Some Frequently Asked Questions from Archivists
This chapter covers ethics of access, privacy, consent, triggering information, embargoes, historical value and public interest
This section emerged from workshops conducted in 2022 where archivists were invited to share their learnings from their archives. The workshops included open sessions where archivists raised questions on law and ethics from their specific archival environment. These included questions on copyright, access and ownership which have been covered in the section on archival law. The questions on ethics have been addressed below. These are broad approaches that will vary according to the regulatory frameworks and the nature of the material that the archive works with. The answers are intended to prompt archivists to think in different directions in weighing decisions that they make about their archives.
Our archive has come in possession of a new collection. Should we make it available for research?
Here are some follow up questions and comments, when thinking about this.
Does your archive hold copyright to this collection?
If you do hold copyright, you are legally allowed to make the collection available for research and for copying. But consider the questions below.
Consult Chapter 2 of this guidebook for advice on fair dealing and review Chapter 5 for exemptions for digital reproduction. You can still make the material available for research at the archive without making copies or allowing copies by others.
You should ascertain the donor's right to transfer physical and intellectual custody to the archive before you acquire the collection.
Does the archive contain sensitive information about living or dead persons or minors?
As of the time of publishing this guidebook (December 2022), India does not have a comprehensive personal data protection legislation. However, data protection is regulated under a patchwork of sectoral regulations, some of which apply to archives, for example, concerning medical records. The Right to Privacy is also a fundamental right under the Indian constitution (see Chapter 3). That said, processing of personal information by archives for public interest is one of the recognised exemptions to data protection in many countries and personal data protection cannot be cited to cover up information that is crucial to civic health.
The IFLA and ICA Statement on Privacy Legislation and Archiving1 reflects on data protection regulations internationally and their impact on archives. In the absence of clear data protection legislation and legal guidance, archivists should consider the disclosure of personal information contextually and on a case-by-case basis. As an archivist, your responsibility is to minimise avoidable harm, and not withhold information. For archives that deal with sensitive data, a case-by-case review might be a more ethical position where feasible.
It is also useful to look at indigenous data sovereignty frameworks such as those from State of Open Data2 and the CARE Principles of Indigenous Data Governance3 as a reference when dealing with archives of communities at risk. This recognises that copyrights may often be obtained without informed consent or that marginalised communities have traditionally had little say in how their data is archived or used. While the archive may legally make these documents available for copying and circulation, it is not ethically tenable to do so. In such cases, access protocols such as those developed by Local Contexts4 can be adapted in consultation with communities to apply to the collections.
If you have reviewed sensitivity and have the resources to do so, you could make your archive open access. Archives are encouraged to extend maximum support to users in finding the information they are looking for and making information available for re-use for non-commercial use where legislation permits. For more, have a look at the ICA statement on Access to Archives.
Does the material contain triggering information such as gender or caste-based violence and discrimination?
Triggering information in archives can be harmful to subjects of the archives, to users, and to archivists themselves. Documents containing descriptions of sexual violence, for instance, can be triggering to persons or familiars of persons to whom the document refers, but also to other survivors of sexual violence or even communities that have historically been subjected to such violence. This does not imply that archives should be cordoned off for containing such material. Instead, it is advisable to include trigger warnings as resources permit. Scholarship on trauma informed approaches5,6 cites safety, trust, transparency, and choice as underlying principles in making such material accessible. In archives, these principles extend to the archive facilities, the manner in which archives are catalogued and described, the public communication of the archives, and the process of making archives available.7 How these principles may be implemented can be highly specific for archives, but conversations on mental health, training on dealing with traumatic material and support for employees working with difficult material can empower the archives to practice care.
Have there been any embargo requests?
Requests to embargo can be complicated. In certain conditions such as sensitive data about communities or individuals at risk or confidential information, temporary embargoes may be considered. It is advisable that the archive makes this decision on its own terms with clearly stipulated timelines for opening the collection. Occasionally embargoes may be considered for personal archives in consultation with donors (such as release after X years after donor's death). When working with vulnerable communities, embargoes must be determined by the data sharing practices of the community.
The employee files in my organisation contain medical records and identifiable details. How should we treat these in the archives?
Under regular circumstances, only persons with authorisation within the archive to access these records should be able to process these files. All personal data owned by organisations should have clear authorizations for access.
The privacy of medical records is mandated by The Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002, besides other regulatory mechanisms (see Chapter 3). Ethically, the medical records of an individual are private. However, medical records may be sought for legal proceedings, or enough time may have passed such that the content of the medical records is valuable only as historical interest and does not affect living persons adversely. Under international data protection regimes, data privacy is protected only while an individual is alive. Ethically, arguments have been made for effect on families of deceased individuals. And an attempt to enable post-mortem privacy through a designated person is part of India’s draft Digital Data Protection Bill, 2022. It is for the archive to make a considered decision on the effect of making the data available and balancing access with privacy.
The same applies to other personal data. Personal data may be sought for legal reasons, or for reasons of public interest that trumps the person's right to privacy. In cases where archival access exposes caste bias, gender discrimination or legally actionable acts, the archive must make personal data, which it would otherwise withhold, available.
Situations in which the archive may consider making private data accessible include:
- Legal proceedings.
- Legitimate request from family.
- Legitimate public interest.
- If the data subject gives informed consent for such data being made available.
- If the archive has determined after a thorough review that the release of data does not adversely affect the persons to whom the data pertains.
- If the information is of historical value and does not affect living persons.
It is important to remember that these considerations presume the absence of a data protection regulation. Some of these considerations, although ethical, are not legally mandated under international data protection regulations.
We are running out of space in our archive. Should we digitise our collections and deaccession files that have been digitised?
Are the collections you are proposing to destroy of historical value or archival value?
Collections of historical and archival value are important not only for the content of the collections that can be read or viewed. History also manifests itself in material contexts and in the form of the material. Archival collections can reveal as much through the medium and material in which their contents are held as by their actual texts and marginalia. This holds true for both paper archives and collections held on digital media that are now obsolete.
The decision to digitize a collection of historical value is dependent on various factors such as whether digitization will prevent physical degradation through handling, or improve access to the collection, or enhance use. The Northeast Documentation Conservation Centre (NEDCC) has a handy guide on selection categories for digital preservation for physical archives to assist archives that are considering going digital.8
There are international guidelines on reappraising and deaccessioning material. If the archive is satisfied that the material does not serve the mission of the archive and cannot be of value to another archive or collection elsewhere that is willing to take it in, deaccessioning is a legitimate decision. The archive must keep a record of the material that is deaccessioned, with clear reasoning. The guidelines9 from the Society of American Archivists on deaccessioning are a useful reference.
The decision to digitize before deaccessioning depends on the resources available with the archive. If the material is not of historical value, the environmental cost of digital preservation must also be considered.
Have you considered and compared the cost of long-term digital preservation versus options such as offsite storage?
If the archive decides upon storing collections digitally, has enough resources, and has carefully considered the environmental impact of digital storage, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance document on levels of digital stewardship10 can assist in ensuring that it meets the minimum requirements of robust digital preservation.
The Digital Preservation Coalition’s guide on digital storage11 and the approach to it includes resources such as standards for digital storage and commonly used systems for digital preservation. It includes a section on approaches that can be used to determine budgets for setting up a digital preservation system with regularised maintenance.
I work with oral histories. My participants often come from contexts where signing a consent form is an intimidating prospect. How do I ensure the consent is properly ‘informed’?
As an organisation or individual, you might be collectively or personally at a position of significantly more privilege than your interlocutors (this could be the privilege of caste, class, race, education, finances, social status, gender and sexual orientation, ability, health, or neurotypicality).
In asymmetrical power relationships where the asymmetry works at different intersectional levels, informed consent is a constant process of building trust that extends beyond signatures on form or verbal information before the commencement of the research. Informed consent is built over various stages of the research process with a constant reiteration of the right of the participant to withdraw. While documentation of the consent may in fact be a form, the process of consent must involve both formal and informal conversations and engagement with participants with unambiguous space for declining, refusing and withdrawing from participation at any stage of the research process. Participants must also have recourse to internal and external redressal mechanisms with clear channels of communication with the archive. The AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research12 guidelines on responsibilities can be adapted to many different contexts to inform ethical documentation and collection. The Archives at NCBS has a Consent and Agreement Form for oral history interviews that is developed by looking at best practices at various institutions. For further details and templates, refer to the Appendix: Further Reading and Resources.
In symmetrical researcher-researched or archivist-archived relationships, informed consent should clearly explain all purposes and uses of the research as set out by guidelines on oral history and qualitative research. International guidelines are helpful in drawing up consent forms and procedures, but it is important to recognise that the regional, legal, political, and socio-cultural contexts in India about information sharing can be very different. Organisations like Archives and Research for Ethnomusicology (ARCE), Centre for Public History (CPH), Partition Museum, and the Oral History Association of India (OHAI) are organisations that have a robust experience of working with oral histories and can share experience of ethics on the field. International guidelines from Oral History Australia13, National Oral History Association of New Zealand14, Oral History Association USA15 and the Oral History Society, UK16 are useful references when collaborating in a global research environment. The Oral History Society also has advice on dealing with media requests17 to oral history recordings.
Have you defined guidelines for ethical processes for documenting, accessioning, and processing oral history including participant rights to recording?
Ensure that guidelines are updated and all members on the team are aware of the guidelines. Review guidelines before commencing on a project to make them relevant to the research context. Ethical guidelines are important for both internal and external accountability. Having guidelines enables archives to set expectations for non-negotiable standards on ethics.
Have you made the terms of future use and access of their information clear in a deposit agreement?
If you have a deposit agreement signed after informed consent for the interview, it is imperative to stick to the requirements of the agreement. In some cases, depositors may return to review these agreements. While it is up to an archive’s discretion to entertain these, an archive should consider the same questions of power asymmetries about revisiting agreements as about gaining informed consent in the first place.
Consent for collection and use of oral history is distinct from consent for deposit and storage in perpetuity. Research participants might want temporary embargoes on access to their information. Some organisations have contracts with their participants where the copyright is held by the interviewees. Others have deposit agreements that donate the intellectual and custodial rights of the interview to the archives. Decisions on what works best for both the research participants and archives must be agreed upon before the research commences. While it is important to recognise the rights of participants to their own stories, it can sometimes be difficult to follow up with participants who have moved, passed on, or otherwise forgotten about the interview. The labour of the archivist in maintaining constant communication with participants, especially in the case of large archives, must be carefully considered.
With respect to archives that are born digital, how does one ensure inclusivity when working in areas of low digital literacy and resources?
Does the archiving process include documentation by or in collaboration with persons with limited access to technology?
If the purpose of the collection is active documentation in collaboration with communities with limited resources, or archiving material that has already been recorded, it is understandable that the archives might not be able to acquire data in preferred formats and resolutions. However, it is advisable to run capacity building workshops when a collaboration commences and provide resources where possible to standardise documentation (even if it is not to prescribed standards). Documentation and storage are only one part of the digital archiving process. A significant part is preservation for long-term use both by the creators of the collections and by intended users. The decision to use certain formats is less a concern of 'quality' as a concern of 'longevity'. The archive might sometimes choose to migrate to a certain format in the interest of long-term preservation while working inclusively with the resources and available technology.
The Digital Preservation Coalition has a useful compilation of archival formats and standards18 for long-term preservation. The cost of digital archiving to prescribed standards can be prohibitive in the long term. Inconsistency in format and quality should not necessarily prevent you from undertaking archiving. However, it is useful to review established standards as a touchstone to ensure your data is supported against obsolescence in the long run. The Activist Archiving19 page on the Commons Library has resources for activists who are often documenting and archiving in environments over which there is little control. They can be useful for other archivists as well when archiving in challenging environments.
- International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and International Council on Archives. (2020). IFLA-ICA statement on privacy legislation and archiving. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Retrieved from https://www.ifla.org/publications/ifla-ica-statement-on-privacy-legislation-and-archiving↩
- State of Open Data Report. (n.d.). Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Retrieved from https://www.stateofopendata.od4d.net/chapters/issues/indigenous-data.html↩
- Carroll, SR et al. (2020). The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance. Data Science Journal 43-19↩
- Traditional Knowledge Labels. (n.d.). Local Contexts. Retrieved from https://localcontexts.org/labels/traditional-knowledge-labels↩
- Sloan, K, Vanderfluit, J., and Douglas, J. (2019). Not ‘just my problem to handle’: Emerging themes on secondary trauma and archivists. Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 6(1)↩
- Laurent, N., Wright, K. (2021). ‘Safety, Collaboration, and Empowerment. Archivaria 38.↩
- AusArchivists - TV. (2020). A Trauma-Informed Approach to Managing Archives [Video]. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGmDxyCXdaw↩
- Northeast Document Conservation Center. (n.d.). Preservation and Selection for Digitization. Retrieved from https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/6.-reformatting/6.6-preservation-and-selection-for-digitization↩
- Society of American Archivists. (2017). Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning. Retrieved from https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/GuidelinesForReappraisalDeaccessioning_2017.pdf↩
- National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA). (n.d.). Levels of Digital Preservation. Retrieved from https://ndsa.org/publications/levels-of-digital-preservation↩
- Digital Preservation Coalition. (n.d.). Storage. Retrieved from https://www.dpconline.org/handbook/organisational-activities/storage↩
- Russell, R., and Winkworth, K.(2009). Significance 2.0: A Guide to Assessing the Significance of Collections. Council of Australia. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov.au/sites/default/files/significance-2.0.pdf?acsf_files_redirect↩
- Oral History Australia. (n.d.). Guide – Ethical Practice. Retrieved from https://oralhistoryaustralia.org.au/guide-ethical-practice↩
- National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ). (n.d.).Ethics & Practice. Retrieved from https://www.oralhistory.org.nz/index.php/ethics-and-practice↩
- Oral History Association. (n.d.). OHA Statement on Ethics. Retrieved from https://oralhistory.org/oha-statement-on-ethics↩
- Oral History Society UK. (n.d.). Legal and Ethical Advice. Retrieved from https://www.ohs.org.uk/legal-and-ethical-advice↩
- Oral History Society, UK. (2006). OHS Media Guidelines ( Britain). Retrieved from https://www.ohs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Media_Guidelines_1006.pdf↩
- Digital Preservation Coalition. (n.d.). Technical Solutions and Tools. Retrieved from https://www.dpconline.org/handbook/technical-solutions-and-tools/file-formats-and-standards↩
- Dun, A. (2005). Activist Archiving. Retrieved from https://commonslibrary.org/activist-archiving-start-here↩