“Violation of Privacy Is Part of the Process”: Notes on a Workshop on Privacy and Access Considerations in Digital Collections

On December 9, we attended an SAA workshop on “Privacy and Confidentiality Issues in Digital Archives,” taught by a dynamic Heather Briston of UCLA on the wintry campus of Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Invoking the familiar mantra that we rely on analog laws to govern digital materials, Briston provided a broad review of the legal basis for privacy and confidentiality considerations in archives (including privacy jurisprudence, defamation, HIPAA and FERPA laws). She balanced these discussions with considerations of archival values and ethics, which mandate that we provide the widest possible access to our collections while protecting the rights, and sometimes the interests, of persons and institutions represented within them. While opening records crosses a barrier of privacy by definition, archivists’ efforts to meliorate this act lead toward equilibrium in this intrinsic tension. From a third angle she explored the ways digital technology changes the possibility and condition—as well as our expectations—of privacy and access.

The online world privileges the individual document over its surrounding file, often resulting in a loss of context. Context in this sense is not just the other documents that condition one’s understanding of a particular passage; it may also be the physical mass of a paper file, which literally contains and encloses its contents. Digital materials, now searchable by name or keyword, lose that relative layer of obscurity, which means that archivists must become much more proactive in identifying and protecting sensitive information in their digital files. The digital environment does not change the rules, but it certainly changes the conditions.

Briston emphasized that archivists still need to draft a set of best practices concerning privacy and electronic records, from appraisal to access restrictions and their exceptions, and she encouraged us throughout to get going on it. Donors should be told what level of access and openness their records will receive, and they should assume responsibility for identifying sensitive or otherwise confidential material. Deeds of gift should include acknowledgements or even a checklist concerning the handling of digital material (storage, migration, duplication and dissemination, the treatment of encrypted material and passwords, deleted files, systems data, sensitive information…). Good documentation is key to open and equitable practice. Access policies and restrictions should be written out, and any exceptions should be recorded and explained. This kind of internal documentation forms the basis for developing well-thought-out policy, ensures transparency, and helps ensure that the archives meets both its legal obligations and its ethical responsibilities.

The workshop raised some interesting questions concerning archives’ own practices with regard to the information we collect on our researchers and how we use and safeguard it. We should start by posting our own privacy practices. The registration forms our researchers sign should also include an acknowledgment of their obligations with regard to privacy claims and the use of protected information they may encounter within the materials. While we have agreement forms for some of our collections, it would be good practice to provide a general reminder and obtain explicit acknowledgment of researchers’ responsibilities in the use of personal information.

One of the interesting areas of discussion concerned new ways of providing remote access to digital records, while maintaining some control over the terms of that access. Briston pointed to the UC Irvine Libraries’ Virtual Reading Room and the AIMS Hypatia project as examples of these new approaches. These sites, which require researchers to register online in order to access the digital materials, provide a sort of speed-bump between the user and the digital records, by requiring that the researcher read the rules of use, and by allowing the archives to authenticate the researcher and in some cases to provide different levels of access accordingly. These approaches seem very intriguing, especially as we contemplate being able to provide only onsite access to problematic collections such as the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation files.

In all, this was a great workshop that left us with new ideas and lots to consider.

Title quote from Elena Danielson, (2010), The Ethical Archivist.

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