Our most recent ASC cataloguing forum was hosted by Roz Ryan-Mills, a former graduate trainee at ASC and current Information Management & Preservation MSc student at the University. For her Master’s dissertation Roz is currently researching the use of restricted collections with a view to drawing up guidelines to promote good practice.
This meeting was an opportunity for the forum to discuss some of the challenges which arise when cataloguing restricted collections, how to promote clarity and transparency (for the archivist and user), and how best to govern access to restricted material.
There are many reasons which may mean that access to a collection, or certain items within a collection, may have to be restricted. The forum discussed the following different categories of restricted materials and the access issues involved:
1. Items may be restricted on the grounds of preservation. If material is too fragile to handle it may be temporarily restricted until an assessment can be made and any necessary conservation treatment carried out. Ways around this issue can include the production of facsimiles and the digitisation of works, which preserve the original and allow access to items which would otherwise be inaccessible.
2. Archivists have a duty to protect sensitive personal information, meaning that restrictions must be imposed on certain materials. Personal data is protected under the 1998 Data Protection Act; this means that material is restricted until a certain period of time has lapsed. In these cases managing restrictions is fairly straightforward as once the time period has lapsed these records can be made available.
3. We also discussed the issue of the possibility of ambiguity when it comes to what should be deemed ‘sensitive material’. As judgements can be subjective, how can we ensure that there is consistency from the stage of cataloguing to issuing the collection?
These considerations led to discussion upon the best way to manage access to restricted material. For example, a reader may be required to complete an application form to access a collection. This enables access to be assessed on a case-by-case basis and a record kept of what materials have been deemed essential to the applicant’s research. We also discussed some of the practical processes in place once permission to a restricted item or collection has been granted, such as specific desk spaces to allow researchers working with restricted material to be positioned away from other users. If parts of a document are covered under data protection but others aren’t, or if someone is viewing their own record that also contains information about other individuals, we can redact parts of the text to obscure any information that remains restricted.
Finally, we discussed that although the process at the cataloguing stage can help to identify sensitive or restricted material, having consistent procedures in place when issuing items from the collection are equally important in terms of ensuring good governance.
Categories: Archives and Special Collections