Digital Archiving Resources

Exploring the Evolution of Access: Classified, Privacy, and Proprietary Restrictions


Exploring the Evolution of Access: Classified, Privacy, and Proprietary Restrictions




The three authors of this article discuss three different repositories which house confidential, legally protected content and describe measures each institution takes to balance the archival values of preserving and providing access to its holdings against the equally important archival value of protecting the privacy rights and concerns of its donors. William C. Carpenter recounts the history of declassifying military and government documents and commends the succession of presidential orders that established automatic declassification in response to the ever-growing accumulation of military and government documents. While governments frequently halt declassification of certain documents during crises, such as 9-11, or open documents as in the Abu-Ghraib debacle, the automated declassification system places the onus on the donating agencies for keeping records sealed.

Business archives, on the other hand, enjoy greater legal protection for sealing its records from public access. Sara A. Polirer explains U.S. trade laws and property rights consider business records economically valuable assets despite their intangible nature. Because digitization and Internet commerce place marketable ideas at greater risk of copyright infringement, and because economic value is a fundamental factor in writing legislation, business archives must implement policies that promote business needs over the public’s right to know. The archival practice, “due diligence” applies to business archives in the careful classification of content and anticipation of what future researchers may need to know.

Health science archives face an especially difficult challenge in balancing the public’s right to know with protecting the privacy of patient records. Judith A. Wiener discusses the rationale for the patient privacy act, HIPAA, and identifies the problems incurred by health related archives ingesting health records. Because HIPAA does not designate time limits (as do military and government declassification regulations), nor does it provide guidelines for reformatting and digitizing health records, health science archives have had to restrict access and impede potential research and scholarship. In response, individual repositories and institutions are developing policies including the redactment of personally identifiable information and inserting time limits to both protect the privacy of the donors while providing access to the historically rich records.


Carpenter, William C.
Nichols, Charlene
Polirer, Sarah A.
Wiener, Judith A.


The American Archivist




Polk, Victoria


Journal Article


Bibliographic Citation

Carpenter, William C. , "Exploring the Evolution of Access: Classified, Privacy, and Proprietary Restrictions." The American Archivist vol. 74 (2011): 602:1-25.




Carpenter, William C. et al., “Exploring the Evolution of Access: Classified, Privacy, and Proprietary Restrictions,” Digital Archiving Resources, accessed May 22, 2018,