Ethical Considerations for Projects and Assignments

When recounting stories from archival evidence, archives users must give special consideration to how they present, document, and share the stories of individuals and groups whose consent is not evident or possible to attain.  

Key Questions to Consider

  1. Purpose and Bias: What reason does the researcher have for pursuing this topic? What potential biases or gaps in information or perspective do they bring to their work?
  2. Intellectual Property: Who “owns” the story? Can you determine the intellectual property rights?
  3. Privacy and Permissions: What are the rights of deceased and living individuals represented in the archives? Is it stated or implied that the individuals or groups represented consented to their inclusion in the archive? How do we balance the right to know with the right to privacy? Who should be consulted about publication of findings that reference individuals’ private documents?
  4. Stakeholders: Are there additional stakeholders? What rights must be extended to third parties?
  5. Context: Is the work consulted taken in context? Faithfully transcribed? Is there contradictory evidence? If present, how will potentially offensive, outdated language or perspectives be addressed?

Recommended Resources

American Historical Association. (2019). Statement of standards on professional conduct

Caswell, M., & Cifor, M. (2016). From human rights to feminist ethics: Radical empathy in the archives. Archivaria, 81, 23-43.

Cox, R. J. (2011). Archival anxiety and the vocational calling. Litwin Books. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Dougherty, M. (2013). Property or privacy? Reconfiguring ethical concerns around web archival research methods. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research3. Retrieved from

International Council on Archives. (1996). Code of ethics.

McKee, H., & Porter, J. (2012). The ethics of archival research. College Composition and Communication, 64(1), 59-81.

Society of American Archivists. (2020). Core values and code of ethics

Zinn, H. (1977). Secrecy, archives, and the public interest. The Midwestern Archivist2(2), 14–26.