Banned Books Week: Access to Digital Collections

A student reads a book in her dormitory window.

A student reads a book in her dormitory window.

Happy Banned Books Week! For those who are unfamiliar with this annual celebration, Banned Books Week is a week (typically at the end of September) when libraries and schools celebrate the right to read materials that have been challenged or censored. According to its website, Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sharp increase in the number of challenges to books in libraries and schools. Materials in Special Collections are not often challenged or targeted for banning, but our staff often need to balance our mission to provide open access to information with the need to restrict access to some materials in order to comply with state and federal laws, and to protect the privacy of individuals whose sensitive information may be contained within them. In the digital program, our commitment to access can be seen in our digitization efforts as well as the many digital records listed in our our collection guides online.

This publication from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service promotes a reading program with the State Library.

University Archives is required by state law to provide access to public records, except as restricted by specific provisions in state or federal law. N.C.G.S. § 132-6 instructs:

“Every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian's custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person, and shall, as promptly as possible, furnish copies thereof upon payment of any fees as may be prescribed by law.”

Additionally, our digital Special Collections materials that are not governed by public records laws are materials that we wish to make publicly accessible. Currently, we provide access to many of our digitized materials online, and researchers who wish to access files in our born-digital collections can do so by requesting the materials and then viewing them on a computer in the reading room. Staff in the SCRC are working to expand our access model and implement new ways that researchers can discover and view relevant materials. However, we very occasionally have to restrict access to materials in digital collections for a few reasons.

The first reason we might restrict access to information is if it contains personally identifiable information (PII). This includes social security numbers, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information that violate a living person’s right to privacy. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states,

“Archivists recognize that privacy is sanctioned by law. They establish procedures and policies to protect the interests of the donors, individuals, groups, and institutions whose public and private lives and activities are recorded in their holdings. As appropriate, archivists place access restrictions on collections to ensure that privacy and confidentiality are maintained, particularly for individuals and groups who have no voice or role in collections’ creation, retention, or public use.

SCRC staff have previously written about how we manage privacy on physical items and during digitization.This form from the NCSU Office for Equal Opportunity and Equity Records would contain many instances of PII.

As our staff are processing or digitizing collections, they can visually scan for cases of personally identifiable information. However, when Special Collections ingests born-digital collections (for example, electronic records created by University departments in an official capacity), it’s not easily possible to look through individual files for instances of PII. We currently use Bulk Extractor to quickly look through directories and files for instances of many different types of PII. Once those have been detected, staff can make informed decisions about whether and how to restrict or exclude files or directories from an archival collection.

The second reason we might restrict a researcher’s access to digital files is if those files contain a virus that would harm other files in the collection, the reading room computer, or a researcher’s computer. In order to provide access, we absolutely have to determine that the materials are clear of viruses. We have multiple layers of virus scanning software in our processing workflows; our computer can scan any mounted media for viruses, we run virus scanning on files using Clam AntiVirus, and materials will be reevaluated for viruses once a researcher requests access to a collection. We update our virus scanning software every time we process digital materials to ensure that we're always using the most up-to-date definitions of known viruses and malware. Rescanning a collection for viruses when it is requested ensures that as virus scanners evolve and improve, we can catch viruses that previous versions may have missed. While no researcher likes to wait to get access to information (or not get access at all), we must make sure that our users are protected from harmful viruses that may damage other files or the computers we use to access them.

The Technician reports on a trojan virus in 2005 that posed a threat to the NCSU community's personal computers.

Another legal restriction on information in Special Collections is FERPA. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects individual student records from unauthorized third-party review; there is no stipulation for access by scholars and other researchers conducting historical studies or any other type of research. While we don’t actively collect student records as a part of our mission, it happens that sometimes records from faculty and other donors contain student information, such as grades. We are obligated to redact information or restrict access in these cases. 

Students at NCSU check their grades for a recent exam.

Banned Books week is fun and an important celebration of the freedom to read and access to information. The Special Collections Research Center strives to comply with state law to ensure access to all information when it’s legal and possible. The large majority of our materials (digital and otherwise) are accessible to researchers, with only a very small portion being restricted due to the above reasons. Read more about some of these ethical decisions in our Archival Ethics blog series and celebrate Banned Books Week with NCSU Libraries at Banned Books Onstage.