Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital era (chapter 4.4): The dangers of open access archives
This article is chapter 4.4 in section 4 of a series of articles summarising the book Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access.
István Rév’s chapter, the fourth and final chapter of the archives and preservation section, stands in contrast to previous chapters. After spending a substantial amount of time working on sensitive archives, Rév argues that while open access to these archives would be of great benefit to the collective memory of our world, the dangers at the individual level are substantial.
Rév begins by tracing the history of open access to archives. The archive, as we knew it for a long time, seemed to consist of static repositories based on a read-only paradigm. In recent decades, the situation has changed: the archive is now considered to be key to the understanding of an individual or a collective past.
In December 2001, a dozen or so scholars met to discuss the Open Access Movement. They agreed that scholarly reports should become freely and openly accessible. Open access to documents is now conventionally understood as the right to have unimpeded access to documents with political, historical, or cultural significance for either the relevant community or the individual citizen concerned.
The public in Argentina, Chile, Columbia, South Africa, Germany, Poland, and Russia demanded openness and public access to documents of the overthrown regimes. Archival or legal concerns about privacy were treated as alibis for keeping the shameful acts of the past locked up in the dark.
In the first decades of the twenty-first century, archives are no longer strictly definable as public or private information. The value of information is perceived differently in the open digital era than under the previous information regime. The meaning, value, and significance of documents can undergo radical changes depending on changes in the historical, political, and cultural context.
After the political changes in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, the archives of the former secret services were treated as depositories of denunciations, the repositories of lies, the material evidence of collaboration. In radical illiberal states, such as Russia, Poland, and Hungary, official agents of historical revisionism now use these records as reliable historical documents, giving credit to the allegations of the informers in order to denounce historical actors, former members of the democratic oppositions, and present adversaries.
The change of the cultural milieu can lead to retroactive redescriptions of the past that, in turn, change the status of archival documents, and thus the way archivists and historians should handle them.
In 2006, the British Parliament passed a bill that changed the status of conscientious objectors to sick persons, victims of post-traumatic shock syndrome. The documents related to them could be treated as medical records, sensitive medical information. The private member’s bill changed not only the status of the dead, but also the perception of the surviving relatives, and the public at large. The dead could not be remembered with a certain pride, but in the best case, with melancholy compassion. This is an instance of retroactive intervention in the past.
In 2013, a woman from Rwanda who was living in the US wrote to Rév’s archive, the Open Society Archives, one of the largest repositories of grave violations of human rights. Fearing deportation, the woman demanded that her name be erased from the online finding aid for a BBC documentary about the genocide in Rwanda. When she had been interviewed for the documentary, she had stated that she had been accused of genocide, but now claimed she was innocent.
Rév’s archive knew that only a tiny minority of perpetrators had been identified in Rwanda, and that people with questionable pasts had received entry visas to the US. This included another person who was deported because it was found that they had been convicted for human rights violations. However, Rév’s archive decided to remove the woman’s name from the description because archives, although custodians of information about the past, are not legal authorities, and thus cannot – when describing documents – judge or implicate individuals.
According to the UK’s Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974), some minor criminal convictions can be ignored after a defined rehabilitation period. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was considered one of the precursors of the “right to be forgotten”.
From the early 2000s, activists of strict privacy protection have been arguing for the “right to be forgotten” to be treated as a basic human right. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld the right to be forgotten, even without explicit reference to this right. Indeed, according to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), “data subjects” have the right to request erasure of personal data related to them on certain defined grounds.
Between May 2014 and March 2019, Google received more than 3 million erasure requests, and decided to remove 780,265 search results from its search engine.
A case is now pending in front of the Court in Luxembourg, which might have far-reaching consequences for freedom of information. The case involves the French data regulator, which is seeking to extend the right of state authorities to request data controllers to erase information. An NGO that monitors free speech claims that this case could see the right to be forgotten threatening global free speech.
Archives exist to make documents available to the public, but Rév alerts that the way the documents can be accessed makes an important difference of type, rather than just of degree. Rév contends that archives should retain their status as trusted institutions, and handle sensitive personal information with care. The principle of provenance states that records of the same provenance should not be mixed with documents of a different provenance, and that the archivist should maintain the original order in which the records were created. Trust comes from knowing that the archive will preserve the authentic documents, guarding their integrity, and will not destroy them.
Rév advises that the archive should make documents containing sensitive personal information available on its premises, while exercising great care and discretion when making personal information openly and freely available on its websites.
Two large Russian collections in Rév’s archive demonstrate this dilemma: the Red Archive, which contains official reports by Soviet party and government sources, and the Samizdat Archive, which contains unofficial, underground documents produced by generations of anti-Soviet opposition.
Documents in the Red Archive mention the name of a Russian psychiatrist, who, in the official sources “having betrayed his country,” defected from the Soviet Union in order to live in the West. The name of the same person surfaced in Samizdat publications, as one of those who had been engaged in the forcible psychiatric treatment of members of the opposition, and who having arrived in London as a self-styled critic of Soviet psychiatry, was offered a position at the famous Tavistock Clinic.
As it is the obligation of Rév’s archive to preserve the integrity of the documents, it is unimaginable to redact the name in either of the collections. Whenever a researcher wants to consult one or both sources, the archive does not anonymize the documents. Being neither able nor inclined to judge the authenticity of the claim in any of the documents, the Archive does not and should not take a stand in the truthfulness of the sources.
Indeed, since Rév’s archive is one of the largest propaganda archives in the world, their repository is obviously full of unsubstantiated claims, ad hominem accusations, and blatant lies about identifiable private citizens, not just public figures. The Cold War was fought with mutual lies and fantasies. In lies there lies the truth.
Rév’s archive is also the repository of forensic documents, testimonials, witness reports, the sources of which – victims, witnesses, accidental observers – could suffer retribution, even grave physical harm, were their identities made public.
The authority of the archive traditionally rests on trust in the authenticity and integrity of the documents housed inside the walls of the archive, and trust in the integrity of the archivists, the custodians of the documents. The archive, however, contributes every single day to the violation of information rights. Even in traditional archives, documents were frequently altered. Keepers of the archives, minor officials, monks, scribes, learned antiquarians copied, rescribed, translated, and annotated the documents.
Libraries and archives have been set up in order to preserve otherwise dispersed texts. The materiality of the documents has always been highly vulnerable, and copies of documents often become reattributed, posing new concerns for privacy.
Archives have never been completely immune from the suspicion of having forged documents. Monastic archives in the West started with massive selective remembrance, by discarding documents deemed contrary to the interests of the monastery, or by producing fake documents to strengthen the spiritual, legal, or economic standing of the house.
Digitization might affect the text and its readability as the optical character recognition software is far from perfect. Digitized information is always in movement, being copied and stored on multiple servers without the consent or knowledge of the administrator, the data specialist or the archivist.
Archivists working in a digital environment are also confronted with the Collingridge dilemma, where they are not able to foresee the impact of technological changes on issues related to privacy.
Digitized archival documents could be connected to other archives that store specialized data, placing the original documents and their subjects in a new and completely different frame. This results in a deep layer of recursivity, and the collectors of the original records are not able to predict where the data might lead. Archives are entrusted with the task of collecting and preserving records, but the archival workflow itself undermines the safeguards that are supposed to provide privacy protection.
Archives are trafficking in sensitive, dangerous material, so Rév argues that archives cannot open up all their secrets to the public at large on their websites. Public archives, or archives serving the public, should serve the interest of the citizens, both as members of the community and as private individuals.
Rév states that the archive should consider both the interests and the preferences of all the affected parties, which include the public, present and future researchers, and non-public figures whose sensitive data the documents contain, and the archivists’ control. Since privacy is a complex non-private issue, archives should think twice and act in a careful, differentiated way, taking the needs of context specificity into consideration before making archival documents openly accessible.
This has been an issue for all of history, ever since we kept archives, but it is an especially complicated quandary in our open, digital era, when even public information, when placed, analyzed, aggregated, and used in a new context for previously unforeseen purposes, can have sometimes seriously harmful private consequences.
Next part (section 5): Infrastructures and platforms.
Article source: This article is an edited summary of Chapter 161 of the book Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access2 which has been published by MIT Press under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.
Acknowledgements: This summary was drafted by Wordtune Read with further corrections and edits by Bruce Boyes.
Article license: This article is published under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.
- Rév, I. (2020). Accessing the Past, or Should Archives Provide Open Access?. In Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press. ↩
- Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2020). Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press. ↩