Tag Archives: Archives and Libraries

International Archives Day: together for transparency, accountability and access to information

9 June marks International Archives Day – falling in the middle of a week dedicated to celebrating and highlighting the work of the archive and record management sectors. We warmly congratulate our colleagues across many types of institutions – from national to community archives, and of course libraries carrying out archival activities. We stand in solidarity with them to continue building societies where preserving and ensuring access to information powers fundamental rights, wellbeing and development!

One of the key themes for this year’s celebrations is empowering accountability and transparency – how archives help people protect their rights and hold governments accountable through access to information.

This offers a good opportunity to reflect on where the global dialogue on transparency and accountability stands today – and how together libraries and archives can support and help drive progress.

The push for transparency in challenging times

The pandemic has, without a doubt, raised urgent questions about transparency and access to information, with many stakeholders highlighting the key role of universal access to government and public interest information. In particular at a time that governments are making decisions on an emergency basis, it helps ensure that people are well-informed about the situation, uphold accountability and build sustainable policies.

Transparency International, for example, pointed out that freedom of information rights gain additional urgency as pandemic responses impact people’s right to movement and assembly. The latter can also mean that opportunities for participatory democratic processes – and for media and civil society organisations to travel, gather and publish public interest information – are also severely reduced.

These discussions helped identify good practices and principles – e.g. proactive disclosure, building a robust digital infrastructure – which can help ensure that people’s fundamental right to information is upheld during this time of crisis.

Thinking to the future, the possibility for citizens to hold governments to account for the decisions and actions they have taken during the pandemic will depend on the possibility to access, rapidly and easily, relevant documentation.

As Freedom in the World 2021 Policy Recommendations highlight,

[…] Freedom House surveyed democracy and human rights experts working in over 100 countries, asking how democratic governments can help support democracy and human rights during the pandemic. Providing the public with access to fact-based information was a top response.

Powering a culture of transparency, accountability and access to information

In their work to support openness and transparency, archives, libraries, and information professionals have already identified many areas where their help can have a strong impact.

These include, for example, helping build accessible and user-friendly platforms for people to access public information, raising awareness about the public’s rights to information, offering engagement opportunities and helping their communities build up the skills needed to effectively use and leverage this information.

Such questions have been high on the agenda for IFLA over the past months. Principles and good practice examples have been outlined in IFLA’s recent Statement on Libraries and Open and Good Governance, our input to the UN Human Rights Office on Fostering Access to Information Held by Public Entities, and a briefing on libraries and open government.

The encouraging news is that libraries around the world continue to explore new and different ways to support these principles. For example, in the Netherlands, “digital government information points” are set up in more and more public libraries – with around 200 points set up since the initiative was launched in 2019!

They help people with many different questions – accessing e-government services, understanding legal terminology in official letters, referring people to NGos or government agencies that can best address their queries, and more.

In the USA, Indiana University Libraries received the U.S. Government Publishing Office’s 2020 “Library of the Year” title for the creative ways to connect people with government information. For example, their “Government Info Alerts” initiative offers people biweekly updates on new publications and development – tailored to their areas of interest on the basis of a short survey.

These examples reiterate that building a culture of transparency, accountability and access to information calls for multifaceted solutions on both supply (how information is offered) and demand (how people are encouraged and enabled to use it) sides.

Both archives and libraries are well placed to meet this need – ensuring long-term preservation of records, building user-friendly solutions for digital access, removing access restrictions, balancing the rights to access information with the rights to privacy, and more.

Of course, collaboration and exchange of good practices are a key ingredient to achieving these goals! This is well-reflected in another key point of the 2021 International Archive Day discussion – networking and collaboration.

So we want to once again congratulate our colleagues – and look forward to continuing working together to help power transparency, accountability and access to information!

Personal Identifiable Information and Archiving For The Public Interest

 “There is no political power without control of the archives, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” Jacques Derrida

Archives and libraries are important memory institutions. Their role in documenting many aspects of human lives can, alongside providing a vital support to researchers, also promote accountability and the bringing to justice of those who infringe rights. One of my favourite archive stories relates to an episode of Guatemalan history.

In 2005, some abandoned old buildings in Guatemala City were opened for an upcoming city project. Unexpectedly, they revealed the entire archive of the defunct National Police. Amidst piles of papers ruined by humidity, vermin and tears lay the documentation of a series of horrors committed at the height of Guatemala’s civil conflict in the 1980s. During this time, governmental death squads roamed the city and kidnapped individuals who never returned to their homes.

Upon the discovery, local volunteers and archivists worked alongside colleagues from the USA to collect, preserve and digitize all the papers. The effects of such discovery had profound repercussions on Guatemalan society as the discovery allowed the country to close the door on one of the most violent periods of its history. The digitized archives were made available online and they are now publicly available here.

This story underlines that institutions such as libraries and archives are the homes for our collective memory. They help us to understand the past, make sense of the present, and guide us for the future. Archives and libraries collect and store this information in the public interest, and inevitably, they will collect information concerning people.

The broad definition of personally identifiable information potentially covers a wide range of materials – blogs or news stories containing political views, Wikipedia pages, tweets. These all serve to identify a person.

Clearly there are significant concerns about how data is used, for example by social media platforms, credit rating agencies, or marketing companies. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force on 25 May 2018, applied to all of them. But what what does it mean for memory institutions?

The law has the general aim to protect individuals’ rights and freedoms and enables organisations to process personal identifiable information with due regard for the rights and freedom of individuals. As such, a data subject has the right to be informed about the data gathered about him/her, has the right to access, the right of rectification and process and the right to erasure or the right to be forgotten, among others.

Article 17 of the GDPR states that the “data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller, the person who determines why and how personal data are processed, the erasure of personal data concerning him or her without undue delay and the controller shall have the obligation to erase personal data without undue delay”.

However, there is an exception for archiving purposes, amongst other circumstances. “Importantly, the right to erasure does not apply if processing is necessary for archiving purposes in the public interest, where erasure is likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of that processing”.

However, this exception is only optional – countries have to decide whether they want to include it in national law. Moreover, it is unclear what the phrase “archiving purposes in the public interest” really means and which archives/collections are covered. The phrase is not defined in the GDPR itself.  A recital may imply that coverage is limited to institutions with a legal obligation to acquire and preserve records but there are others who collect for different reasons and their mission also results in public benefit.

With more and more countries looking to adopt data protection legislation, there is a need to ensure that archiving exceptions are protected. Without this, there is always a risk that those who committed crimes during the Guatemalan civil war can ask for the evidence of their crimes to be deleted.

IFLA is planning to write a statement on personal identifiable information and archiving in the public interest and it would like to gather opinions, comments and suggestions from its FAIFE community on this topic. Please let us know if you have any ideas to contribute. We are looking forward to hearing from you.