Friday, January 21, 2011

People take pictures of each other

‘People take pictures of each other,
And the moment to last them for ever,
Of the time when they mattered to someone.’

‘People take pictures of each other’ by Ray Davies

Picture the scene:
A smiling bride and groom in a garden flanked by proud parents
A fluffy terrier on a beach gazing up at the camera lens
A chubby baby crawling across a living room carpet

All could be images from any family photo album, charting networks of love and friendship laid down over the years, and skirting around the tensions and traumas of everyday life. But read the small label stuck inside the front cover of this ordinary-looking album, and the sunny memories it captures take on an unexpected poignancy:

'Drug Addicts at Home, Work and Play'

The album appears to have been put together during the 1980s, and forms part of the archive of Dr Ann Dally, who treated drug addicts in her private medical practice. The sensitive nature of the personal information contained in the album means that the Library will not make it available to researchers until 1 January 2090, a lifetime away for the family whose identity it would otherwise reveal.

Given the Wellcome Library’s aim to document the human experience of health, from birth to reproduction to death and all stages in between, it isn’t surprising that our archive collections contain many such highly-charged records of individual people’s mental, physical or sexual lives. As an archivist I am very aware that I am in a privileged position of power over such sensitive records, and must constantly balance the access needs of researchers with a duty of care to the individuals mentioned in them.

To demonstrate our commitment to handling living people’s personal information ethically, responsibly and lawfully, the Library has recently reviewed its practice in this area in consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office (the UK data protection watchdog) and a panel of external advisors from The National Archives, the Bodleian Library and York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

We hope that our updated Access to Archives policy will reassure our community of researchers and archive donors that we take into account the needs of all our constituencies when making decisions about access to personal data, especially the rights of all those unsuspecting individuals who will one day become part of the historical record at the Wellcome Library.

 
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