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the blurry line between private and public: what do we have a right to know?

25 Jan

This question is one I’m constantly thinking about, so I suspect this post will only be “part one.”  Last semester I wrote a research paper examining different cultural values of knowledge sharing and the impact of open access on cultural materials, specifically Native American archives.  And the question came up once again after reading this Boston Globe article on restricted Robert F. Kennedy papers and this response by Representative John Tierney.  I also often think about this question because our society seems to have an obsession with speculating about the private lives of celebrities, as well as trying to learn everything about secret societies (and scientology).  What information does the public have a right to know?

I completely understand the argument for opening access to the RFK papers because I’m a huge advocate of government transparency (I’m not very trusting when it comes to big institutions like the government and massive corporations).  I do believe that open access to government information is the foundation for a strong democracy, but how does knowledge of people’s private lives or cultural rituals promote democracy?  Or rather, is not knowing personal details damaging in some way?  Sure, I may be curious occasionally (or often) about who is dating who and what they were wearing on the street, but I don’t believe I have any sort of right to know.  When it comes to public officials, I think I ultimately only care about their character and integrity — and lying or misleading the public about their personal lives and beliefs can certainly affect my opinion, leaving their personal lives in a swampy grey area.

In my research paper from last semester, I argued that open access is not always in the interest of the public good, nor is restriction of access always in conflict with the values of information science.  Because access is not a simple issue, archivists must become familiar with different cultural perspectives on information, privacy, and knowledge sharing.  We need to be aware of what things can be considered culturally sensitive, even if we don’t necessarily follow guidelines such as the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.  Archivists are certainly not alone in facing these issues but can learn from and work with other professionals who critically examine similar questions, especially anthropologists and sociologists.

Another story to add to this discussion concerns Franz Kafka’s papers.  Kafka burned most of his work during his lifetime.  When he died, he left his papers (manuscripts, diaries, correspondence, sketches) to a close friend — and asked that the material be burned unread.  This request was ignored and resulted in the publication of The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.  Did Kafka’s friend do him a favor, or should it be considered a betrayal?  Currently, his papers are trapped in a legal battle.

This posts asks many complicated questions, and I know they’re not easy to answer — but they’re all important ideas to explore.

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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in access, archives, privacy

 

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