Elizabeth,

In February we had a fascinating symposium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the legal and ethical implications of large-scale digitization of the Southern Historical Collection that discussed precisely this, though rather in the context of putting the actual materials out there, not just the finding aids.

I do not believe the slides and speaker notes are publicly available to date, but I can point you to a four-part blog entry by Merrilee Proffitt that gives an excellent overview of what was discussed. See her blog hangingtogether.org, the first post
http://hangingtogether.org/?p=624 will point you to the others.

In a rather abstract sense, my personal belief is that we have already answered questions relating to our professional commitment to protecting third-party privacy. By deciding to have unrestricted access to such materials in our reading rooms, we should have already dealt with the weight and ethics of third party privacy issues. If we feel a new discomfort with the dawn of digital access, this should cause us to reexamine the decisions we have made previously, and to examine the roots of our discomfort.

At least for public archives, our materials are technically open to everyone. That means the the first time we made the decision to have these materials open to research, we were legally saying we felt comfortable with the ramifications of anyone in the world having access to them. In a de facto sense, the situation with non digital materials or analog finding aids is that only certain subsets of society have the educational resources to figure out that this stuff is here, and the free time/economic resources to come to our reading room and see it, or pay someone else to do that for them. Access is undemocratic, at the moment. Access becomes much more democratic with digital access to the materials.

So I think we need to ask ourselves whether what we were really thinking before digital access was, "we are comfortable with everyone who fits a certain profile looking at these materials." If that is the case, then clearly that mentality is what needs to be reexamined, and our processing/restriction/decision-making matrix needs to be updated according to the reality that our materials are truly open.

In a more realistic view, I think there are not really issues with digital access to finding aids, and more thinking to be done regarding fully digitized collections.

Joyce Chapman
Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


2009/4/21 Elizabeth H Dow <[log in to unmask]>

Good morning,

    A few years ago, when I encoded finding aids at the University of Vermont, I became aware that putting inventories on the web had the potential for raising privacy issues to a new level. It's one thing to indicate in a paper finding aid that will sit in a notebook on a shelf of an institution that's open 45 hours a week that one has a list of political donors to a contentious political campaign or a list of participants in a radical theater production or old personnel records for a still-active business, and to announce that information on the web for -- literally -- the world to see and make of it as it will.

    Has anyone else played with this reality as it relates to our professional commitment to protecting third-party privacy? Has anyone experienced unexpected ethical ramifications of having their inventories online?

    I now teach EAD and, having covered the technical issues for the semester, want to expand students' thinking about the non-technical issues related to EAD.

     Thanks in advance for any pithy thoughts and/or case examples.

Elizabeth H. Dow
Associate Professor
School of Library and Information Science
Louisiana State University