Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World

Matthew Stephenson (University of Salford, Salford, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 21 March 2008




Stephenson, M. (2008), "Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 3, pp. 249-250.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World by Richard J Cox is the first in a new series published by Facet called “Principles and Practice in Records Management and Archives”. The series promises to be an interesting one, with titles Preserving Archives by Helen Forde and Management Skills for Archivists and Records Managers by Elizabeth Shepherd and Karen Anderson already announced. Given that Forde and Shepherd are such well‐known names in the UK archives world, I am curious as to why Cox's book was used to launch the series.

Not to say that Cox is an unknown: Richard Cox is an eminent American academic specialising in the area of archives and records management and contributes regularly to specialist periodicals (primarily American) and is the author of numerous books. This meander through a range of threats facing archives and records management and its practitioners at the beginning of the twenty‐first Century, a compilation of essays written between 2000 and 2005, makes interesting and, at times, uneasy reading.

Despite its title, the book is really an exploration of this succinct statement which opens the book's concluding chapter:

The importance of records is both growing and being challenged in our society, as threats of terrorism, cynicism about truth, corporate greed, and faith in technology generate new forms of government secrecy, censorship and intellectual property controls.

Using this sentence as a starting point makes, to me, more sense than looking at the book's title since Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World is misleading. “Danger” is first encountered 109 pages into the book, and “ethics” and “accountability” appear even further in. Indeed, even the reference to recordkeeping is not entirely accurate since the book looks at records in their fullest definition and context and not exclusively from a recordkeeping point of view.

No matter. Despite this slightly disconcerting titling issue, the book is a fascinating look at each of the areas mentioned in the quote above and approaches each one in a different, thought‐provoking chapter – the changing meaning of the term “information”; the increasing use of technology in managing information; records, privacy, intelligence and terrorism; the changing role of the archivist and records manager; the meaning of the term “truth”; censorship; and intellectual property control. The book finishes with a conclusion looking at the different meanings of the word “archive” by different constituencies, such as storage, data, memory, stories, old stuff, etc.

Stuck in the middle of these are two seemingly misplaced chapters which appear to be entirely the author's own views on the US Presidential Library system and the method of appointment of the Archivist of the US. These chapters very clearly illustrate that, as I have said, rather than being one dedicated piece of work, the book is a collection of earlier essays.

I personally found the discontinuity this caused a considerable obstacle, contrasting with the book's easy‐reading nature and agreeable style of writing, as the chapters do not connect seamlessly with each other. I would have preferred one long continuous piece of prose since I read the whole book traditionally, from cover to cover (albeit over a number of sessions). The benefit of discrete stand‐alone chapters, however, is that rather than being obliged to read the whole book, each chapter can be read in isolation and out of order with no significant loss of context.

In the main the book challenges the traditional, perhaps comfortable, role of the archivist and records manager and identifies areas of concern that we practitioners should either be addressing or at least keeping an eye on, alert and ready for future developments. It reminds us that we, possibly more than others, are at a crossroads and that it behoves our profession to address the challenges that we face in this new century. Some of these challenges indeed related to ethics and danger, such as those exemplified by the Enron/Arthur Andersen scandal and the September 11 attacks. Others are a little more esoteric, such as the future role of records and their custodians in a world where the simultaneous control and lack of control of intellectual property on the internet can blur issues of ownership, rights and powers relating to information.

When I first received this book for review, I did question whether almost 300 pages were needed to look at ethics, accountability and recordkeeping in a dangerous world. Having read the book, I would say that only a fraction of this number were actually dedicated to these subjects. The rest of the book was, however, well used in addressing the other issues mentioned (truth, censorship, technology, etc.) which I suspect will continue to be sources of hand‐wringing for archivists and records managers for some time to come.

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