What Gives You Pause? Privacy, Sensitivity and Family Papers.

Archivists review the historic materials to put them into a level of order and to describe the content so others may use them.  Occasionally, we’ll see something that gives one pause.

I have been working on family papers that include nineteenth and twentieth century correspondence. Various family members made contributions to their fields such as the grandfather who developed the respiration calorimeter, an aunt was honored for her work by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Interesting, and no pause there.

Other family members led what appeared to be solid, middle-class lives in middle America.  In the letters to and from family members were the ordinary topics of family letter writers: weather, work, military service, travel, aging relatives and children’s activities. Again, no pause.  But I did not anticipate reading “diagnosis…schizophrenia”−that gave me pause. The illness emerged in one son after his WWII service, when he was enrolled in his graduate studies.  From a careful reading of family members’ letters one can piece together a picture of his treatment, and continuing life before the advent of modern pharmacological treatments.

The archivists’ role requires a careful balancing to provide access to historical resources−such as family papers−and protect third party privacy, should any concerns arise, as well as awareness of sensitivities. While the third party in this instance is deceased and the legal issues of privacy have faded, there are still sensitivities to consider.  When contacted, the family determined they did not have sensitivities around a diagnosis given more than 50 years ago.  When the arrangement and description of the papers is completed in the next few months, the family papers will be available to researchers.

What will researchers examine when they have access?  There are lots of possibilities in these family papers:  perhaps a “career woman” in wartime; perhaps the sister’s role in social Washington during the Kennedy administration; perhaps a family’s response to mental illness in the mid-twentieth century.  Researchers can be grateful to this family for opening their papers for research use at Wesleyan University.

What raises your privacy antennae?  Money? Sex? Mental health? Something else? How much time passes before the “that’s private!” response dissipates and a “there’s something to learn from this” kicks in?  It’s something that can give one pause, eh?

Anne Ostendarp

Interim Assistant University Archivist

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