Today we welcome a guest post from Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt, author of The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910–1950, just published by UNC Press.
In this history of the social and human sciences in Mexico and the United States, Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt reveals intricate connections among the development of science, the concept of race, and policies toward indigenous peoples. Focusing on the anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, physicians, and other experts who collaborated across borders from the Mexican Revolution through World War II, Rosemblatt traces how intellectuals on both sides of the Rio Grande forged shared networks in which they discussed indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities. In doing so, Rosemblatt argues, they refashioned race as a scientific category and consolidated their influence within their respective national policy circles.
The Science and Politics of Race in Mexico and the United States, 1910–1950 is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Balancing Privacy and Archival Access
How should archival institutions balance privacy concerns with the need for access? Preserving privacy is important, certainly. But it is an imperative that needs to be balanced against the benefits of public knowledge. Moreover, access to information may benefit precisely those whose privacy archivists ostensibly aim to protect. Protecting privacy may allow unethical medical experiments or government violations of privacy to remain hidden.
I became aware of this issue when I requested access to the personal papers of an anthropologist featured in my book on The Science and Politics of Race in Latin America and the United States, 1910-1950. According to the archivist in charge, the papers contained the private medical information of some of her research subjects and were therefore off limits to researchers, at least until it was certain the research subjects were not alive. The anthropologist I was interested in had been working on a government-sponsored project. The archive that housed her papers had received funding from the federal government. But the archive was not a government agency that was covered by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I asked the archivist whether he could redact the documents to preserve anonymity. He told me the archive did not have enough personnel to comply with this type of request.
Another archive I worked in, the Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, addresses privacy concerns by asking researchers to conceal individual identities and adhere to professional standards. At Hopkins, a privacy board reviews requests on a case-by-case basis. This procedure potentially, but not necessarily, limits equal access. Yet, it permits some access where it might otherwise not be possible. By contrast, the archive that held papers of the anthropologist who I was researching claimed that screening researchers would violate its mission of providing equal access to the public.
Different professions approach tradeoffs between privacy and access differently. Journalists generally favor the public’s right to know. The Society for Professional Journalists admonishes reporters to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” and to avoid “arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” Yet it acknowledges journalists’ special duty to serve as watchdogs over government and public affairs, and it counsels that the private persons should have greater control over their personal information than public figures.
For anthropologists, the obligation to participants in research—the people anthropologists work with and who are often also the objects of their studies—is “usually primary.” “Do No Harm” is the American Anthropological Association’s first principle of professional responsibility. The association views harming “vulnerable populations” as particularly egregious and asks its members to take special care to avoid affronts to dignity and to “bodily and material wellbeing.” Still, the anthropological association acknowledges that ethical obligations may at times conflict with one another. Situations must in consequence be judged on their own terms. Associations of archivists and librarians likewise recognize potential conflicts among obligations. They urge their members to consider the rights of the prior owners of collections, along with legal strictures.
My own discipline of history understands the need to restrict access to some sources for national security, proprietary, and privacy reasons. But the American Historical Association Standards of Professional Conduct posits free access to information about the past as a core value and advises historians to oppose unnecessary restrictions whenever appropriate. If historians generate archival materials by collecting oral histories or by finding documents that had been held privately, they should make those sources publically accessible, thereby allowing research to be verified. However, the AHA accepts that in some situations historians will have to make agreements that limit their ability to make all documentation fully public.
All these professional organizations recognize that in certain situations researchers may have to violate one ethical principle to advance another. None of these organizations offers hard rules. Their emphases nonetheless differ. While anthropologists favor protecting sources, journalists think more about the public good. Historians worry about verifying evidence. Archivists and librarians care about the original owners of the materials they safeguard and about proprietary and copy rights.
The danger, it seems to me, lies in interpreting any ethical guideline in an overly zealous manner. Even more problematic is adhering too closely to certain legal strictures that are themselves subject to interpretation and application. In the case of the records I wanted to access, the repository had a duty to find a way to make the documents public. That is what they had promised the donor and what their duty to the public good demanded. As a researcher, I had the duty to protect private information.
My experience of having been denied access made me more cognizant of ethical considerations related to control over documentation, including documents I have collected during my career. This is an underdeveloped but necessary aspect of graduate education that it behooves historians to pay more attention to. We need to have more and better discussions about who has the right to control access. If we create or obtain documents, we need to have clear conversations with those we work with about what will happen to those documents.
Does professional training entitle historians or anthropologists to view otherwise restricted documents? The strictures of equal, democratic access upheld by many professional organizations suggest that the answer is “no.” In their view, history and knowledge belong to everyone equally and there is no justification for giving professional historians special privileges. Certainly, some might view the criteria used by the Johns Hopkins Medical Archives as elitist. But researchers’ training is not unlike that of doctors, educators, and lawyers—all of whom have access to information that is not publicly available and that they safeguard for both the public good and the individuals they serve. Some access may be better than none.
Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. You can read her earlier UNC Press Blog post here.