This week has been more reading assignments that the previous weeks, and the underlying message is copyright and privacy. For our purposes, the big question is how do we protect the personal data found in donated materials and what is our role in control and manipulation? These are not negative things, but they can be perceived as such if archivists and museums do not do an adequate job of holding the material and then displaying the material in a manner that is not only beneficial to the museum or archive, but protects the privacy of the donor. Its an interesting concept to consider, and one that I think we easily disregard. Negotiations on donated material can range from relatively easy to extremely case sensitive and its important to realize that the person donated may not be necessarily worried about the documents being viewed by the public during their lifetime, but their children, and so forth.
As the holding facility to many important documents, some of which are sealed for a number of years, is the importance in displaying these documents to the public for historical research, or is the importance in preserving the material and showing good faith so others will feel safe donating their materials? What if someone donated materials that were extremely case sensitive and the archive were to publish these materials ahead of schedule. Not only could this damage the reputation of the person involved, but it could also damage the credibility and dependability of the archive, which was trusted to not publish the material until a future date. These situations are unavoidable if each donated collection is viewed case by case, and if the donor and the archive representative sit down and completely and thoroughly go over the procedure of when the materials will be able to be viewed, how they will be stored, the process from beginning to end and other smaller details.
Something additional for you to read over is not only the process of privacy in the United States, but in the entire world! Its truly interesting to see the differences and compare. In Russia, for instance, its common to have records sealed for up to 75 years after the event ended or the person died. In France, its 120 years! Combine these laws with a particular historical time period, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, and you have a true conundrum. When can we view these files? Do we wait the time allotted pertaining to each country, or do we allow the records to be opened immediately so that people can find their family, homes, or claim businesses? Its only one example but in the end, the answer was to take these sensitive situations and go case by case.
These privacy laws have shifted from generation to generation. From the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, which restricted access to government information; to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, where law enforcement can access private data. We in the United States do not have a set in stone rule about privacy. We also view certain individuals differently, such as celebrities. Democrats and Republicans are both weary of government intrusion, but not necessarily private sectors. Where does this lead? Hopefully, there is a happy medium. One between open access to materials for historical research and preservation, and one that allows the private sector to feel safe and secure donating their materials to an archive or museum without consequences.
There lies the balance. Archives and museums are not considered “storage units” for personal belongings, but there are many historically significant materials that have been destroyed in the past because of these privacy issues. Don’t let this happen to your archive or museum! Remember that in the end, we are here to preserve history and, yes, display even the terrible and controversial knowledge to the public as well. Don’t damage your reputation, but keep to your values and run every donated material on a case by case evaluation. These are a few things I’ve learned about copyright laws, any you have to add?
Until next time!