Privacy, Access, and the Recent Past

Currently, I am working on a project with Emory University’s Rose Library where I am writing about a scrapbook kept by a woman who lived in Atlanta’s Howell Station neighborhood in the early 20th century. Here are a few facts about her life: she was really worried about removing freckles and whitening her skin. She was also really racist, though probably no more so than most of her white contemporaries. She also believed that Leo Frank probably deserved to be lynched by an angry mob. One wonders, though, how she would feel if she knew her beauty secrets, much less the fact that she clipped a leaf from the tree used to hang Leo Frank, were going to be displayed on a website for public consumption a hundred years later. Personally, I am glad that I have this opportunity. The scrapbook lends valuable insight into day-to-day life in the early 20th century South. Were the roles reversed, I would admit that I wouldn’t be comfortable with everything a historian could learn about me, but I take the biased view that I’d be happy to advance the study of the time in which I live. Those who study the recent past, however, cannot avoid such concerns so easily.

Take, for example, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One collection in this archive includes records kept by medical students working at a public health clinic in Mississippi in 1968. These records include valuable information on the lives of impoverished African American families, but this information can also violate the privacy of people who are still living. Historians would be especially interested in what these records reveal about the patients’ family and social relationships, as well as social mores and religious beliefs. The same records also discuss the patients’ health, medical issues, hygiene, and sexual habits. It would be difficult for a historian to reveal such details in good conscience if they knew that publishing them could affect the personal life of someone who is still living. So how do historians balance privacy and quality research?

Photojournalist Lyndsey Addario faced a similar problem when she was embedded with a group of Marines in Afghanistan. When Lance Corporal Jonathan Taylor was mortally wounded in Helmand Province in December 2009, Addario accompanied the medevac team who tried to keep him alive. Despite best efforts, Corporal Taylor did not survive and Addario captured the process in a series of photographs that she hoped to use as the basis for a story. The military has strict rules for embedded journalists, however, and one of them prevents the publication of photographs that clearly identify a soldier without her/his permission. When the soldier is deceased, permission must come from the next of kin. Addario asked Taylor’s family if she could use her photographs for a feature in Time Magazine. Taylor’s father gave the issue a great deal of thought but ultimately declined permission, which forced Addario to shift her story’s focus to the medevac team itself.

In a way, Addario’s situation was fairly clear cut. The rules set forth by the military are fairly straightforward, where, for better or worse, free access is not a priority. Addario treated Taylor’s family with deference and respect, demonstrating a fair concern for her subject’s privacy. Historians and journalists lose something here, but it is also unwise to be insensitive to a family’s grief. In fifty to a hundred years, these photographs could possibly be unearthed for future research. This is cold comfort for historians and journalists, but at least there is little ambiguity right now.

In other situations, the boundaries are harder to define. Take, for instance, a diary where multiple living parties differ on what constitutes embarrassing information. In these cases, Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser believe that the concern must be equally shared by researchers, archivists, and donors. Archivists can redact documents, but this process is very time consuming. Collections can hold thousands of records which are often measured in footage instead of pages. Electronic records, provided there is a sufficient means to store them, can be even larger. While it may be easier to search electronic records, time is only one factor. There is no satisfactory standard for redacting records to insure privacy and retain historical utility. Brown and Kaiser observe that the standards set by HIPAA and the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act render documents useless for the purposes of most historical research. At the same time Brown and Kaiser encourage curators to have frank conversations with donors to limit embarrassing details about people who may still be alive. Historians, they caution, “must reciprocate by using sensitive materials responsibly.”

Kaiser and Brown’s solution is only a band aid, however. So long as there is a debate about how best to balance access and privacy in studying the recent past, it is likely that each collection in question will have to be weighed on its own, unique merits.

—William Greer

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