A DVAG Discussion on the International Council on Archives: Principles of Access to Archives

Contributed by Bayard Miller     

On the evening of June 27th, the Delaware Valley Archivists Group held a general meeting at the Curtis Institute of Music for a conversation about something that is (or should be) on every archivist’s mind, equitable access to archives. Archivists from a diverse array of backgrounds gathered in the Field Concert Hall to discuss the Principles of Access to Archives, a document adopted by the International Council on Archives in August 2012. The purpose of the Principles of Access to Archives isto “provide archivists with an authoritative international baseline against which to measure their existing access policy and practices and a framework to use when developing new or modifying existing access rules.” The document consists of ten principles, along with commentary, and acts as a guideline to measure policies and set a standard to which individual archivists can hold themselves. Leading the discussion was Margaret Graham from the Drexel College of Medicine, Valerie Lutz from the American Philosophical Society, and Laurie Rizzo from the Hagley Museum and Library.

The meeting began with an overview of the document followed by discussion on the applicability to the real world of archives. At first it seemed many of these principles were obvious. In the document, as well as in most archival literature concerning access,it is stated that archives are made to be accessible. It is a truism of our field that the daily work of archivists include the advancement of access to all. However, what is found in the Principles is often very different from what is practiced. In fact, there are many obstacles to providing access to these vast resources. Though a general consensus agreed that the Principles were indeed an excellent resource for archivists, and that they do promote a level of access to which all institutions should aspire, often there are many practical hurdles that hinder accessibility. This document raises a lot of questions.

Whether it is a donor agreement with multiple restrictions, privacy issues, or a massive backlog, restrictions on collections are one of the major issues archivists face when providing access to records. The Principles offer the following advice, “Institutions holding archives make known the existence of the archives, including the existence of closed material, and disclose the existence of restrictions that affect access to archives.” Institutions can adopt this principle and should provide at least bare bones access by offering at the very least collection level descriptions for all new accessions. (See Principal 2)

One obstacle discussed was donor restrictions on collections. This is an unfortunate reality that many archivists have to face. The Principles, however, do not (nor should they?) suggest what sort of embargo period would be sufficient to suggest to donors. Someone suggested that perhaps an institutions access policy should include a maximum number of years that a collection can remain restricted by a donor. If applied equally to all newly acquired collections it would protect archivists from having to make case-by-case decisions about whether or not to accept a collection that won’t be available to the public for maybe fifty years. Another suggestion, and one that is always good practice, was to keep up a working relationship with donors. Often the original negotiated restrictions can be harsh, however, if you keep up a good working relationship, there may be opportunity down the road to renegotiate the original deed and reevaluate the restrictions. (For more on donor relations see Principles 4 and 5)

           Privacy was another concern of the group, both in terms of institutional donors and individual donors. These restrictions often have unique obstacles that impede archivists from providing access to their records. For example, corporations and similar private institutions are not always eager to share all of the secrets found within their records and therefore have longer embargo periods for collections. Whether to protect individual members or an entire organization, restricting records for a finite amount of years is often the only way to make sure that the sanctity of member deliberations are protected, but for how long?  To many, these documents are important to the historical record and therefore should be available, but to others it is the much too recent past. This can often be problematic for an archivist who sees the potential value and importance of the collections with which they work. This is where archivists find themselves in a gray area having to find a balance between personal ethics and professional responsibility. (See the commentary for Principle 1)

A recent example of archives and privacy discussed by the group was the debacle over the Belfast Project at Boston University. This case exhibits potential threats to collection restrictions and highlights the concept of archival privilege. Archival privilege is the notion that restrictions on access to archival records should be recognized by a court of law. The heart of the argument is that “without the ability to restrict collections we will be unable to collect, and important historical information will be lost to this and future generations.” (George, Christine Anne, “Archives Beyond the Pale: Negotiating Legal and Ethical Entanglements after the Belfast Project,” The American Archivist, Vol. 76, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2013. 59)

As the enthusiastic discussion drew to a close, it seemed as though the crowd had only just scratched the surface of all of the issues raised by the Principles of Access to Archives. There is a lot of good advice in this document but the underlying theme is that individual archivists, whether working for a private or public institution, have a responsibility to promote access at all levels. As Hagel reminds us, “The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.” The practical demands on an archivist’s attention throughout the average workday are great. It is easy to lose sight of what’s most important as we struggle to keep up with the ever-growing demands of our jobs. The benefit of the Principles is to remind all of us our role in the larger puzzle of society.

 


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