Choose Privacy Week: The Archivist’s Perspective

Often in this day and age the public feels, sometimes rightly so, that their information is too readily available online. To help combat that fear, the American Library Association has created Choose Privacy Week, an “annual, week-long event that promotes the importance of individual privacy rights and celebrates libraries and librarians’’ unique role in protecting privacy in the library and in society as a whole.” [1] While archivists are not often working directly in the libraries, nor are we librarians, we do understand the similar role we play in preserving archival information and providing access to that  information to the public. We understand the importance of a user’s privacy. Our need to honor privacy while remaining transparent as we preserve governmental records can be a tricky balancing act.
We have invited two member of our Transparency Team (Nova Dubovik, the State Records Committee Executive Secretary, and Rosemary Cundiff, the GRAMA Ombudsman, to help explain the laws that we follow when providing access to information here in our Research Center.

 

The Archivist’s Perspective

By Nova Dubovik and Rosemary Cundiff

The Utah State Division of Archives and Records Service (“Archives”) staff members go to great lengths to protect the privacy rights of citizens by preventing unauthorized access and balancing that with government transparency.   

Alan Barnett, reference Archivist at Utah State Archives, expressed that “[m]aintaining both governmental transparency and individual privacy is key to preserving our democratic system.”  He references the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), which is Utah’s records access law, and remarked on “the need for a balance between these two demands.”  Alan pointed out that, “the State Archives works to keep that balance between making government transparent to citizens, while protecting private information about individuals.”  

GRAMA provides the guidelines to determine the proper classification of records.  It is the basis for determining whether to restrict or not restrict access to a record based on the content of the information, and the context of the request. At the Archives, when a researcher requests material, to prevent the unintentional release of sensitive information, the staff reviews the holding classification and content.  If necessary, the information is segregated and redacted before granting access.  For the Archives a particularly relevant section of GRAMA is the section which states that restricted classification is not permanent, and that after 75 years a “records shall be presumed to be public.” (Utah Code Section 62G-2-310). This section of the GRAMA defines how privacy interests diminish over time. For example, a telephone number from a 50-year-old phone book would not have the same privacy concern as a current personal phone number.

Another interesting example of diminishing privacy over time is an Archives collection about the Castle Gate Relief Fund Committee. These records document the needs of families in the aftermath of the Castle Gate mining disaster, as well as amounts of relief funds provided to each family. When records relating to adults in this collection were requested in the past, they were restricted as private records, however, today they have become public records documenting Utah’s rich history. It is of note, that the records in this collection related to children will continue to remain private until the records are 100 years old to protect the children’s privacy. 

As indicated by Alan, there is a balance between preserving individual privacy and government transparency and documenting our history. The Archives is quintessential in balancing all to promote a democratic system for future citizens.  

 

Endnotes

[1] “Why Privacy?”,   American Library Association, accessed May 1, 2017, https://chooseprivacyweek.org/why-privacy/.

 

 

 

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