The ethics of access June 8, 2011

That Way
American archivist Elena S Danielson has written a really interesting book called The Ethical Archivist (see description at In amongst a range of other fascinating ethical discussions, Danielson asks some probing questions about archival ethics in the digital age.

Danielson says that a key collective aim of archival institutions is to ‘cultivate trusted archives based on intellectual integrity and to prevent the corruption of historical resources’ [298]. But she argues that these objectives are potentially much harder to achieve in the digital world.

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: justinbaeder

Demonstrating what was possible in the good old days, Danielson tells how the standard letterhead paper size was agreed on by the aptly named Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes in 1921. Over decades, this standardisation contributed to an extensive array of innovations – typewriters with uniform carriage sizes, compatible fax machines and computer printers, standard storage folders and boxes – a flourishing of diverse means of information exchange, innovation and management. [157]

In contrast Danielson argues that today, ‘the commodification of information’, [160] and the commercial advantage that is gained through lack of interoperability between most commercial software and hardware products is a financial boon for technology developers but a potential disaster for digital archives. The commercial incentives behind today’s lack of standardisation and the increasing opportunities for information to be ‘owned’ can potentially irreparably damage the ability of archival institutions to ensure the ongoing accessibility of historical resources.

To maintain the key ethical objective of equitable access to archival materials, Danielson calls on archivists to actively monitor the dependencies of digital data at risk, develop appropriate preservation responses for data at imminent risk and continue to advocate for open information access. [162] She sees five current flaws in today’s digital business systems that threaten long term information access: (1) exclusive licences (2) incompatible technical architecture (3) rapidly changing software (4) impermanence (5) high cost. [155]

In a business context these may not be significant issues as the immediate need to get the business done will be the predominant concern. But 5, 10 or 20 years down the track the information access issues that result from these system flaws will be considerable and potentially unresolvable. So it is critical now, when digital business systems are proliferating across every area of government, for issues of ongoing access to information to be a key consideration in business system design. For possible future archival access, yes, but more importantly for ongoing business utility.

When designing and implementing systems you just want to ensure that you have options so your data is not locked forever in a particular structure or system. Your data needs ‘exit strategies’ so that when your business needs to, it can move its information simply and effectively between systems. The needs of good business and good archives are so essentially similar – well managed and accessible information – that everyone’s objectives can be met if together we can work out some better, proactive system design strategies which encompass this long term view before it’s too late.

Elena Danielson June 10th, 2011

Thanks, Kate! It is important that these issues are widely discussed.

Kate Cumming June 10th, 2011

Thank you, Elena, for your fantastic book! It really is a wonderful and very timely resource for our profession.

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