For 3.30 on Thursday I attended the session entitled “How do members of society view access and privacy issues.”
First, Johanna Smith on access to the 2006 Census:
~ The census resistance movement is more prevalent in the United States, as the census is seen as a symbol of government control. Resistance also comes from a fear of function creep: that the census will be in future used for other purposes (including historical research!)
~ The 2006 Census was sent out with a release consent question. However, it’s not clear how informed this consent actually is — the issues can’t be fully explained in the paragraph or so explaining the question.
~ 56% of people agreed to the census information release; this appears to be geographically consistent, and beyond that it’s hard to tell if it’s a representative sample or not.
~ What’s really needed is education on the subject, so that people can make informed decisions. However, the current education has been directed towards making a particular decision, which might force their opinions. And it represents archives as primarily a privacy concern, without reflecting other important aspects.
~ Also as people’s perceptions of privacy and archival issues change with time, this will change the proportions or subset of whose records are preserved, affecting the record.
~ These issues will be reviewed again in 2016, so we have until then to figure out how to approache the problem.
Next, Michael Moir on “Impact of Access Restrictions on Use of Private Papers.”
~ He described a case where a researcher was using the records of a still-living subject with her complete permission. The subject was not particularly concerned with her own privacy. Upon her death, the remaining set of materials became inacessible due to the ownership not being transferred.
~ Very important to a university to have its collections accessible (clearly) as that’s their purpose in collecting.
~ Donors have incentive to donate for posterity, and for the tax receipt.
~ Privacy is important; it becomes the responsibility of the archivist to control access and even act as a censor at times.
~ The practice of collecting papers is changing. More and more often archivists are acquiring the papers of those who are still living. Archives no longer deal with only the long-dead.
~ Researchers are more and more interested in sensitive documents, as it becomes important for biographies to “tell all.”
~ Another challenge is that of third parties mentioned in archival documents. This has always happened, but with increased online access to finding aids, it is being noticed at a much greater rate.
~ Important for donors to gain a better understanding of the nature of their donation to prevent future problems.
Commentary, by Ian Forsyth:
~ For the census, this is an issue of trust: important for Statistics Canada to be seen as a trusted institution. The only way to do this is to be seen as acting impartially.
~ This problem is not restricted to the census: applies to many other sources of vital statistics. However, most other documents like this don’t require informed consent; why the census?
~ It was once common for archivists to accept any and all donor requests. This needs to change. A balance must be struck between the rights and needs of three groups: donors, researchers, and third parties who are affected.
~ Do involved persons trust the institutions to whom their information is entrusted? In most cases, there is a lack of confidence.
Questions (partial list, names not recorded):
~ Commercial rights for still-living donors? The papers are often a significant monetary asset. Intellectual property rights always stay with the donor; copyright is given to archives. This strategy is less practical when there is a literary or artistic work involved.
~ Obligation to inform people of issues regarding census consent? Yes, thre is an obligation. Unfortunately, we are living in a culture of secrecy, where people are afraid of who may be reading their data.
I was a bit disappointed that the third speaker was unable to make it. This would have been concerning FOI. However, there will be a report released on the subject later in the year.
I have recently worked with materials donated by a still-living donor, and yes, that can confuse the situation. In our case, it was problems to do with appraisal and our need to dispose of much of the donated material as being archivally irrelevant. (Very, very irrelevant. There were kitchen utensils.) I can only imagine that copyright and privacy, being much touchier subjects, would cause even more challenges.