SAA Issues and Advocacy Roundtable: The Belfast Project

Society of American Archivists – Issues and Advocacy Roundtable: The Belfast Project
Christine Anne George
Blog Entry 5: The Belfast Project

Issues and Advocacy Roundtable

The Issues & Advocacy Roundtable tracks issues of importance to archivists and the archival community. The I&A Roundtable has a global mission and works with individuals at the local, national, and international level. The issues of importance include: tracking laws and legislation affecting archives, increasing diversity, increasing access for disabled researchers and archivists, advocacy for improving working conditions, maintaining wages and institutional budgets.

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Blog Entry 5: The Belfast Project

Greetings and Salutations. My name is Christine Anne George and I would like to bring an issue to your attention that I have been following as an information school student (who happened to have a legal background and interest in archives) and now as a fellow professional. Have you heard about the Belfast Project and the litigation surrounding it? The Belfast Project is an oral history collection stored at Boston College that contains interviews with paramilitaries involved in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Participants were promised their interviews would remain sealed until either they gave permission or they died. Unfortunately, that promise of confidentiality could not hold up against a federal subpoena. Since May of 2011, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been trying to obtain several interviews from the collection. Both Boston College and two of the men involved in gathering the interviews, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, have challenged the subpoenas. They went to the district court and then appealed to the First Circuit, but to no avail. Now, Moloney and McIntyre have a chance to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Throughout these litigation proceedings, archivists have been silent. This silence is a problem. The situation surrounding the Belfast Project is politically charged. There is no arguing that. Undoubtedly archivists have their own opinions as to how the situation should have been handled from the beginning. Whether or not you believe the interviews should be handed over to the PSNI is no longer the issue. There are far bigger problems to address involving education, both within and outside the profession. The first problem is current practice. Are you able to fully articulate to donors the risks of donating a collection and the extent to which access can be limited? Do you know how far your institution is willing to go in a legal battle over your collections? Certain aspects of the situation surrounding the Belfast Project are unique, but tweak the details a bit, and we could be talking about one of your collections. We need to be fully informed in order to offer the best protection to our institutions and our donors.

The second—and far more dangerous problem if we don’t get involved—involves educating those outside the profession. There is the chance that a judicial body that has no expertise in archival principles could be making law that will affect archives and archivists long into the future. If archivists aren’t speaking up, discussing what is going on with the Belfast Project, and considering how this collection is different from other collections, the results will be disastrous. This is our area of expertise. No one else will be able to talk about archival principles better than archivists.

Unfortunately the situation has progressed beyond a letter writing campaign. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, there are procedures for filing a brief. But the formalities should not limit the discussion. Just because you cannot address the Supreme Court directly doesn’t mean you can’t blog or tweet about this. Do you think there should be some form of archival privilege? Do you think that there’s a best way to explain an institution’s legal limitations to a donor who wants limited access? Speak up. Please. Because so far, the silence has been deafening.