The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 12, Number 2
Feb 1988

An Ethical Principle not in the AIC Code

by Ellen McCrady

The concept of ethics is very hard to pin down. The first meaning that Webster's big dictionary gives is "a discipline dealing with what is good and bad or right and wrong or with moral duty and obligation," which is pretty basic and understandable; but if you buy a basic text on this discipline as I did, and look in it for enlightenment on the issues that come up in conservation and preservation, you have to look a long time and do a lot of interpreting. A book on ethical theory is not much help to someone who is looking for applied knowledge.

Another meaning further down covers professional ethics: "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a profession." This definition says nothing about good or bad, though morality is implied. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is an association of professional societies, surveyed the ethical codes and practices of its member organizations and published a 224-page report in 1980 (AAAS Professional Ethics Project, by Rosemary Chalk et al.). One gets the feeling after reading it that the ethical code of a particular profession addresses only the behavior related to the unique moral temptations faced by its own practitioners at a particular tine in history. One also learns from this report that codes of ethics are sometimes adopted in an effort to forestall outside regulation, and are seldom enforced. It makes one a bit skeptical about the real meaning of professional ethics.

Nothing I've read, however, has shaken my belief in the validity of a social consensus about matters of good and bad, right and wrong. After all, this is what holds society together. Such a consensus is an element in most laws of representative governments, religions, and even etiquette. After the consensus has been codified, though, the written version acquires a momentum of its own, and may become less relevant to the realities of life. Conditions do change and the need for a new consensus arises. (This is why the AIC involves its members in a reexamination of its code of ethics from time to time.) New professions and groups of people with shared goals arise. Eventually the need to formulate new principles becomes apparent, in order to put an end to a period of relative disorganization during which group members believe that their own personal experiences and opinions on ethical issues are not widely shared, and when they see frequent or serious controversies and friction as only private squabbles not related to the group's welfare.

I would like to propose a principle for the consideration of all readers (not just those in the AIC), to see if we have anything like a consensus among people involved in preservation of library and archival materials. If the resulting discussion (or thought process) proves productive, them we can take turns proposing principles for consideration in subsequent issues.

The principle I am proposing below took form as I realized that one of my editorial rules of thumb, concerning what to include in the Newsletter, had wider application. It seems to apply very well in the wider world of preservation, and it does not appear to conflict with established principles. Perhaps it would be appropriate for a future preservation code of ethics.

There is room for everyone in preservation. Everyone can contribute something, according to their preference, needs and resources. There is so much that needs to be done that there is room for all constructive approaches. No one should try to keep someone else from making their contribution, or to turn others against them for trying to make it.

The utility of this principle is that it makes cooperation easier among the widely different people and institutions that have been drawn into this field. It encourages tolerance. And last but not least, it leaves more players alive at the end of the game.

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