Session 509: Life and Death in the Motor city: Two Case Studies of Privacy and Access

Session 509: Life and Death in the Motor city: Two Case Studies of Privacy and Access
Guest author Greta Kuriger Suiter

What happens when archivists come across materials they feel are private or sensitive in nature? For some archival documents there are laws or donor restrictions that prevent access. But what about the materials that aren’t legally required to be restricted but are still of a sensitive nature? This session brought together two examples of collections that fall into this category. The first collection from Wayne State University consisted of suicide notes. The second collection was from The Henry Ford and consisted of employee documents that looked in detail at employee’s families and their living conditions.

The first presenter was Casey Westerman from Wayne State University. His presentation titled “Last Words: Suicide Notes, Ownership, Access, and Privacy” detailed his experiences with a collection of ~600 suicide notes that came to the University in 2009. The notes were found in the papers of Emanuel Tanay, a psychiatry professor. The notes range in date from 1933 to 1950 and there was no explanation of how they came into Tanay’s possession. It was determined that they belonged to the Medical Examiner and were a part of the Coroner’s Office Records.

This led Westerman to be curious about the actual ownership of the documents and his research revealed that suicide notes legally belong to the heirs. In deciding what to do with the notes Westerman found a similar collection at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The collection of over 1300 notes have been digitized and used in studies to better identify suicidal behavior. Cincinnati provides access to the notes but anonymizes them first by fudging dates and changing names and addresses. The collection is digitized but still restricted. In the medical world suicide notes are restricted for a concern of people becoming suicidal while reading them, a concern that seems foreign to many archivists. The value of the letters from a historian’s perspective is precisely the information that is anonymized. People’s names, addresses, and the dates of the notes are all important pieces of information to the researcher doing historical work. Westerman decided not to anonymize the notes and he wants to digitize the collection but restrict access to on-site only. He also feels that access to the originals should be allowed only upon request and according to the Archivist’s discretion.

The second presenter was Rebecca Bizonet from The Henry Ford. Her presentation titled “Lives Reexamined: Worker Records, Research Access, and Privacy Concerns” explained the current access restrictions placed on material from the Sociological Department from the 1910s and 1930s. The “investigators” later known as “advisors” that visited employee’s homes, took copious notes and photographs of employees during their off hours.

Slide from Rebecca Bizonet’s presentation showing a photograph from 1915 labeled “Undesirable Home Surroundings Found on First Investigation, Ford Sociological Department 1914-1915”

Slide from Rebecca Bizonet’s presentation showing a photograph from 1915 labeled “Undesirable Home Surroundings Found on First Investigation, Ford Sociological Department 1914-1915”


There are some examples of these types of documents online but a majority of them are now restricted. What is odd about Bizonet’s example is that the collection has only been restricted in the last two years. When it was donated in 1964 there were no restrictions placed on it. Bizonet described it as “closing the barn doors after the horses got out.” Today in order to get access to parts of the collection one must prove a relation or strong link to the employee. Bizonet explained a concern for family members and descendants was the main impetus to restricting the collection.

This session consisted of two presenters and then a third person who provided commentary. Although this format worked well at a previous session I attended, I was not impressed by it here and I don’t think it was necessary. Cathi Carmack from the Tennessee State Library and Archives was more of a third presenter than a commentator and she gave examples of sensitive material that she has worked with including diaries written by people while undergoing mental health treatment. She also emphasized that as a state institution, the Tennessee state archives is not interested in restricting material and that they are legally required to make public documents available to users, and that this can be very challenging especially when it comes to electronic records.

The audience’s reaction was lively. Many wondered if the concerns of the institutions and the archivists were a result of an excess of caution. Westerman agreed and wondered if it was a case of being “concerned about people who may be concerned.” There were a range of voices from historians and archivists in the audience and most agreed that providing access to the collections at Wayne State and the Henry Ford was important and in some respects a no brainer. But there was also agreement that not all of the information had to be made available online and that the archivists could restrict the collections to on-site visits from serious researchers or family members only. As the discussion continued among the panelists and the audience it became apparent that (as in much archives work) there is no easy answer. Access to sensitive materials that is not guided by laws comes down to a personal ethical question. Professionally we may have one opinion on the matter, and personally there may be another, and it may come down to choosing one over the other or trying to walk a line between the two.

Overall, I was very pleased with this session and learned about access issues surrounding two fascinating collections. In addition the session was a great reminder of archivists’ control over the historical record and that sometimes archivists wrestle with ethical questions, especially when it comes to access.


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