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.

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When will restricted materials become available?

One morning recently, our records services archivist sent me an email. He was wondering if there was a way I could report to him on which materials in our university archives have restrictions that have passed. After all, this data is buried in access restriction notes all over finding aids — it would be very difficult to find this information by doing a search on our finding aids portal or in Archivists’ Toolkit.

This is exactly the kind of project that I love to do — it’s the intersection of archival functions, improved user experience, and metadata power tools.

In ArchivesSpace, restrictions have controlled date fields. This kind of report would be very easy in that kind of environment! Unfortunately, AT and EAD only has a place for this information as free text in notes.

Time for an xquery!

xquery version "3.0";
declare namespace ead="urn:isbn:1-931666-22-9";
declare namespace xlink = "";
declare namespace functx = "";

 for $ead in ead:ead
 let $doc := base-uri($ead)
 <document uri="{$doc}">
 for $accessrestrict in $ead//ead:dsc//ead:accessrestrict/ead:p[matches(.,'(19|20)[0-9]{2}')]
 let $series := $accessrestrict/ancestor::ead:c[@level = 'series' or @level = 'accession' or @level = 'accn']//ead:unitid
 let $dateseg := fn:substring-after($accessrestrict,'until')
 for $x in $series
 <lookhere location="{$x}">

And now for the walk-through.

Working together, we determined that any end dates will be below the <dsc>. So this report asks for any access restriction note below the dsc that includes a date in the twentieth or twenty-first century.

The report tells me what series that access restriction note is a part of and which file it’s a part of. I also pull out any text after the word “until”, because I see that common practice is to say “These materials will be restricted until XXXX.”

From there, I was able to put this data into an excel spreadsheet, do a bit of clean-up there, and give my colleague a sorted list of when particular series in collections are slated to be open.