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'Dead on Arrival'? Impartiality as a Measure of Archival Professionalism in the Twenty-first Century


The 1996 ICA Code of Ethics 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 around evidentiary concerns, but also naïve techno-deterministic notions that emerging digital techniques could somehow make managing records more value-neutral by “removing” the human element. Growing numbers of archivists working with tribunals and commissions investigating human rights abuses and war crimes, the community archives movement, and the archival turn toward social justice have increasingly challenged that impartiality leads to indifference and passivity in the face of moral exigencies and injustices in which they see recordkeeping to be collusive. Prominent archival thinkers, influenced by contemporary intellectual currents, have also pressed 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. This paper argues, therefore, that the field must promulgate more critical notions of what both impartiality and "the general interest" should comprise. Specifically it argues that transparency, reflexivity and the pursuit of fairness and equity are the values that the archival profession should be upholding in the 21st century, and that to do so most effectively requires the support of critically-based professional education and an ongoing research culture.

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