Category: Policy & Procedure

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


Papers vs. Personal Archives

Just over a year ago, in 2016, the IASC made a decision to stop titling personal collections “papers” and instead to call them “personal archives”.

Labels featuring the title "personal archives"

Labels featuring the title “personal archives”

A quick explanation of the naming system. According to DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) titles consist of two parts: the name of the creator or collector and the nature of the records being described. In general, at the IASC, groups of materials that come from offices are called “records”, those that are artificially created (ie put together later – not by the creators during their normal course of business) are called “collections”, and those that are created by faculty or individuals are called “papers”.

In order to decide if we wanted to make the change, a survey was completed by staff and general discussions weighing the pros and cons were held. The most convincing argument for losing the descriptor “papers” was that it didn’t fully describe the types of materials that are in collections. In addition to papers one may also find electronic files, images, videos, awards and medals, and larger, three-dimensional artifacts.

The most convincing argument not to use “archives” was that “archives” has multiple meanings and can be used in multiple ways. For example: We work in the Institute Archives, where we provide access to archival material that we archive by collecting personal archives. However we still felt that “archives” was a better, more encompassing word than “papers”. So it was decided that we would henceforth title faculty and individual collections as “personal archives”.

We originally agreed on “archive” to complete titles as influenced by Harvard – for example the William Tudor archive – but it was pointed out that “archives” is actually the word we were looking for. What is the difference you may ask. Well according to the Society of American Archivists glossary, archive is more likely to be used as a verb whereas archives is a noun that describes a group of materials.

From SAA glossary:

Archive is defined as:

v. 1. To transfer records from the individual or office of creation to a repository authorized to appraise, preserve, and provide access to those records.

Archives is defined as:

n. 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.

Here are some of the personal archives that were created or added to in the past year:

  • MC583 Peter S. Eagleson personal archives
  • MC727 Mujid S. Kazimi personal archives
  • MC725 Howard Brenner personal archives
  • MC517 Rainer Weiss personal archives

So, although we have implemented the new title of personal archives to new collections, the question remains if we want to or should change old titles from “papers” to “personal archives”. This could be a future project where we change the names and then add a processing note indicating that the collection was formerly known as papers.

-Greta Kuriger Suiter