Closed files on open minds

May 9, 1997

Academics are wearily familiar with government obstructing their efforts to delve into official archives. But, as Lucy Hodges discovers, colleges can be equally unhelpful

Should scholars be granted access to files and archives held by universities, their libraries and Oxbridge colleges? Most people, without thinking very hard about it, would answer yes. But on occasion, to the chagrin of academics the world over, information is denied.

Writer and broadcaster Michael Ignatieff is the official biographer of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the eminent philosopher and man of letters. Yet All Souls college in Oxford has refused Ignatieff access to its file on Sir Isaiah, a fellow of the college. This despite the fact that Berlin, now aged 87, specifically armed Ignatieff with a letter asking institutions to cooperate with him.

Ignatieff thinks it "anomalous'' that All Souls, out of virtually every other public and private institution he approached around the world, should have turned him down. "They're a community of scholars,'' he says. "Every single one of their active scholars depends on the conventions of scholarly access for their own private work. These are conventions of trust. A scholarly institution that lives by the conventions of trust in relation to disclosure should practise the conventions of trust."

By contrast, Oxford University gave Ignatieff permission to see papers relating to Berlin's election to the Chichele professorship of social and political theory in 1957, including letters of recommendation written on his behalf by some of the great figures of Oxford of the day (now dead). The letters were revealing, according to Ignatieff, because they showed how Berlin was seen in the mid-1950s by his colleagues. Why couldn't All Souls follow suit?

What Ignatieff would dearly love to see is material kept by All Souls on Berlin's election to a fellowship at the college at the tender age of 23. The late philosopher A. J. Ayer was also up for an All Souls prize fellowship in 1932 but was not successful. Why did Sir Isaiah make it where Freddie Ayer didn't? Ignatieff believes Sir Isaiah's election to All Souls - the first Jewish person to achieve such distinction - was a catalyst in his career. It was a decisive moment in his life, propelling him into the inner sanctum of the English establishment.

Access to archives is a touchy subject among academics, whose reputations can be made by research on original material and who can spend months if not years in ultimately fruitless negotiations with the owners. Likewise, speaking out against being denied information may prejudice future negotiations. So most people prefer to speak off the record and not to rock the boat. Britain is not given to openness. State papers are governed by the Public Record Act's 30-year rule, making available records more than 30 years' old. Information in state papers on individuals is governed by a 75-year rule and private papers are controlled by relatives or trustees. Shouldn't universities, as the home of researching scholars, allow more access to their own archives? Shouldn't they at least have a thought out and written policy?

Many academic institutions do have rules governing the use of material they entrust to researchers. Oxford University, for example, has a written policy, updated in 1989, which reflects the rules of the Public Record Office, although personal information is restricted by an 80-year rule. Nevertheless Oxford lets researchers consult personal records that are older than 30 years but younger than 80 with the permission of the keeper of the archives. Not all Oxford colleges, however, are so open - as All Souls' example demonstrates.

Maurice Frankel, who runs the Campaign for Freedom of Information, points out that you can read the cabinet minutes from 1932 with no difficulty. But All Souls is not prepared to make available its documents from 1932 to a researcher. Like other observers he finds the denial of information particularly odd in view of Berlin's request that institutions cooperate with Ignatieff. After all, All Souls is Berlin's college.

"It does seem odd,'' agrees Ben Pimlott, author of a recent unofficial biography of the Queen. "I have only ever written unofficial biographies. I would have thought the definition of an official biographer is that you have access to all the papers." Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College London, finds it less surprising. Oxford colleges are private corporations, he points out. They are not subject to any of the rules of disclosure of the kind that government departments and state bodies are.

A former fellow of King's College, Cambridge, Ignatieff is anxious to reassure. He does not believe that biographers, or anyone else, have an automatic right of access to confidential records of college discussions or personnel records of living fellows. "I completely accept that colleges ought to have their secrets,'' he says. But, he adds, "between that obligation and their obligation to scholars they ought to strike a better balance."

All Souls differs from other colleges in that it has no explicit policy on access to documents. Magdalen College, Oxford, however, has rules similar to those laid down by the university. It is under these rules that Kathleen Burk, of University College London, obtained access to college papers on A. J. P. Taylor for her biography. She has been able to see minutes of college meetings and to make copies of references written about the historian. The college put considerable effort into meeting her request for information, weeding out sensitive material before making the minutes available to her and copying out A. J. P. Taylor's earnings from the ledger so that she could compare his academic salary with the fortune he was making from his freelance journalism. It presumably helped that Burk was a professor, a former Oxford undergraduate, postgraduate and research fellow who had been A. J. P. Taylor's last research student. She will be showing Magdalen the relevant section of her book and finds that condition acceptable.

Burk was fortunate. Others are often less so. Nick Crowson, director of research at the Institute of Contemporary British History, says it is not unusual to find examples of researchers being denied access to historical archives. "Archivists are a law unto themselves,'' he says. "Unless the depositor of information has laid down ground rules for access, it's up to the archivists what conditions of access are imposed." In the early 1990s an American researcher, Larry Witherell, at the University of Minnesota, had trouble getting access to the Hailsham papers kept at Churchill College, Cambridge. At first he was told they were closed. He applied to Lord Hailsham personally. "Lord Hailsham said he didn't know they existed,'' explains Witherell. Anyway he gave him access and after more humming and hawing by the archivist concerned Witherell was allowed to see them.

The famous case of Jack Goody, emeritus professor of anthropology at St John's College, Cambridge, is close to Michael Ignatieff's. In the 1980s, when Goody was writing an obituary of the anthropologist Meyer Fortes for the British Academy, he was unable to get access to material more than 60 years' old in the archives of the London School of Economics. In particular, he wanted to see the job application made by Fortes to the LSE. The man who turned Goody down was the then LSE director, Ralph (now Lord) Dahrendorf.

Dahrendorf, warden of St Anthony's College, Oxford, is unrepentant: "I feel that we're making personal data far too freely available nowadays,'' he says. "I don't believe there is any obligation on colleges to make intimate details of people's lives available. That has nothing to do with scholarship. My sense of protecting personal data is more developed than my desire to reveal all or to see all revealed."

The current warden of All Souls, John Davis, a social anthropologist, has similar reservations. He explains that Michael Ignatieff did not simply want access to the minutes of meetings in 1932 but wanted to see Berlin's personal file. "We don't let people see current and active files,'' says Davis. "Sir Isaiah's file doesn't just concern him but also concerns college business and other people's business." Members of the college must be able to speak and meet "with great frankness'', he adds. Open communication might be compromised if people thought their utterances were going to be published.

"The basic thing about a college is that it is a self-governing body of academics. In the case of All Souls we run a very tough internal regime. In these circumstances people have to speak without fear or favour."

Davis has seen Berlin's file but says he can't remember what is in it. The difficulty, he says, is that Berlin is still alive but his biography will be published posthumously. As an active researcher himself Davis understands the feelings of academics denied access to information they want. Occasionally, he says, he has sought material which has been denied. In fact, he is engaged at the moment in an attempt to ferret out information as part of his research. But he would not give details.

Another head of an Oxford college with some sympathy for All Souls is Tony Smith, president of Magdalen. "Because a university is such an open institution everybody has a responsibility at some point or other for considering the position of their colleagues,'' he says. "That means you have to accept the responsibility of confidentiality about all the other people in the institution."

But such arguments do not wash with Professor Goody, who believes that All Souls should cough up the information that Ignatieff wants. If the government can operate a system of disgorging information after 30 years, why can't an Oxford college, he asks. "Keeping this stuff hidden is absolute nonsense," he says. Anyway he thinks All Souls should have a worked-out policy on the matter. There may be legitimate reasons for keeping some material confidential if it would do harm to living people but there does not have to be a blanket ban on releasing files. "A university should be at least as liberal as a government archive. The fellows at All Souls are making their money by going to the Public Records Office and asking for material. To refuse people access to their own archives seems to me completely untenable.'' The THES would like to hear from you if you have had trouble getting access to to research material. Email the details to sian@thes.co.uk Review of Ben Pimlott's The Queen, page 22

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