Access Restrictions that Promote Access

Access restrictions, if done well, are tools for ensuring that as much information as possible is made available as broadly as possible while still respecting and adhering to individual privacy, corporate confidentiality, legal requirements, cultural sensitivities, and agreements. In order to promote access, rather than present unnecessary barriers to it, restrictions on the availability of archival materials for research should follow these principles:


Unlock by Eric Bird from the Noun Project

  • They should be as broad as necessary to be practicable, but no broader. Where this point falls will vary between restriction types, collections and repositories, but as archivists we should champion increasing access whenever we can.
  • They should be clear, as concise as possible, and avoid jargon of any type. A typical user should be able to understand the access restrictions. Not sure if your restrictions pass this test? Why not ask a user? This isn’t just a usability issue; it’s an equal access issue.
  • They should spell out exceptions and make the implicit explicit. Publishing information about exceptions, appeals and alternatives that may exist helps ensure that all users have equal access to that information, and that learning about them does not require additional inquiry or personal interaction with a gatekeeper an archivist.
  • They should acknowledge the role of professional judgement and enable appeal. In support of professional transparency and accountability, we need to explain restrictions well enough that researchers can understand both their basis and application, and challenge either element if they have good cause to believe our judgment is in error.

DACS gives some good guidance on what to include in an access restriction. In keeping with and expanding on that, a specific practice that I find helpful is to pay attention to the Five Ws and one H of access restrictions: who, what, where, when, why and how. Most access restrictions will not address all of these, but asking whether or not each applies can be useful when drafting restrictions.

Who Does the access restriction apply equally to everyone? Are there groups to whom it does not apply? Examples of groups that might be called out in an access restriction include:

  • The person who is the subject of the file
  • The originating office
  • Current staff with a business need to know

What Exactly what type of information is being restricted? Access restrictions should focus on information content over format, and answering this question can help differentiate between the two.

Where Where in the collection is this information known or likely to exist? To what portions of the collection do the restrictions apply? Answering this question will get at the “format” portion of the content/format dichotomy.

When Specifically, when does the restriction end? Maureen’s going to talk more about making machine-actionable conditions governing access entries later in this series, but for now I’ll just suggest that you make the end date for your restrictions as explicit as you can. If possible, identify a specific date (July 1, 2056) when the materials will be available, rather than a date that has to be calculated (50 years from the date of creation). If you must use a calculated date, be clear about how that date will be calculated. Will you provide access to documents as their restrictions expire throughout the year, or do you round up to the end of the year and make, for example, everything from 1976 available on the same date?

Why Why must the information that you identified under “what” be restricted? Specifically identify the organizational policies, laws, best practices, or ethical principles that form the basis for the restriction.

How How can a researcher appeal the restriction? Is there a person or body with the authority to grant access, such as the office of origin or the donor? If so, make this information explicit.

Admittedly, this is a lot to ask of a collection-, series- or even folder-level Conditions Governing Access element (DACSEAD). And as anyone who has worked with legacy descriptive data can attest, maintaining consistency across hundreds or even thousands of descriptions can be a nightmare and is almost impossible in practice. For these reasons, I advocate generalizing access restrictions whenever possible to repository-wide policies applied to types of information that appear in multiple collections, such as “student information” or “medical information”. The policy can explain the who, what, when, why and how, while leaving it to the collection-, series- or lower-level description to specify the where and point toward the more generic policy.

I wish I had a ton of helpful examples to link you toward, but alas, I can’t even point to my own repository as a model for good practice in this area (yet). Please let me know what you think of these principles and practices, and share links to examples you like below.

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