'Dead on Arrival'? Impartiality as a Measure of Archival Professionalism in the Twenty-first Century
This paper will argue that the exhortation to impartiality that is embedded in the Code of Ethics adopted by the ICA General Assembly in September 1996 was not merely retrogressive but actually dead on arrival. The code specifies impartiality as being necessary to ensure the ongoing reliability of evidence in archivists' trust as well as to avoid potential conflicts of interest or partisanship that might negatively affect the "general interest". In this it reflects not only earlier positivist constructions that shaped modern archival ideas and practices and evidentiary concerns, but also naïve techno-deterministic notions that digital techniques could somehow make managing records more value-neutral by “removing” the human element. Prominent archival thinkers, influenced by intellectual currents in the social sciences, history, literature andother fields had already begun to press the field on the impossibility of neutrality and objectivity in a profession that manages records that are integral to fundamentally inequitable systems and processes, and that itself exercises so much power over the selection, description and transmission of those records to future generations. Since the Code's adoption, however, several additional factors: growing numbers of archivists working with tribunals and commissions investigating human rights abuses and war crimes, the burgeoning community archives movement, and the archival turn toward social justice have increasingly challenged neutrality as indifference and passivity as inaction in the face of moral exigencies and injustices in which they see recordkeeping to be collusive. The paper will further argue, therefore, that in the 21st century, reflexivity is as important as transparency as a measure of archival professionalism. To make sound judgments about how and when to engage as well as to analyze and address the algorithmic biases inherent in the systems they increasingly rely upon, archivists must be prepared through rigorous, critically-based education and supported with an ongoing research culture.