Category: At the Reference Desk

Balancing Access and Privacy: The Complications of Paper Reuse

Choose Privacy Week: Big Data is Watching You #chooseprivacy
The American Library Association (ALA) has designated May 1-7, 2018 as Choose Privacy Week. In honor of this event, the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) is sharing some of the considerations and challenges of preventing the disclosure of private information when working with personal archives and Institute records. We hope that our experience may help you learn more about the security of physical information.

Learn more about the program at the Choose Privacy Week website.

Context: Confidentiality in the Institute Archives

One of the challenges in the Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) is working with the confidential information we encounter while processing collections. Providing access to all archival materials is our goal, but access must be balanced with protecting the privacy of the individuals mentioned within these records. This sometimes requires information to be restricted for periods of time before it is openly accessible.

The Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) latest Core Values Statement notes that privacy is one of the fundamental principles of the archival profession. Respect for and protection of privacy is a major archival tenet and is reflected in the review and access policies of the IASC. One particularly relevant portion of the Privacy section of the SAA Core Values Statement discusses how “archivists place access restrictions on collections to ensure that privacy and confidentiality are maintained.” In order to comply with these Core Values and maintain necessary confidentiality, certain archival procedures must be undertaken to prevent the unauthorized release of data.

What Do We Mean by “Privacy”?

When we discuss maintaining privacy and confidentiality, the IASC is referring to a very specific idea of privacy. It is not about censorship, whitewashing, or hiding information; instead, it is about protecting certain types of information. (see: What Needs Protecting?) IASC access policies are informed by Institute policy and by state and federal laws (e.g., HIPAA, FERPA, 201 CMR 17.00).

So, What Does This Mean for Our Collections?

Thesis title page with redacted signatures

Thesis title page with redacted signatures from DSpace. (

For many of our collections, we may not know if restricted information is present, and will need to review materials before they can be used by researchers. The review process involves looking at collections to see if there are any materials that are restricted by MIT and government access policies. Access restrictions are generally lifted after 20 years for Institute records, 50 years for MIT Corporation records, or 75 years for student, legal, or personnel records. If only a portion of a record is restricted, we might redact the original so researchers have access to the open material, but not the restricted information (such as a social security number). To redact documents, we first photocopy the original document, use a marker to black out the restricted information on the copy, and then create a new photocopy to ensure none of the restricted information is visible. The original document is also kept separately in a restricted folder. The downside to redacting materials is that it is a time-consuming process, and may delay researcher access. Our other choice for managing restricting material is to separate the restricted materials by placing them into a closed access folder until the term of restriction is over.

Real-life Complications

During the initial processing of accessions (groups of documents that have been donated or transferred to the IASC by a person or office), we sometimes find sensitive pieces of information on the backs of print-outs as a result of someone reusing paper. For example, we might encounter lecture notes on one side of a piece of paper and medical records on the reverse. This scenario complicates the decisions archivists make about how we provide access to researchers to these specific documents.

In reviewing records, we have sometimes found sensitive documents treated as scrap paper. These have included:

  • Student transcripts (FERPA restriction)
  • Bank and investment statements (201 CMR 17.00 restriction)
  • Cancelled checks (201 CMR 17.00 restriction)
  • Medical records (HIPAA restriction)

What Can I Do Now to Prevent Privacy Issues Later?

Before you consider using the blank side of a sheet of paper, think about the information your scrap paper may be carrying. Does it contain personally identifiable information? Is it disclosing information about a student’s academic record or an individual’s health? If you are interested in learning how you can protect your personal documents, check out the FTC website on keeping your information secure. A good rule is to destroy financial and other personal documents as soon as you no longer need them. A suggested plan for personal data retention can be found at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. For proper handling of MIT records, see Policies & Procedures sections 11.0 – Privacy and Disclosure of Personal Information and 13.0 – Information Policies.

Tell Me More…

If you want to read more about the unintended consequences of document reuse, check out the following articles.

Mattson, Rachel. “Queer Histories, Videotape, and the Ethics of Reuse.” The Center for the Humanities (blog), December 18, 2017.

“Macy’s Parade: ‘Shredded Police Papers in Confetti.’” BBC News, November 25, 2012, sec. US & Canada.

“Report: ‘Confetti’ Dropped During Giants Parade Contained Confidential Information.” CBS New York (blog), February 8, 2012.

Allison Blanning and Chris Tanguay


At the Reference Desk: Rare Books

This blog provides a peek into the search methods known so well by recently retired manager of rare books, Stephen Skuce, and understood less so by his IASC colleagues who need to assist researchers who want to use these materials in the IASC reading room.

In a post-Stephen world, how does one find and get access to items in the IASC rare book collections?

First stop: Barton.

As always, there are several paths you can take to find the information you need. You can use the basic search option in Barton Classic OR you can limit your search to Rare Books (Barton Classic to “Search only for more…” to “Rare Books” at the bottom left of the page). Either way, you can search for the item by call number or author. When you find the item, make a note of the collection name (in the Rare Collection field) and the size of the item (in the Description field). It will be easier to locate the item if you know if it is folio (FOLIO) or oversize (OVRSIZE). Items that fit on a ‘regular’ shelf have no size designation.

Items housed on-campus are stored by collection, size, and call number, so you need all three pieces of information in order to find a book. Some items, because of their age or financial value, are stored in the ‘vault.’ A general guideline about location is that any item dated 1750 or earlier is in the ‘vault.’

You can determine if the item is stored on-campus or at the Harvard Depository by the notation in the “Shelf Location” field: “Noncirculating Collection 1” indicates it is on-site, and “Noncirculating Collection 3” indicates it is stored off-site.

The above is useful for books cataloged in Barton, but there are several hundred cartons of rare books that are not in Barton. For these, use the DDC fiche (a copy is in the fiche drawer in the reading room) for collection name and call number, and use the “Rare books at HD” binder (on the shelves behind the reference desk) to obtain the barcode number for the box.

Call Slip filled out to request a rare book at the MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections.

Call Slip filled out to request a rare book, MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, 2017.

The last step is to fill out a call slip and put it into the appropriate bin (HD or ASC) for retrieval. The item will be retrieved and ready for use in the reading room by 10 AM the day that it is needed.

When retrieving an item stored on-site, put an out-card on the shelf or in the box where you pulled it, and on it write your initials or name, collection name, call number, and date pulled. Write the storage location (room, range, bay, and shelf) in the “Staff Use” section of the call slip in order to facilitate its return to the proper shelf after use.

When returning an item, put it on the blue cart with the yellow copy of the call slip so that whomever is re-shelving books and boxes will know where it goes.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Nora Murphy