Facts, for the concealment of

July 21, 1995

Universities, those institutions devoted to free enquiry, are often not so open when it comes to their own archives. John Davies reports.

What secret files does your university keep? How much material in the archives is inaccessible to scholars? The answer to the second question may be: more than you would think. For the personal records of its staff and students may be out of bounds for 80 or even 100 years - a situation that not everybody is happy with.

Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody is not, for one. A few years ago, writing an obituary of Meyer Fortes for the British Academy, he was unable to get access to personal material "already over 60 years old" in the archives of the London School of Economics. "One of the things I wanted," Goody recalls, "was the (job) application that Fortes made to the LSE. (Fortes was associated with the school's great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski from the early 1930s). But it came under a personal file, which has a 100-year embargo."

In two letters to the TLS earlier this summer Goody contrasted his LSE difficulties with the relative openness of the Public Record Office. "Why should the LSE have a different set of rules about access?" he wrote. "Why should biographical material on the dead be secret or confined to the administration?" Since 1967 the PRO has made most government records open to inspection after 30 years and the Open Government Initiative has led to the release of much material previously held back past the 30-year limit for security or other reasons. University archives are not covered by any legislation but David Leatch, liaison officer at the PRO, points out "we would expect reasonable access and storage arrangements to be made."

As it happened, much of what Goody was looking for was in colonial service records that had been "destroyed because they weren't considered important enough". All the same Goody felt that his exclusion from the LSE archives raised "an important principle". As his original letter put it: "Many academics live off the archives of others; we surely have a duty to be as open with ours as the state is with its own."

LSE archivist Angela Raspin rejects much of Goody's criticism, arguing that the archives under her control are for the most part freely accessible. "We have a 20-year rule on committee minutes and other administrative material," she explains. "What are not in the public domain are the staff and student files, going back to the 1890s."

Suppose then that I was writing a biography of someone who was at the LSE in 1910; how could I get the information I needed ? "You would turn up here and fill in a declaration in which you undertook to tell us what you were going to quote for publication - not that we would censor you in any way," says Raspin. "For personal files you would have to go through the LSE director. But I could put you in the way of a fair amount of material. There's a biographical dictionary published in the early 1930s for example . . . I think we may be more open than many universities."

Indeed the 100-year rule can be more rigidly enforced. London University history professor Shula Marks, of the Institute of Commonwealth History, recalls a frustrating search for information in the United States. "At a college in New York I found I couldn't see student records less than 100 years old . . . unless I had that person's explicit written agreement. It was very irritating."

At King's College, London restrictions on staff and student files last not 100 but 80 years, "with a 30-year rule for all administrative stuff". Both rules might be relaxed for a "really good cause . . . provided the department that created the rules and in some cases family representatives are happy," says Patricia Methven, archives head.

Oxford, too, does not deny access to material over 80 years old, according to the university's archivist Simon Bailey. Documents between 30 and 40 years old are accessible at the discretion of the keeper of the archives. And as part of "rules formulated about five years ago" - nothing had been stated in writing before - "everything under 30 years old is restricted unless permission of the creating authority is obtained," says Bailey.

At Oxford many records are not kept centrally, but in individual colleges. According to Elizabeth Boardman, a part-time archivist for Brasenose and Oriel colleges, "there are no hard-and-fast rules" in her areas. Normally , she says, "I look up information when asked - obituary writers generally want broad strokes. And I have allowed access to the personal files of people long dead. Most of our external enquiries come from genealogists." She contrasts the situation with medical archives (she is also a hospital archivist) - "where a 100-year rule, laid down by Lord Chancellor's instrument, protects personal medical records. Exceptions can be made though: medical research, for example."

Not all universities employ proper archivists, Boardman adds. "We are few and fewer still are professionally qualified." A point echoed by Angela Raspin: "Universities have been relatively slow in getting to grips with their own archives. It's partly because the demand has not been high, I suppose."

As for papers deposited in university libraries, the wishes of donors, however restrictive, have to be respected. "That's standard across the board," says Shula Marks, who until recently was a member of the Advisory Council on Public Records. "Papers are the property of the donor and they have the right to say: 'We'll put these in your depository on condition that a researcher gets the permission of the heirs or whomever.' This can be time-consuming and irritating."

On the other hand, donated papers can sometimes be easier to access than a college's own records. To return to Jack Goody's problem: "I could see all Malinowski's papers because he'd left them to the LSE," Goody recalls. "Meyer Fortes worked with Malinowski, so I could look him up there. But not in his own LSE files. It's ridiculous."

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