not possible without archivists working to preserve the records. And, in order to do this, archivists will need to work in more courageous and sometimes controversial ways. That message is about the best I can pass on to the next generation of archivists. Snyder notes that “protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets” (p. 84). See you there.

Forgeries and Thefts

There are many ways to value archives. One of the more surprising ones seems counterintuitive, their theft and forgery. Yet the growing scholarship on this topic, and the popular fascination with it, reveals that this is an important means to understanding why archival records are valued. The array of book-length publications on this topic, from broad historical surveys to specific case studies, also often discusses matters of interest to archivists. Studies of literary forgeries and their circumstances and motivations are of obvious relevance since these documents can find their way into legitimate archival collections. Studies of art and other forms of forgeries often lead to the fabrication of documents to develop a false provenance. Theft is an even more direct way of revealing how society tends to value archival and related materials, and archivists and other professionals who provide care for such valuable items need to be knowledgeable about how it occurs in order to enhance their security systems.

What follows is a description, not comprehensive but suggestive (that is, publications I have read), of the growing literature, scholarly and popular, about forgeries and theft. I am not including journal literature or references to movies and television shows, although these are definitely worth exploring as well. I have included a few references to fictional accounts of theft and forgery that are noteworthy for what they suggest about such activities in society.

Compelling Stories and Colorful Personalities

One of the reasons that looting, thefts, and forgeries attract public attention and interest is that they often represent compelling stories. For instance, there are numerous books tracking the Nazi confiscation of art and eventual recovery from Jewish individuals and families, such as Edmund De Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Catherine Scott Clark and Adrian Levy, Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure (New York: Walker and Co., 2004), and William H. Honan, Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard (New York: Fromm International Publishing, 1997). The pioneering analysis of the Nazi campaign to loot Europe, in itself an interesting story, is Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage, 1994). Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015) explores the bizarre story of one man looting on behalf of the Nazis and the subsequent story of his ill-gained collection. The possibilities of good stories also has led to some interesting fictional accounts, such as B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012).

Many forgers have been colorful personalities and some have been the subject of book length treatments, such as Brian David Boyer, Prince of Thieves: The Memoirs of the World’s Greatest Forger (New York: Dial Press, 1975), a study of a free-hand forger and Frank Wynne, I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006). We even have confessions of various kinds of forgers, such as Ken Perenyi, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (New York: Pegasus, 2012). There are other colorful personalities that we encounter in the world of falsified and stolen cultural heritage. Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman, a FBI special agent involved over two decades with tracking down art and other thefts, tells his story in Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (New York: Crown, 2010). Morris Eksteins, Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012) tracks the career of art dealer Otto Wacker and his sale of forged Van Gogh paintings and subsequent trial in 1932. Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) provides a set of case studies about art fraud focused on the personalities and the legalities. Perhaps the most candid forger memoir is Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), providing numerous insights into motivation and techniques but not in a way that will elicit any sympathy from archivists. As a reminder that literary forger is nothing new, Joseph Rosenblum’s Prince of Forgers (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1998) is a translation of an 1870 study of the career of Vrain-Denis Lucas.

Forgers and their forgeries often make for engaging stories in their own right. Charles Hamilton, Great Forgers and Famous Fakes: The Manuscript Forgers of America and How They Duped the Experts (New York: Crown, 1980) is a well-illustrated popular account, with some useful information for archivists and other researchers. Another popular and useful account by another well-known autograph dealer is Kenneth W. Rendell, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). That forgery had emerged as a major issue for archivists, librarians, collectors, and dealers can be seen in the proceedings of a 1989 conference on the topic, Pat Bozeman, ed., Forged Documents: Proceedings of the 1989 Houston Conference (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1990).

As a result, there are a number of journalistic accounts of forgeries suggesting the public interest in this topic. Robert Harris, Selling Hitler (New York: Penguin, 19860 is a detailed account of the forgery of Adolf Hitler’s diaries, revealed to be a poor forgery yet one that initially fooled many experts and led to sensationalistic news coverage. Autograph dealer Charles Hamilton provides another account in his The Hitler Diaries: Fakes That Fooled the World ((Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991). Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1988), follows the ignoramus career of Mark Hofmann, who forged early Mormon imprints and documents, peddling them to the church, willing to purchase sources that were contrary to church history and doctrine. On the art side, Edward Dolnick gives us an interesting account in The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper, 2008). Possibly the most detailed scholarly study of a forger is by Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman, John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), a scholar who dabbled in forgeries concerning Shakespeare and other English literary figures.

Looting and Theft

We have witnessed wide scale looting in the Middle East in recent decades, focused on the theft of antiquities, a significant portion of which are archival in nature. Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) considers the theft of materials from this museum in 2003, how it happened, and why it was allowed to occur; an excellent companion of supporting evidence, policies, and perspectives can be found in Lawrence Rothfield, ed., Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008). Some have responded to the criticisms about museums accepting materials of suspicious origins by defending their research and educational functions, such as James Cuno, Museums Matters: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). And it is obvious we are racing against time, as aptly portrayed by Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). These studies reveal the debate about museum collecting and the mission of the encyclopedic museum, the kind of debate that has not occurred in the archives field (and that probably should).

We need to remember that many nations have been engaged in the most aggressive kinds of looting, something presented well by Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (New York: Verso, 2008). The sculptures, long housed at the British Museum, have been a high-profile test case for when and how art and archeological objects should be returned to the country of origin. An interesting study is Sean McMeekin, History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), describing how this revolution was financed by the sale of art, antiques, and other sources. The pioneering study on this topic is Jeannette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), with numerous case studies of theft and repatriation from around the world, with conclusions about patterns and approaches. Archives and related materials have been regularly stolen by the victors going back thousands of years, creating a genre of archives now known as displaced archives. A recent volume considers this topic, with essays on post-decolonialization, European archives, the Middle East, and elsewhere, with discussion of laws and international treaties; James Lowry, ed., Displaced Archives (New York: Routledge, 2017). Astrid M. Eckert, The Struggle for the Files: The Western Allies and the Return of German Archives after the Second World War (Washington, D.C.: Washington Historical Institute and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) is a detailed study of one complicated case. These kinds of instances remind us that archives and records are often inextricably intertwined in politics, something we are reminded about in Margaret Procter, Michael Cook, and Caroline Williams, eds., Political Pressure and the Archival Record (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005).

We are not immune to looting in our own country as David Howard chronicles in Lost Rights: The Misfortunes of a Stolen American Relic (Boston: Houghton Harcourt Mifflin, 2010), the story of one of the fourteen original copies of the Bill of Rights stolen from a North Carolina courthouse at the end of the American Civil War. In every direction we look we can discover examples of documents and other objects that have been stolen and that either went into the hands of private collectors or were acquired eventually by archival, special collections, and cultural repositories.

Theft of art objects and archival materials has continued to occur because of the elaborate marketplace that often does not distinguish much between that has been stolen and that that has been acquired legally, as well as the immense prices that paintings and other art objects can command. A sense of the challenges can be seen in Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museum (New York: Public Affairs, 2006). Roger Atwood, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004) demonstrates that although tomb raiding is very old that the modern world has seen its expansion because of a much more sophisticated market mechanism. Matthew Hart, The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art (New York: Walker, 2004) follows the theft of art from an Irish estate in 1986. Sandy Nairne, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners (London: Reaktion, 2011) investigates the theft of paintings from the Tate in London in 1994 and other high profile art thefts. Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2011) considers the past century of thefts of paintings by this grand master and what it reveals about such crime. Phyllis Mauch Messenger, ed., The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989) offers a set of case studies on acquisition violating ethical norms and sensibilities. Such thievery can be more complicated than making money, as we learn in Lisa Moses Leff, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), following the career of Zosa Ztajkowski, who produced scholarship about the history of Jews in France while systematically stealing and selling documents in Europe and elsewhere. One of the best books ever written about a thief follows the career of Gilbert Bland, Jr., who focused on stealing rare maps from archives and special collections, offering a comparison to legitimate collecting; Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (New York: Random House, 2000). Simon Houpt, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft (New York: Sterling Publishers, 2006) provides a well-illustrated assessment of art theft across the globe.

Art and Literary Forgers

Partly due to the rising prices of fine art, there has been a parallel growth in art forgeries, leading to volumes of case studies of such fraud, such as Philip Mould, The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures (New York: Viking, 2009); Indeed, attribution and authentication of art works is a complicated process, involving collectors, dealers, and scholars, a process described through one case in John Brewer, The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art, and Money ((New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Some, such as Jonathon Keats, Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), have tried to show the role of forgeries in art and in society, depicting this activity as a sometimes legitimate, and important, means of expression. There are also scholarly assessments about the roles, aspirations, and motivations of forgers, revealing forgery to be a much more complex activity than is often assumed; Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) is a particularly important, seminal, work. Judith Ryan and Alfred Thomas, eds., Cultures of Forgery: Making Nations, Making Selves (New York: Routledge, 2003) provides eleven essays of instances in the past where forgeries were used to bolster identity, memory, and meaning, not always as a means to fooling or tricking anyone. Paul Malszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (New York: New Press, 2008) is a popular account of why forgery has experienced a popular upswing in recent years. And forgery is not new. Ingrid D. Rowland, The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) recounts the story of the forgery of ancient Roman and Etruscan documents.

Nearly as interesting as art forgers has been the work by literary forgers, characterized by Nick Groom, The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature (London: Picador, 2003).

We cannot forget the fact that early forgeries were not necessarily intended to deceive individuals and authorities, but they were often an effort to support legitimate claims, by adding documentary sources and evidence where none existed, such as argued in Alfred Hiatt, The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-Century England (Toronto: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2004).


As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, what I have described here is not a comprehensive assessment of the scholarly and popular literature on the topic of forgeries and thefts. My purpose here is to suggest two things. First, given what archivists do, it is important that archivists be aware of these publications and that archival educators incorporate this into their teaching of students preparing to work as archivists. We can argue that this is important given that a major element of what has been considered to be the core knowledge of archival science, namely diplomatics, has to do with the authentification and trustworthiness of documents. Diplomatics re-emerged in an important way in light of the continuing shift to digital recordkeeping and the recognition of the increased fragility of such documents (for both areas see the work of Luciana Duranti). Now, we can add to this the increasing debates about alternative facts and fake news, threatening to undermine ay concept of evidence and truth.

Second, it is important that archivists see the need for new case studies and other research into thefts and forgeries. Much of what we have seen recently plays on the personalities of the individuals involved and the salacious details of particular cases, rather than their implications for archival work and mission. For example, one of the most high profile cases of document theft was that of research files from a tobacco company which ultimately played a major role in legislation about the health implications of smoking; see Stanton A. Glantz, John Slade, Lisa A. Berg, Peter Hanauer, and Deborah E. Barnes, eds., The Cigarette Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Despite the importance of this case, archivists and other records professionals paid little attention to it and its implications. We need to do better.


A Commencement Address

On April 30th I was the speaker at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences commencement ceremony. This was the last commencement of the school, as it becomes the School of Computing and Information on July 1. This was a great honor, and a nice way of marking my own forthcoming retirement on December 31. I was asked to address the topic of the school’s focus on information ethics. Here is the address.

As a professional school, most students arrive here with specific vocational aims. This makes sense. However, if we fixate on just the practical, we shortchange you and ourselves.

Life is complicated, no less so than with the information professions. Technology has long been known to often have unintended consequences. The Web has contributed, as just one example, to issues now dubbed as fake news, relying on the notion that there will always be some people who believe almost anything, as they rail against what they perceive to be gatekeepers, just because they can find it on the Web.

Isn’t it ironic that what some are now calling the Post-Truth Age was not long ago confidently called the Information Age? By trying to focus on building and harnessing new digital tools, we miss the ethical implications of our work. It has taken me the better part of three decades to understand this. We need to remember that because our work is at the heart of the time we live in that what we do and how we do it is far more important than we usually think.

It is no secret that social media, buttressed by a glittering array of digital information technologies, now play substantial roles in national and international political, cultural, economic, and other activities. We believe we know more. However, constant haranguing about “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news” suggest we really do not.

Ethics is an essential component in the education and work of all information professionals. By ethics we mean having sensitivity to the moral dimensions and actions of what we do. Technology is not something we can ever assume is neutral; it operates within society and its institutions and is affected by politics, economics, culture, and other factors, as many have suggested over quite a long time. Information ethics has been an important topic in our School since the 1980s.

We must be sensitive to the consequences of our use of information technologies, so that we do not develop and use ones with negative implications for society. As information professionals, it is our responsibility to act ethically, meaning even disobeying at times (by refusing, resigning, or leaking) what we have been ordered to do. This is, of course, difficult. We should not be surprised about the sometimes dismal role of information technologies in our society, since we often treat these technologies like part of a religious experience, determining how we think and act. This is why information ethics is so important. We, as individuals, need to be prepared to work ethically. Our information schools ought to be places where both faculty and students learn to contend with contrary views, skepticism, ironies, and other challenges.

Our School has had a long tradition of focusing on the ethical aspects of information work and use. Our previous dean, Toni Carbo, working with Professor Stephen Almagno, established a course and lecture series on information ethics. Professor Kip Currier now continues to teach the information ethics course, and he is also writing a new textbook on the topic. I teach a course on Archival Ethics and have written books and articles about such matters. There is also an Ethics Reading group, and out of it has emerged a project to produce a book of essays, tentatively entitled The Conscience of an iSchool. We are dedicating this book to our current Dean, Ron Larsen, who has supported our efforts to integrate ethics into the curriculum. I am hopeful that the new School of Computing and Information will continue to have a strong focus on ethical issues.

We are a nation built on laws, information, transparency, and citizens’ rights. There are also international human rights statements upholding such values. It is easy, in the transition from analog to digital, to grasp onto a technocratic belief – that technology dictates us and our activities. My purpose today is to offer some advice for graduates as you make your way into the profession and world.

Consider You Own Ethical and Related Beliefs and Principles. How each of you handles what I am discussing has to do with your personal moral and religious sensibilities. Some, philosophers and others, argue that you do not need religious values for ethical conduct. Maybe. But I think you need something that is bigger and better than yourself. Ultimately, faced with an ethical dilemma, what will guide you? If you have nothing to draw on, you will be lost.

Become Familiar with Your Professional Ethics Codes. Professional associations have ethics codes or professional conduct statements. While these vary in quality, sometimes too general or lacking enforcement mechanisms, they nevertheless provide a good starting point for understanding the ethical implications of our work.

Read Widely About Professional Work and Its Societal Context. Once you graduate, you cannot stop reading the professional and scholarly literature. Books, articles, Websites, all abound and offer many different perspectives about the role of digital information technologies. Read different perspectives and wrestle with contrary views.

Disconnect and Reflect on the Bigger Implications of What You Do or Want to Do. We have become so accustomed to hearing about the power of information, that we stay connected 24/7, giving ourselves little time, if any, to reflect on matters like the ethical issues we might face. We need time to reflect. Surfing and browsing on the Web is not the same as reading and reflecting.

Understand How Your Employing Organization Works and What It Values. You need to understand what you might face in your organization. Given the nature of work you do as information professionals, it is quite likely that sooner, rather than later, that you will encounter inappropriate or questionable actions. What will you do? Start preparing now for these challenges.

Question Everything. You need to be skeptical about what you do, asking hard questions, challenging yourselves about your intentions and aspirations, as well as challenging, when necessary, others. We all accept the power of the technologies we are working with, and this means we must accept the great responsibilities we have been given.

Listen Carefully. Become good, and respectful, listeners. Try to understand other points of view. We spend a lot of time talking over each other, creating greater problems.

Be Prepared to Speak Out. No one can deal with unethical issues and other related matters unless you are prepared to speak out. This takes conviction and courage. It is not easy. I am hopeful that what I am saying will begin to help you prepare to be this kind of information professional.

You are graduating from a university whose motto is Truth and Virtue. When you look at your diploma, you will see those words on its seal. They are not there by accident or without intent. They are not some secret code. These words provide practical advice to live and work by. I hope this will set a responsibility heavy on your hearts and minds as you move forward. Congratulations on finishing your degrees.

Thank you, and God speed.