I would like to discuss a topic that many librarians do not fully understand. Last spring in Martin Garner’s Professional Principles and Ethics class, it was mentioned that archivists willingly deny access to materials. The archivists in the room nodded their heads fully grasping the idea while most of the librarians gasped in horror. Okay, horror maybe a too strong of a word; perhaps astonishment is a better term. Certainly, access to archival collections is paramount. No one will deny that. The primary reason materials are placed into archives is to allow generations of researchers access to them and as archivists it is our professional responsibility to support and foster unfettered access to materials. The Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics articulates this viewpoint. “Archivists strive to promote open and equitable access to their services and the records in their care without discrimination or preferential treatment, and in accordance with legal requirements, cultural sensitivities, and institutional policies (Society of American Archivists, 2005). The Code goes on, however, to note that “[a]rchivists may place restrictions on access for the protection of privacy or confidentiality of information in the records” (Society of American Archivists, 2005).
Indeed, American archivists have been placing access restrictions on collections for years, many years in fact. The historic manuscript tradition in America was founded with the Massachusetts Historical Society by Jeremy Belknap in 1791 (Geselbracht, 1986). Since that time, access restrictions have been an issue because of the type of materials held: personal papers. The first documented debate regarding access restrictions was heard at the 1914 Conference of Historical Societies. The historians wanted free access to materials; the archivists, however, wanted to protect the privacy of donors (Geselbracht, 1986).
The debate has abated and restrictions have remained a mainstay in the manuscript tradition. In the past, archivists often agreed to donor’s odd restriction requests so that the materials would be donated to their institution. Today these restrictions seem ludicrous. Examples of such restrictions can be found at the Huntington Library. One of their collections is closed to all who are of British descent while another is sealed to Jews, Roman Catholics and the donor’s nephew (Hodson S. S., 2004). Generally access restrictions in the history manuscript tradition can be categorized into one of two types: closed access for a set number of years or access selectively granted by the donor or his agent. On occasion donor agreements will combine the two (Geselbracht, 1986).
Without the possibility of restrictions, owners of archival materials may simply destroy them. As Stephen Joyce, the grandson of James Joyce, did; he ended up burning numerous family papers for the sake of privacy. This is an incalculable loss which could have been avoided if only Joyce had placed the papers in a repository with access restrictions of his or his children’s lifetime. If he had, the papers would have been preserved for future researchers to use, while shielding him and others from embarrassment and/or disgrace (Hodson S. S., 2004).
So informationettes, have I been convincing or are some of you still viscerally against access restrictions? Since this assignment requires us to discuss information technology and social changes that influence our topic, I’d like to raise another question for you.
In the past archives were lone silos of information, housed in basements with little connection to mainstream society. Sure, if they were academic archives, their holdings may have been in their school’s catalogue but their reach was limited to that catalogue. Now if an archive has a World Wide Web presence, their reach is limitless. Along with the pervasiveness of the internet, it seems that nothing is private anymore. My question to you informationettes is this: do you believe that more donors will demand restrictions for their materials or do you believe that since privacy matters less these days, donors will not do so? What groups of people may want more or less privacy? Any other thoughts?
American Library Association Council. (1995, June 26). American Library Association Code of Ethics. Retrieved May 21, 2010, from American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/codeofethics/coehistory/codeofethics.pdf
Geselbracht, R. H. (1986). The orgins of restrictions on access to personal papers at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. American Archivist , 49 (2), 142-162.
Hodson, S. S. (2004). In secret kept,in secret sealed: Privacy in the papers of authors and celebrities. The American Archvist , 67, 194-211.
Society of American Archivists. (2005, Feburary 5). Code of Ethics for Archivists. Retrieved May 16, 2010, from Society of American Archivists: http://www.archivists.org/governance/handbook/app_ethics.asp