Access Restrictions

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?

K. Yockey

Works Cited
American Library Association Council. (1995, June 26). American Library Association Code of Ethics. Retrieved May 21, 2010, from American Library Association:
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:

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9 Responses to Access Restrictions

  1. I think that with the rise of digitization and the massive amount that collections that are being created, privacy will become less and less a thing of major importance. When asked what group may hold onto those restriction policies I immediately thought of the middle and upper classes. Most people, it seems now, want their information to get out there and be available. There has been a push to get the public involved in history, look at the DPL neighborhoods project for example. This idea is not centered around promoting the archive as a storage facility, but as an open place to access history. Of course this does not mean that everyone must relinquish all documents to the recesses of an archive either. Archives cannot take everything. Going along those lines, archives cannot disclose everything either. Some records are sensitive, in both physical form and in nature. Medical records should not be released to the public while the person in question is living, nor should social security numbers.

    As an almost unrelated side note, I’m glad you mentioned Stephen Joyce and his tyrant-like behavior over the family estate. As a decently large Joyce fan I was quite shocked and annoyed to learn that not only had Stephen destroyed family documents, but had also but a ban on James’ works. There is to be no production of his one play, no new edition of any of his books and very limited publishing on anything he did. The questions I’m drawing out of this here is, do figures in the public eye have a responsibility to pass on their information to the public? or do they have just as much right to everyone else with their privacy?

  2. I did it again, Lucie B published that above response.

    • J.A.Lee says:

      I think this is a very good question. When we think of the ALA’s stance on privacy, we must consider privacy to include people who are part of the celebrity system, whether as writers, artists, or filmmakers. If Joyce had wanted his private letters revealed then he would have had to make that a request in his will. He was, after all, an artist and not obligated to share every nook of his life with his audience. If I were him I may not want every letter or email I have ever written to be shown to whomever might be interested. Here I think we can consider Joyce and his son citizens just as entitled to privacy as anyone else. It is the matter of making something that should legally be available easy to access – political records or published works that have been banned – rather than the private lives of authors and artists. – J.A.Lee

  3. I think privacy matters less to younger generations, but older ones are still holding on. The value of privacy will probably continue to become less and less important in public discourse. It’s not that I think in 40 or 50 years people will put less restrictions on materials they place in archives–I think in 40 or 50 years people will archive their lives and work on the Internet on their own, or (in the cases of artists or musicians) the same will be done by fans.
    That being said, I also believe famous people do have the same right to privacy (as much or as little as they want) as anyone else (with the possible exception of politicians, whose decisions have much more influence, control, and impact on lives of private citizens), and I think it’s important for the individual to set his or her own limits on what personal information becomes available to the public, or for the family/estate of the deceased individual to do so. I don’t think the archivist’s role is to pressure people to disclose personal information; that crosses the line into invasiveness.
    Stephen Joyce was well within his rights to destroy family papers, just as Dmitri Nabokov was within his to publish his father’s unfinished novel.

  4. Allie B. says:

    The Joyce issue interests me, as well. I was an English major in college with an emphasis on British Modernism, so I followed the Joyce story closely through to its conclusion. I’m coming to accept that it’s true that archival restriction is often necessary, especially when there are is any question of possible destruction of important materials, and Katie certainly shed light on that issue from an archivist’s perspective.

    In regards to issues of privacy and new technology, I’m not sure what the future looks like. In several of my classes we’ve discussed the fact that it seems like younger people assume a lack of privacy on the Internet, which is why they use it so freely. Unlike previous generations, who wrote private letters with the assumption that those would remain private, I think most people in their twenties and thirties today assume that they everything they share on the Internet can be accessed. This raises a question for me: does assuming lack of privacy lead to self-censorship? And might the quality of writing and the arts be threatened if people feel that their work is universally available, whether they want this or not? It’s a tangential question, but one I think is important to consider.

  5. I think it’s important that the owners of items be allowed to decide what happens with their items. I just went on a little soapbox about this over on the NAGPRA post, so I won’t go into it again. But, I do think it is important to respect individual’s privacy.

    In regards to the generational aspect of privacy expectations, I think everyone has the generalized response covered. Younger generations are less likely to worry about privacy. I will say, however, that I have several younger friends who are far more worried than I am about private information on the web and several older friends who are far more careless. I think the considerations of access also have to be linked to individual personality and preference, as well as the type of material being preserved. It’s much more likely for someone to put restrictions on a pile of personal letters than a folder of landscape paintings, for example.

  6. I really liked Allie’s proposed question of self-censorship compromising artistic ability. I think this is a very viable concern. Using a personal anecdote, I can completely relate. I used to write in my journal every day back in college, that is until my privacy was violated and somebody read my journal. It used to be such a special way for me to release my inner thoughts and feelings, and that was all brought down with just one set of eyes. I could never fully expose my feelings again, and ultimately stopped writing in a journal altogether for fear that someone might come across it again. I feel like a similar sentiment could occur when one senses that their work could one day become accessed by unwanted eyes. I think that accessibility is completely up the owner, and they have the right to decide who can access their material and at whatever time they choose.

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