Ethics in Archives: How Special Collections Protects Your Privacy

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Shelves of restricted boxes from University Archives

Blog post contributed by Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates

Archival processing requires a lot of tough decisions. Sometimes it may not seem that way, but an individual’s privacy could be compromised if we allow access to sensitive information. Archivists must respect the personal information that exists in collections and consider potential consequences of their decisions. As collections are processed and organized, privacy is one of many ethical concerns on an archivist’s radar. If it weren’t, donors wouldn’t trust us to preserve their legacies!

The Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Code of Ethics encourages archivists to keep certain things in mind, including but not limited to privacy, as we preserve historical records. Privacy is a significant concern because an individual’s right to privacy is at stake when documents containing personally identifiable information (PII), such as social security and credit card numbers, are present. This information must be redacted or restricted if the document is to remain accessible.

Restricted box of archival materials

Academic archives are ethically and legally obligated to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and must redact student grades or other evaluative materials. Privacy and redaction ignite a perpetual battle with an archive’s contradictory goal of access. SAA’s Code of Ethics urges archivists to “minimize restrictions and maximize ease of access.” Tamar Chute and Ellen Swain discussed FERPA and archival access in their 2004 article, “Navigating Ambiguous Waters: Providing Access to Student Records in the University Archives.” Each institution employs different interpretations of FERPA adherence and students’ privacy. Regardless, archivists must balance legal mandates and ethical concerns with open accessibility. In Special Collections, we assess how various types of information could be used and do our best to provide access while maintaining security.

Shredding a graded exam to protect privacy

As we come across documents that contain PII, we must judge their potential value for research and then pursue one of several options. If the document is deemed to have potential value, we want to keep it in the collection. We can either physically remove it from the bulk of the collection and place it in a restricted box, or we can keep it with the collection and redact only the sensitive information. If redaction is the plan of action, we cover the PII using a dark felt-tip pen or a strategically placed Post-it note (though any opaque paper will do) and then photocopy the document. We place the copy with redacted content back in the collection and shred the original. If the document has no research value (such as a list containing only student names and SSNs), we set it aside to deaccession and officially remove it from the collection.

Before (left) and after (right) of a redacted Social Security Number using Post-it method

Once we’ve finished processing the collection, the documents that had been set aside are either given back to the donor or sent to a secure offsite shredding facility to be destroyed. For manuscript collections, that decision is ultimately made by the donor according to the Deed of Gift. This is a signed agreement between the manuscript collection’s donor and Special Collections that is generated at the time of donation. On this form, donors choose whether we return deaccessioned materials to their custody or dispose of them on their behalf. We use the same policy for duplicate items and materials deemed beyond the scope of the collection. For University Archives collections, retention decisions are made following NCSU's Retention and Disposition Schedules. As a state institution, NCSU is governed by state and federal laws that regulate what records must be kept. Deaccessioning is an act of permanently removing accessioned materials from our holdings, and is only done when deemed necessary. This, too, can be fraught with ethical considerations. 

Carton of sensitive materials awaiting the shredder

These are only a few of the privacy concerns associated with archival materials and the processing stage of collections management. Special Collections also takes great care to make sure researcher privacy is upheld at the point of access in our reading room. To protect researchers' privacy, Special Collections staff will not divulge information to inquiring third-parties, such as the identity and contact information of our researchers and what collections they accessed. 

The Richardson Papers Case

A few months ago, we processed the Frances M. Richardson Papers. Richardson was a professor of engineering at NC State and her papers are similar to those of other professors--strewn with graded assignments and Social Security Numbers (SSNs). Like many other higher education institutions, NC State used SSNs as student IDs until the 1990s. We quickly realized student privacy was jeopardized so we followed protocol and gauged the research value of each document containing sensitive information. For those with value, we redacted the PII and kept them in the collection. For those with no value, we deaccessioned and shredded them to uphold individuals’ privacy.

The Richardson Papers is just one of hundreds of collections we are responsible for in Special Collections. We take privacy concerns very seriously and put a lot of effort into balancing the privacy of individuals represented in the collection, the wishes of the collection’s donor, legal obligations, and the needs of our researchers. Of all the ethical issues we face as archivists, privacy is the most immediately consequential and requires great diligence.

This post is part of a special series on SCRC’s blog about ethics in archives. In this series, we discuss a variety of ethical issues archivists face. At the same time, we give you a behind-the-scenes look at what we do every day. Check out the series introduction here, and stay tuned--more posts are coming soon!