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Sophie Annabelle Klein

Ethical Dilemmas in Publishing A-Files

Published on

Digital archives have an almost infinite amount of possibilities in terms of the knowledge they share. Through putting together information and publishing it onto the internet, we eternalize it. The potential of this action is amazing - allowing everyone access to art, history, music, and thoughts (the list goes on) is revolutionary and mind-blowing. We no longer have to travel to a museum to see a painting they are online. We no longer have to go to a library to find a book - it is online. The amount of information and power is limitless, yet, with this power comes great responsibility. When we publish work online, we have to consider the greater consequences of our actions.

The case files we are looking at are, by definition, personal. They are the collection of documents for which the government possesses for individuals immigrating to the United States. These files are released 100 years after the individual’s date of birth or can be requested earlier. The files include photographs, personal declarations, and narratives. The A-files push past reasonable information and into fully invasive territory when they are published online. For example, in this document in Dimitry Kadoshnikoff’s file, one would learn both his parents and his wife were dead, he knew no one in the United States, and Kadishkonoff has an identifiable scar on the left side of his neck.

The A-file belonging to Antonio Desantis contains a large exchange of letters and memorandums explaining Desantis’s deportation. One of the letters, included below, outlines his crime and the reason he is being deported. Although his crimes (assuming they are true) are despicable, the fact they are published online without his knowledge is questionable and violate his rights as a person.

The A-file attached below belongs to Sarah Black, a polish immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island. In this document, one can find the names and addresses of her children.

(See page 3 of above)

Kadoshnikoff, Desantis, and Black’s A-files all demonstrate the information that we have in our possession. In publishing this information on the internet, we have to think of the implications of sharing these stories, especially when we consider that we have not asked permission.

Generally, we have to think about the context of our work. Eira Tansey, the Digital Archivist Manager at the University of Cincinnati, points out, “There is something really unsettling about archivists, particularly those from institutions which don’t have a great track record of supporting their most marginalized workers or constituents, suggesting that the historical record should be a high priority while people are trying to keep their shit together and attempt to not die.” As students of New York University, all of the work we do is to some degree a representation of our institution. With that subject in mind, we should consider more closely questions like what is NYU’s historical relationship to immigration and minority groups? What is happening today with immigration and are we being sensitive to those groups and their needs? Are we supporting people who need support? In line with reflecting on the context of our organization, we should also turn our attention to the source of our information. The files we are using are a majority of files produced by the government. The labels and restrictions reflect the systemic problems and disparities that immigrants face today. Are we reinforcing negative ideals of the government? Even in the code of our website, we use labels that the government requires such as sex, race, and nationality. Although we are just quoting these files, does that exempt us from their implications? Is there not irony in trying to capture the efforts and journey of these individuals, but then using the labels that the government has created to systematize immigration efforts? Casually, we use labels such as “stateless”, “female”, “from the USSR.” Is that how the person would want to be characterized?

Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if we are being as sensitive as we can be. Documenting the Now, provides four recommendations for archivists.`These recommendations are specifically meant for social media and are presented by progressive activists, but they raise valid points that we should consider. One recommendation is that, “Archivists should engage and work with the communities they wish to document.” We have put serious effort into learning about the history of asylum over this semester, but have we worked to reach this community? It is complicated because many of the people we are trying to reach have since passed away. Yet, if our purpose is to illuminate the issues and intricacies of immigration policy in the U.S., are there different measures we should consider taking?

Another guildine from Documenting the Now is, “Documentation efforts must go beyond what can be collected without permission from the web and social media.” When this information was collected, there was no way the government or these immigrants would have foreseen the public access to these resources in which we have today. However, it is important to note that these immigrants did not consent to their information being published online. While being realistic about our resources, we should consider if it is possible to obtain consent.

Our goal is to be ethical in the treatment of these files while sharing as much information as possible. Historian Holly Smith’s goal is similar to our own, “ I wanted to tell these stories that I felt people would not know. I came to love history in a way that felt very personal to me. Before I had the language and praxis to describe it, or the profession to practice it, I had long ago started to ingrain principles of radical empathy in regard to my passion to tell the stories of historically under documented communities.” Radical empathy is, “the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experiences, etc.” The purpose of our archive is one of radical empathy - we want to do justice by the people we are representing. The people whose files we are publishing were real. By adding them to our website, we are quite literally turning their lives into exhibits. We are taking their personal information and trying to illustrate their stories. While doing this, we also have to recognize the flaws in our project. We can never fully share a story of someone we do not know. We can not assume to know these people or understand their journeys. We should not assume consent to publishing their information online. In order to do justice by the people we are studying, we must also pause and think deeply about the implications of our work.