Privacy, Access to Information, and the Archives: Addressing Privacy in Large-Scale Digitization Work

Ellen LeClere



‘Access to information’ and ‘privacy’ are often positioned as competing professional values among archivists. Digitizing collections provides wider access to important primary source materials, but it also creates higher risks for revealing private and/or sensitive information about donors and third parties represented in these collections.

The literature regarding digitization trends reveals that users and archivists have both championed policies of open access to archival collections. Recent funding trends have supported large-scale digitization projects, despite an enduring understanding that archives contain private and/or sensitive information. Little research has been done to resolve privacy concerns in the wake of large-scale digitization projects, though privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum’s theory of contextual integrity has been put forward as a heuristic for archivists to follow when making access decisions.

My objective in this study was to analyze the work documents that inform large-scale digitization projects of Civil Rights-era materials for evidence of how external pressures impact decision-making processes, and how these pressures may betray the professional responsibility to maintain donor and third-party privacy. My findings reveal that securing external funding is extremely influential in justifications for large-scale digitization projects, which usually insinuate a high educational impact, though provide little evaluation or evidence of demonstrated user needs. Donor and third party privacy is difficult to manage in large-scale digitization projects, though it is shown to be of import – though often conflated with issues of intellectual property, if acknowledged at all in digitization work.

While digitization poses a prima facie contextual integrity violation, I assert that applications of Nissenbaum’s theory must consider both technological advances as well as socially-dependent activities, such as archival labor. While digitization certainly creates new opportunities for privacy infringement, this is less of a consequence of digitization technologies and more of a consequence of the current condition of archival work.