Sunday, August 23, 2015

SAA 2015: thinking about access

Glass globe (1925) based upon a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, main branch of the Cleveland Public Library, East 3rd Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-15.
The 2015 meeting of the Society of American Archivists ended early yesterday afternoon, and I spent the remainder of the day thinking about . . . well, a lot of things, but mainly about the conference and my hometown.

By my count, there were five sessions -- four listed in the preliminary program and a fifth "pop-up" session that came together shortly before the meeting began -- that focused on making born-digital records accessible to end users. I heard a little grumbling about the weight given to this particular topic and to electronic records generally, and I also heard some griping about the timidity and complexity of the access solutions and systems that were discussed. As I walked through the Cleveland Public Library this afternoon and visited various suburban bookstores this evening, the subject of access to records kept popping into my mind.

I agree that in some instances, we allow fear -- of embarrassment, of reprisals, of vague and undefined consequences -- to play an inordinately large role in shaping our access policies and procedures. I also agree that it's quite easy to develop online access mechanisms that force users to jump through additional hoops instead of providing a seamless entree into one's digital holdings. However, it's important to remember that our hangups regarding access aren't merely the product of fear.

In some instances, access restrictions are the result of negotiated agreements with donors. In other words, we've made a promise that we need to keep -- in part because it demonstrates our trustworthiness and in part because -- generally -- it's the right thing to do. One can argue that the terms embedded in a given agreement are excessive, needlessly complex, or downright unreasonable, but I don't think that any archivist would assert that we should treat donor agreements lightly.

In other instances, restrictions are imposed by law. Is every law that might bear upon access to records well written, easy to enforce, and in alignment with archival principles. No, no, a thousand times no. However, archivists generally seek to operate within the bounds established by law and those working in government repositories may have a legal as well as an ethical obligation to uphold the law.

Moreover, upholding laws relating to records access is, in some instances, a matter of social justice, particularly when public records are involved. Over the course of my career, I have encountered records that a) concern individuals who are quite likely still alive and b) contain detailed documentation of injuries and illnesses, identify victims of sexual assault, document psychiatric histories, or plumb the family histories of minors who came into contact with the criminal justice or social welfare systems. Releasing such records might very well do these individuals substantial psychological harm. If the records document abuses that these individuals suffered while being "served" by government-operated facilities and programs, their improper disclosure may rightly be regarded as perpetuation of that abuse.

On one of the sessions (I forget which one), one of the panelists (again, I forget which one) said that she thought it would be a good idea if archivists focused less on the harms that inadvertent disclosure might cause ill-defined third parties and more on advocating for the interests of end users. Keeping in mind the perspective of end users is absolutely appropriate, but we need to remember that some of the people documented in our holdings have claims that may be even more compelling.

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