Records Management Journal, Volume 17, Number 2, 2007, p. 117-119


A review by Michael Moss


Professional resources




Ethics, Accountability, and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World

Richard J. Cox

Facet Publishing



xlix +298 pp.

ISBN 978-1-85604-596-4

Keywords: Records management, Archives management, Professional ethics

Review DOI 10.1108/09565690710757913


This is a collection of some ten essays by Richard Cox, professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, which were published elsewhere, not necessarily in this form, over the last five years. They vary in scope and direction but running through them all are the themes that make up the book’s title, along with a consideration of the role of archiving in the digital environment that may or may not be thought to be “dangerous”. Those familiar with Cox’s work will not be disappointed. The essays are filled with trenchant comment and observation. He reflects (p. 43), for example: “The management of records is as old as civilization. And while the newer notions of information management, such as SIM [strategic information management] may seem to encompass this mundane, but important work, one wonders whether it won’t get lost amidst the new professionals trying to be strategic in our fast-moving world”. This, of course, is a very different response to that taken by Menne-Haritz (2004) in Business Process – An Archival Science Approach to Collaborative Decision Making, Records and Knowledge Management, where she argues for positive interaction with such approaches. To a reviewer in the UK the essays reference much unfamiliar literature from what Cox admits is his “rather eclectic, some might say eccentric, reading” (p. 234). This is not a self-deprecating opinion this reviewer would share. I would encourage him to do more. Essay 3 – “Why the archivist of the United States is important to records professionals and America” is a lively account of the development of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the workings of the Federal Government, particularly the politicization of public appointments that even under New Labour is quite foreign to the UK or even Europe for that matter. We killed kings to prevent it. Having visited the Nixon homestead and presidential library in California, where remarkably people choose to marry, essay 4 – “America’s pyramids: presidents and their libraries” traces the development of the presidential library system from its inception by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. Both essays prompt questions about the nature and functioning of the US constitution that seems to afford little legal protection to the public archive which as Cox argues persuasively is an essential component of democratic societies.


Despite Cox’s strong views, he often holds back from engaging with fundamental issues. Bringing an end to presidential libraries and extending NARA’s remit, that seems wholly sensible to an outsider, does not resolve the problem of papers that are personal but essential if history is to be written. The consequences can be seen in the UK where such papers may be scattered, presenting researchers with the same logistical problems as the scattered presidential libraries. The essential critique must be that papers created during executive office are in the case of presidents of the state the property of the state, and in the case of corporations the property of corporations. More seriously in his treatment of accountability, Cox seems to be unaware of the large literature on “audit” and the “audit culture” that presents records managers and archivists with real ethical dilemmas, although he repeatedly returns to this theme when considering the encroachments on personal liberty that have been made by the Federal Government in the wake of 9/11. Like Australian commentators, he seems at times to cast records management in the role of external auditors demanding compliance with external regulation and a very risk adverse approach to records retention. This cannot be. Modern economies are founded on the concept of limitations of liability and corporations cannot afford such an open-ended approach to contingency. Whatever we may think of corporate governance, it must operate within a framework of regulation and accountability to shareholders and stakeholders. Tightening of governance both before and after the ENRON affair have placed considerable responsibility on the shoulders of non-executive directors to manage risk and exposure with whom records managers will need to work in the creative way Menne-Haritz (2004) suggests. A well governed corporation should now have in place mechanisms for whistle-blowing, but records managers will need to argue that the cost of storage address real risks. Although Cox admits that the collapse of ENRON failed because the management was corrupt, he is tempted by the argument that lays blame on poor recordkeeping. This seems wide of the mark, complex scams sustained over a number of years demand good record-keeping. If there was nothing to hide, why were they shredding the records?


Cox’s difficulties seem to stem from a desire to hold archives and records management together when much of his argument is pulling in the opposite direction, and a distaste for modern business methods. Although he explores issues surrounding the veracity of the records in essay 7 – “Records and truth in the post-truth society” from a number of aspects, and develops the ideas in essay 8 “Censorship and records”, he does not address head on the sinister neo-con agenda that cynically manipulates the record to justify the end. This takes us back to the role and function of the public archive in a democratic society and the protection that is afforded it by law. The only way balanced accounts of the war in Iraq can ever be written is if the records are captured and held in the public archive. Here Cox fails to explore the subtle distinction between being accountable and acting responsibly that is actively debated by moral philosophers and anthropologists, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. I would argue that in the private sector, constrained by limited liability and regulation, there is no archival imperative, except in a corporatist state. In his discussion of the private sector the absence of reference to Eliot Spitzer until recently Attorney General of New York, who launched a series of investigations into corporate malfeasance, all of which had record-keeping at their core, is surprising. It is, however, worth remembering that even in such cases there are two sides to the story as Langley’s (2006) biography of  Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill makes clear – Tearing Down the Walls: How Sandy Weill Fought His Way to the Top of the Financial World … and Then Nearly Lost It All.


Like everything Richard Cox writes this book makes you think in the way that it has made this reviewer think. He poses lots of questions in the full expectation that you may not agree and draws on a rich literature. What is more it is a good read.


Michael Moss

University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK



Langley, M. (2006), Tearing down the Walls: How Sandy Weill Fought His Way to

the Top of the Financial World … and Then Nearly Lost It All, Wall Street

Journal Books/Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

Menne-Haritz, M. (2004), Business Process – An Archival Science Approach to

Collaborative Decision Making, Records and Knowledge Management, Kluwer, New

York, NY