Researcher/archivist confidentiality

VII. Privacy

Archivists protect the privacy rights of donors and individuals or groups who are the subject of records. They respect all users’ right to privacy by maintaining the confidentiality of their research and protecting any personal information collected about them in accordance with the institution’s security procedures.

-From the Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics.

I apologize for the generalities in which this post is written, but I don’t want to cause more of a ruckus than has already occurred.

This is the story as far as I know it.  A researcher was using one of the collections at the repository at which I work.  She found information which was useful to her and that she found interesting.  She found out that one of our archivists was reprocessing that collection.  She sought out this archivist and told her about this material that was in this collection but not described in the finding aid. This information was included in the finding aid and then put online.  I wrote a blog post using some of the information that the researcher found and pointed out to our processing archivist.  The researcher read this blog post and was irate, saying that we scooped information that she was preparing to publish in a book.  The blog post was taken down.

Did my blog post violate the SAA Code of Ethics?  I obviously don’t think so, the way the facts are seen from my point of view.  The relevant section of the Code of Ethics is

They respect all users’ right to privacy by maintaining the confidentiality of their research

And this is an important pat of the code.  People need to be able to trust their archivists and need to be sure that they aren’t going to be spreading their research all over town.  Firstly, its bad PR if you violate this, potentially affecting future donations.  Secondly, while this is not an issue in the United States at the moment, as far as I know, some sorts of research can be dangerous.  Government archives of newly democratic nations are one example.  Some people might want to cover up their wrongdoings, and if these are detailed in the records of government, they may be exposed when these records become public.

However, from my point of view, if you seek out the archivist who is processing that collection and tell her about something in a collection, you cannot reasonably expect that archivist to not put that in the finding aid unless you explicitly tell her not to.  Perhaps I’m missing some key bit of the story, since I was only involved with this at the very end.  But, especially since we do not do item level processing at my repository, the researchers are the true experts on any of our collections.  To not use their expertise when we can would be foolish.

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