Archivists on the Issues: Restrictions and the Case of the University of Michigan

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Steering Committee member Samantha Brown, an Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.

As archivists, we are constantly weighing the rights of record creators and donors against the needs of researchers. Sometimes balancing these differing needs can lead to a struggle that puts archives and libraries in the middle. We can find an example of this in a recent news story involving the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

The Bentley Historical Library’s story begins with the John Tanton Papers. The finding aid for the collection describes Dr. Tanton as an environmental, population control, and immigration reform advocate who has held leadership positions with the Sierra Club, Michigan Natural Areas Council, Wilderness and Natural Areas Advisory Board, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Advisory Commission, Little Traverse Conservancy, and the Environmental Fund [1]. What makes him a controversial figure was his work with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA. While working with these organization, Dr. Tanton worked to reduce both legal and illegal immigration and opposed bilingualism in public schools and government agencies [2,3]. In addition to this work, Dr. Tanton also created a publishing company called The Social Contract Press which notably published The Turner Diaries which was a race war fantasy novel that is seen as a key work for members of the American white supremacist movement [2].  

Part of what makes this collection newsworthy is the fact that half of the collection is sealed. While boxes 1 through 14 are open to researchers without any special restrictions, boxes 15 through 25 are sealed until April 6, 2035 [3]. This presents a problem for Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration attorney, who is trying to gain access to the whole collection. Mr. Ahmed believes that the collection could contain materials that show the relationship between anti-immigration groups and white nationalists as well as the influence that some of groups that Dr. Tanton has worked with are having on the White House [4]. The link between Dr. Tanton and the White House may very well exist. President Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, transition aid Lou Barletta, policy adviser Julie Kirchner, and immigration advisor Kris Kobach all have ties to FAIR, an organization that Dr. Tanton founded and was a chairman of [1,4].

Believing that the sealed parts of the collection could hold important information and should be part of the public debate, Mr. Ahmed filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the University of Michigan in December 2016 but the request was denied as was the request to appeal the decision [3,5]. Both the original request and the appeal were denied on the basis of Dr. Tanton’s donor agreement with the library [3]. After being denied his FOIA request, Mr. Ahmed sued the University of Michigan to gain access to the restricted parts of the collection [3]. When the case was brought before a judge, the University of Michigan filed for a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the fact that parts of the collection were sealed due to the collection’s donor agreement [5]. While information about the donor agreement was disclosed in court, information about the donor agreement was not included in the collections finding aid [1,5]. The judge, Stephen Borello, ruled that since the collection was a private donation and not being used for a public purpose, the University of Michigan could not be compelled to open the collection [3]. Mr. Ahmed proceeded to appeal this ruling as well and is arguing that the university can’t use donor agreements to keep documents sealed. As of right now, he is scheduled to appear in court again in late September or early October when a ruling on his appeal will be made [3].

If Mr. Ahmed wins his appeal, the results could have a massive impact on archives and researchers. Without the ability to guarantee that parts of a collection can remain restricted, archivists may not be able to persuade people to donate or house their collections in an archive which will make it harder for the materials to be preserved and accessed. Access doesn’t just mean that someone can use the materials for their research but also that they can find the materials. A private person may have a collection that is helpful to someone’s research but a person looking for those materials may never be able to find it if an archive can’t create a way for those materials to be found. The work of archivists to arrange and describe collections plays a crucial role in a collection’s findability. If donors are too worried about giving their materials to archives because archivists can’t provide the donors with any guarantees then researchers lose out as well.

While this case holds risks for archives and archivists, it also teaches us something as well. Finding Aids need to be more than just a list of items and folder titles, they need to give researchers a preview of what the collection holds. One of the reasons that Mr. Ahmed wants to access the restricted materials is because he doesn’t know what is there. The finding aid’s description for the restricted materials only includes series and subseries titles with very little other information. If there was a way to know what could be found in the unrestricted  parts of the collection as compared to the restricted parts and what differentiated those parts of the collection then maybe there could be a way to work with Mr. Ahmed so that he could find what he is looking for in a different way. Other members of the organizations that Mr. Ahmed is interested in may have unrestricted collections at other institutions. Otis L. Graham Jr., another founding member of FAIR, for example, has some his collections housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The best result for both the researcher and archive, in my opinion, would be to find a way to help the researcher with their request without breaking the donor agreement. If this isn’t possible then I wonder why a box and folder list is even provided for the restricted materials. Why tell people that you have something if you’re unwilling to tell them about it? Without more information in the finding aid or speaking to the staff at the Bentley Historical Library and investigating their policies around arrangement and description, it’s difficult to know why the collection has been handled in this particular way. For now, we, as archivists, can look at this situation and use it to change how we both deal with collections and researchers.

 

Works Cited

  1. John Tanton Papers Finding Aid. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library, 14 Jun 2013, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-861056?view=text
  2. “John Tanton” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/john-tanton
  3. Peet, Lisa. “Attorney Sues for Access to Tanton Papers in Closed Archive.” Library Journal, 18 Sept. 2018, https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=180918-Tanton-Papers
  4. Frazen, Rachel. “Why Is the University of Michigan Fighting to Keep an Anti-Immigration Leader’s Papers Secret?” The Daily Beast, 3 Sept. 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-is-university-of-michigan-fighting-to-keep-anti-immigration-leaders-papers-secret
  5. Warikoo, Niraj. “University of Michigan Oct.  Blocks Release of Hot-Button Records of Anti-Immigrant Leader.” Detroit Free Press, 28 Oct. 2017, https://www.freep.com/story/news/2017/10/17/university-michigan-blocks-release-anti-immigrant-records/732133001/

 

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