Eli Riveire

Ethical stances on privacy issues within archival collections

Sara S. Hodson has written several scholarly articles, focusing specifically issues of privacy and access in archives. Serving as the Curator for Literary Manuscripts at The Huntington Library in California since 1979 (“2009 Candidate Statements”), her vast professional experience has given her a direct look into these matters. The Huntington Library is a prestigious research facility, holding several valuable and important collections. In Hodson’s article, “In Secret Kept, In Silence Sealed: Privacy in the  Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” published in The American Archivist in 2004, the author explains the complexities of working with collections containing personal or salacious information about people still living. Hodson asks, “To what degree should manuscripts curators and archivists be  concerned  with  the  possible invasion  of  privacy by virtue  of opening a set of personal papers for research (Hodson 2004, 195)?” Her work especially concerns the cult of celebrity, and includes true cautionary tales recounting the ordeals associated with the collections of famous people like Sigmund Freud, John Cheever, and J.D. Salinger.

        The heart of the ethical issue in practice seems to be thinking about third-party individuals represented in the collection, versus providing open, accurate information to a collection’s users. Hodson believes “the right of privacy ends at death, since the dead obviously can no longer be embarrassed by the revelation of personal information (196),” but if other people present in the material (like correspondents or subjects) are still alive, how would they feel having their private matters disclosed? After examining real-life examples, Hodson cedes that “no good answers exist (211),” and that all collections will have some level of grey area - but that archivists shouldn’t let these details hold them hostage, hung up on particular details. Believing in this conclusion, reminiscent of the More Product, Less Process movement, frees archivists to make the best decisions relevant to their own collections. One policy shouldn’t exist to govern all instances (like the seal-everything-of-living-people method used by the Bodleian Library at Oxford [196]), because every situation is different. Having been in her position for decades, Hodson knows this to be true, as should the many professional archivists reading her work.

        While Hodson’s view on the issue of personal privacy in archives seems to be more practically-based, Canadian archives professor Heather MacNeil seems to see the issue more theoretically. In her article “Defining the Limits of Freedom of Inquiry: The Ethics of Disclosing Personal Information Held in Government Archives,” which appeared in Archivaria in 1991, she argues for “rights-based analysis (MacNeil 1991, 140),” rather than the risk-benefit approach used commonly. In this view, it is not enough to simply think about what benefits may come to the research community by revealing private or incriminating documents, but that “the ultimate criterion for the moral evaluation of research involving the use of personal information is ‘consistency with human dignity,’ as defined as ‘the status of individuals as ends in themselves, rather than as means towards some extraneous ends’ (140).”

        Applying this logic to collections, MacNeil argues, is like respecting confidentiality agreements between a doctor and patient, or a social worker and client (141). In reality, however, an archivist working with a collection likely has little direct access to individuals represented within the material, either because the subjects are often either dead, or if alive, distant and difficult to find. Where a doctor and patient can make decisions together on certain matters, an archivist only has herself and those directly around her. For situations of uncertainty, MacNeil suggests establishing a review board (142), but this would undoubtedly make the period of processing longer than it already is, holding up interested researchers even further. These ideas, while admirable and understandable, seem to be a little extreme in terms of practical application; but, when considering the author, they make sense. MacNeil also has a background in law, and is much more involved in the academia side of archival theory than she has been in actual collection work (“Heather MacNeil” 2011).

        Archivist Elena S. Danielson has also tread through this murky water of ethical dilemmas surrounding personal privacy in collections, in her 1989 American Archivist article, “The Ethics of Access.” While this paper covers several topics other than specifically privacy, the issue is definitely one of Danielson’s major themes. When determining policies for restricted archives, Danielson presents this piece of classicly held wisdom: “maintain scrupulously equal access  and promote the most open possible availability of  resources, even to the point of persuading skeptical donors of the advisability of  such a  policy.  On the other hand, any portion of  the collection that is restricted as a condition of donation should be closed to all readers and a clear end date to the restriction should be stipulated to facilitate eventual availability of the complete record (Danielson 1989, 54).” Unfortunately, this policy often leads to an unfavorable conclusion: “papers not opened graciously would be exposed to unfavorable publicity and eventually be opened under pressure (55).” Using both the SAA’s and the ALA’s Codes of Ethics, Danielson advocates clearly for the free flow of information, putting “librarians and like-minded archivists squarely on the side of the researcher (55).” Though Danielson certainly seems respectful of situations of privacy in collections, her paper suggests that for collections to be used most effectively, getting the full picture and context of their materials is paramount.

        Elena Danielson came into the field a librarian first, working at Stanford’s Hoover Institution in areas ranging from technical services to reference, before her first role as an official archivist in1996 (almost a decade after this paper was published) (Horaney 2005). Intellectual freedom is a major tenant of librarianship, and part of what I think gave her the steadfast opinion she presents in “The Ethics of Access.” Having such great experience dealing directly with the patrons and researchers actually using archival collections puts her in an interesting position to judge what MacNeil would classify a risk-benefit analysis of privacy issues. This unintentional first-hand research has proven to Danielson while these issues can be complex, being able to access good information is ultimately more important than the potential embarrassment associated with it. Though these views are understandable and valid from a theoretical standpoint, it’s still important for new archivists to remember that every situation is different and should be treated as such.


Danielson, Elena S. "The Ethics of Access." The American Archivist. 52. no. 1 (1989): 52-62.

Hodson, Sara S. "In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities." The American Archivist. 67. no. 2 (2004): 194-211.

Horaney, Michele. Hoover Institution, "Elena Danielson retires after 27 years of distinguished service at the Hoover Institution." Last modified September 4, 2005. Accessed November 16, 2011. http://www.hoover.org/news/press-releases/29631.

MacNeil, Heather. "Defining the Limits of Freedom of Inquiry: The Ethics of Disclosing Personal Information Held in Government Archives."Archivaria. 32. (1991): 138-144.

Society of American Archivists, "2009 Candidate Statements." Accessed November 16, 2011. http://www.archivists.org/governance/election/2009/statements.asp.

University of Toronto, "Heather MacNeil." Last modified 2011. Accessed November 16, 2011. http://www.ischool.utoronto.ca/faculty/heather-macneil.