The Problem of Recent History

By: Evan Meehan

Journalists are better known that historians for the moral issues they face when it comes to the information they seek to publish.  In Radiolab’s “Sight Unseen” this type of journalistic moral issue is paramount: Should journalists coerce or strong-arm parents of a deceased soldier to allow their images to be used?

While this moral dilemma is important and deals with emotionally charged materials it is not the typical issue that historians deal with on a daily basis.  Why not?

Well, the reason is fairly simple: most of the time historians are dealing with points in time distantly enough removed from today to obviate these concerns.  The founding fathers’ dalliances make for compelling publications, not national scandal.  But as the field of history has changed, more and more falls under the umbrella of what is ‘historical.’  With this change comes the possibility that recent history will uncover unsavory facts, or even facts that are illegal to reveal.

The ability for historians to uncover facts that make people uncomfortable has been around since the beginning of the study.  While this issue is difficult to address, the issues are not new.  What is new however is the treasure trove of medical information available to historians.  With the advent of more institutionalized medical practices, and the subsequent archival of these institutions’ medical records historians are able* more than ever to examine the myriad ways in which life conditions (economy, religion, region, diet, weather, politics, favorite baseball team) have real measurable impact on the human condition.

* Unfortunately, able is not the same thing as legally able.  It turns out that the United States Government has put regulations in place called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more succinctly known as HIPAA.  Since 1996 ‘privacy’ and ‘health’ have been legally linked within HIPAA.[1]

Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser address this issue in Doing Recent History and discussed the issue primarily from the perspective of archives.  One option they considered was redaction, but ultimately this was dismissed as simultaneously too labor intensive and also too destructive to the meaning contained with the sources.[2]  Next they considered shifting the responsibility from the archives to an Institutional Review Board (IRB).  They discarded this idea as well, noting that the process is cumbersome and would bar non-academics from these archives.[3]

Ultimately no answer satisfied Brown and Kaiser – but I wonder if they were perhaps making the issue more complicated than they had to.  Every day thousands of people (doctors, nurses, insurance adjusters, actuaries, lawyers, pharmacists, and others) work with sensitive medical data.  Some of these individuals are creating meaningful presentations based this data.  How are they able to overcome the obstacle of HIPAA?  They received training in how to deal with private data.  They were informed of best practices of what information to omit, and what information may accidentally be personally revealing.  And then they are held responsible for their actions.  Its shockingly simple, and one wonders why it would not work for historians and even for non-professional academics.  Archives could identify those records that contain potentially sensitive medical information and request that those seeking access present them with the necessary credentials.  Ideally, archives could even offer the classes necessary to obtain this certification, enabling those outside of academia the opportunity to receive the training.

This solution could be extended outside of medical data to educational information (FERPA) or even private documents like the diaries of the very recently deceased.  Enforcement is perhaps an issue that could become sticky in the world of anonymous online posting, however one wonders how long true anonymity will continue to persist.  The alternative is to give up on a vast amount of information on account of the possibility that it contains information too private to know – at least for now.

In a world where sharing personal information has become pervasive, whether via Facebook or Twitter or frequent shopper cards or persistent cookies, one wonders if archivists and historians are simply approaching the issue from a dated perspective.

[1] Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser, “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past,” in Doing Recent History (2012), 66.

[2] Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser, “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past,” in Doing Recent History (2012), 72, 73.

[3] Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser, “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past,” in Doing Recent History (2012), 74.


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