As work progresses in line with the Library’s Digitisation programme, Content And Metadata Officer Rada Vlatkovic discusses her work assessing the sensitivity of modern archive collections due for digitisation.
On their journey from the library stacks to digitised images, archive collections undergo several phases of processing. The members of the digital services team work on different tasks to make sure that all levels of digitisation are done to the highest standards.
Making archive collections available online requires thinking of many issues one of which is considering how to balance the access needs of researchers, while at the same time handling personal data contained within the archives responsibly. Depending on the content and type of personal data, records can be open, restricted access, or may not be viewed at all. Only materials over 10 years old, and classed as open for viewing in the Wellcome Library are digitised and will be made available online.
Each archive collection is checked for sensitive material prior to online publication. A sensitivity assessment takes place on two different levels. Assessment for the whole collection is done by the archivist who identifies high-risk material and determines which areas of the collection, or individual items need the most detailed check. The appropriate level of risk (low, medium or high) is applied to all series of records in the collection. A judgement on the level of risk is made using criteria such as how old the record is, whether it relates to living individuals, how the information is structured, and how detailed the catalogue description is.
Once the collection is digitised and the higher level assessment has been completed, the sensitivity reviewer examines the records image by image for sensitive personal data as listed in section 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998 as well as for other types of data that is sensitive in general terms (click image to enlarge):
Information falling into any of the above categories is carefully considered by the reviewer and, on an image by image basis, it is determined whether access to the information should be restricted or withdrawn. Data should be withdrawn only in cases where open access to the information would be unfair or unlawful, or would be likely to cause distress or damage to any individual.
Personal data can take various forms: personal and reference letters, photographs, medical records on physical or mental health, notes on patients, scientific papers with blood type records, fingerprints and many more. Some of the data might look sensitive but the information could already be in the public domain (e.g. biographies or publications). To make a judgement on sensitivity, the reviewer has to have a good knowledge of the collection and the basic information on key people represented in it; for instance whether they are alive or dead, or whether their religious/political views or health problems are already well known.
Two crucial documents for guidance for both the archivist and the sensitivity reviewer in this process are the Wellcome Library Access to Archives policy (PDF) and access guidance from The National Archives. Despite all these safeguards, if a sensitive letter/document appears online being hidden somewhere among apparently non-sensitive material, then it will be immediately removed from online display.
Sensitivity assessment takes the reviewer to the finer parts of collections, where the letters and documents reveal people’s lives, their thoughts and private affairs. Although such personal material enriches collections, the Library has a duty of care to living individuals and considers it of a great importance to safeguard their interests.
Author: Rada Vlatkovic