Freedom of Information: open access, empty archives?

As mentioned in a previous post, I recently read “Freedom of Information: open access, empty archives?” (ed. Flinn & Jones, Routledge 2009 – volume details; British Library inter-library loan more cost-effective!!).  Well worth a read.

Perhaps the key chapter for the UK experience is that contributed by the editors, examining FoI from the historian’s perspective.  The authors make the case for a generally high level of trust among contemporary historians in the integrity and operation of the 30 year rule (originally 50 years in the first Public Records Act 1958, reduced to 30 in 1967) before the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2005.

Contrasting with the demands and perceptions of the non-historian for freedom of information, the authors comment

The irony of FoI might be that it apparently enables historians better to question and understand near-contemporary events, while simultaneously weakening the records of government’s decision-making process.

This theme is picked up by Inga-Britt Ahlenius (formerly head of the Swedish National Audit Office), who makes a strong case for the development of an “…oral decision-making culture in which people purposefully refrain from documenting decision-making.”  Sweden of course has the world’s oldest freedom of information regime, dating from the Freedom of the Press Act in 1766 (the “Tryckfrihetsförordning”).

This points to a clear tension between open government, and historical research in the provisions of freedom of information.  Whether you agree with Rab Butler’s reported maxim ‘good government flourishes in the dark’ or with Wikileaks’ self-proclaimed mission to “publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices”, a central area of concern for recordkeepers – and for historians – surely must be the effective and appropriate documentation of the processes of decision-making in government?

files by A3sthetix on flickr

Flinn & Jones also imply that historians would do well to study or understand archival science and practice.  On the run-up to 2005, as public authorities prepared for the implementation of the Act, the media reported stories of mass destruction of documents (one example here).  And yet,

Despite the occasional invective against the ‘anti-historians’ responsible for the destruction of documents, it is not clear to what degree most historians have been aware of the extent to which the records have been appraised and weeded before they are made available in the archive, however, with typically fewer than 5% of records created by government finding their way into The National Archives.

I’ve already argued – and will continue to do so – that appraisal, the fundamental part of the recordkeeper’s role, must be both examined and documented by records managers AND archivists.  And criteria – including retention schedules – must be available openly and developed/revised in consultation.

Much more to say on all of this!

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One thought on “Freedom of Information: open access, empty archives?

  1. Pingback: Will the reform of FOIA create empty archives: The myth, the threat, or the reality? | Politics, Statesmanship, Philosophy

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