Ethics you say! Many of you will not even be certain what precisely an archives does. (And, yes, Virginia, archives is correct, "archive" is a verb; the noun form always has an "s" at the end.)
The News Story
A news story that surfaced at CBC today, said the provincial archives in Newfoundland/Labrador had commissioned 280 boxes of records (estate records and wills) to be destroyed - after they had been microfilmed, because the records were in such poor shape. The crime, though was that two men had not complied with the contract to destroy the records. The news story identified the men's ages, but no details regarding what constituted "poor shape".
The Response from Canadian Archivists
This story made it to archival discussion groups online today with fascinating and varied responses. It demonstrates how useful varied points of view are, and that discussion assists with eliciting not just facts but insight.
Stuart McLean of Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia Archives was horified that the records were destined to be destroyed, but applauded the microfilming effort. He wondered why the poor-condition records were not being put into the market place for sale to generate revenue to benefit the archives.
Glenn Dingwall, of City of Vancouver Archives followed and indicated we should know more about the condition of the records before judging those who determined they should be destroyed [perhaps they had mould which would have contaminated other records]. He also said there may well have been a condition of donation that indicated they could NOT be sold for instance. But he makes an even more important point:
This could set "a very bad precedent....Imagine the pressure that would come from those controlling the purse strings once they found out you can film damaged records and then sell the originals in order to recover costs and/or generate income. Why then would we not do the same with all of our holdings (and realizing lower storage costs too)? As soon as this becomes a possibility, it calls into question the motives behind any decision to deaccession records."
This caused Susan M. Hart , BC Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Services Archives to agree and add: "and I for one would not appreciate my ancestor's will being flogged on the open market!"
She added, "It is common, accepted practice for government archives to [make the tough and yet appropriate decision to] microfilm valuable records and, for series that are homogeneous, to destroy all or most of the originals.... especially if the originals are in bad condition.... I'm impressed that somebody has been arrested for tampering with government records. This sends a strong message in support of treating them with respect."
A finally, Wallace J. Maclean notes: "But for an early 19th-century document, you are hardly that person's only descendent. What if another descendant would jump at the chance to buy it?"
How this affects the MHSA
At the MHSA we are actually in the midst of trying to determine the appropriate location for a small collection of records for a national Mennonite organization that were donated to us. We thought that the records might best be "repatriated" to join other records from that organization in another archives.
However, we have determined that there is no Mennonite archival repository in Canada that has been collecting the records. Yet the organization still exists and now is interested in acquiring the records and simply storing them in their own administrative offices.
Our decision? Thank goodness for such discussions online and the fact that we now have an archival mentor at the MHSA (Jim Bowman, archivist with the Glenbow Museum and Archives).
Jim's suggestion is that when we accept donated records, there is associated "a certain amount of moral responsibility to care for them, and to make sure that they're kept intact, and available for consultation."
Further he says, individuals "do a lot of soul-searching before they decide to donate them to an archives. Their personal papers, after all, may be the only documentation of the meaningful aspects of their lives. They wonder whether their archives will be cared for, and whether they will be a source of information and inspiration for future generations."
As a result, the MHSA will be keeping the records to ensure that they are preserved according to the wishes of the family, in an environmentally-safe setting, and are not inadvertently destroyed by a staff person in the administrative body who is just "cleaning house" one day.
Interestingly, the organization has replied that they are going to use this opportunity to start thinking about establishing an archives. Their chief officer has written, "Our original founders, movers and shakers ... are starting to disappear, and their records, notes and stories with them. Some of those records ... are more part of the story of the individual than of the organization, and need to be kept as such. But even in those circumstances, it is extremely helpful ... to know where those records are located, so that anyone who is looking up ... [organization name's] history has access to the fullest possible spectrum of information."