Today the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) filed an amicus brief in the Michigan Supreme Court case Ahmad v. University of Michigan, a case involving the use of a public records request to circumvent a deed of gift, which is a contract that libraries and archives routinely negotiate with donors and that sets the conditions of access to donated papers.
The decision to file this brief was not an easy one given both the subject matter and the individual in question. However, issues concerning donated papers and other sensitive materials of deceased individuals often have a serious impact on living individuals, and vulnerable and marginalized populations. Additionally, this case could impact the future preservation of papers and documents needed for research, teaching, and preservation of the cultural and historical record.
Ahmad v. Michigan involves an immigration attorney trying to gain access to the papers of John Tanton. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tanton “was the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” Parts of the Tanton papers are restricted under the deed of gift with the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, and can’t be made public until 2035. ARL disavows Tanton’s philosophies and contributions to anti-immigrant policies in the strongest possible terms. “ARL did not get involved in this case to protect John Tanton or his legacy,” said Mary Lee Kennedy, executive director of ARL. “As the brief states, archivists typically prefer to make materials publicly available as soon as possible, but they understand that they need to sometimes agree to access restrictions in order to secure the materials in the first place.”
ARL, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Historical Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the University of California Libraries, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Library, and the University of Iowa Libraries filed the brief to explain to the court that personal papers sometimes contain sensitive information that could compromise living subjects if made public. In such cases, libraries agree to accept papers but not make them publicly available for research for a period of time. These arrangements are particularly important to preserve historical documents and materials needed for research and for protecting vulnerable individuals and populations who may be referenced in those collections.
ARL’s overarching concern in this case is that an adverse outcome for the University of Michigan could set precedent for other states with public records laws, effectively invalidating past deeds of gift that public institutions have negotiated with donors and preventing future donors from trusting public institutions with sensitive material.
Specifically, ARL is concerned with two fundamental issues: 1) public institutions must be able to enforce previously negotiated access restrictions to sensitive materials that could cause harm if disclosed; and 2) if donors cannot make these arrangements, they may elect instead to abandon or destroy sensitive material, rendering it inaccessible to anyone at any time. Disclosure of John Tanton’s papers now all but ensures the destruction of sensitive papers by others in the future.
More importantly, disclosure of Tanton’s papers now jeopardizes any such arrangement made between public institutions and donors, including papers from the LGBTQ community, political activists, and people of color—precisely the voices and stories archives are trying to collect and preserve in the historical record.
It is for these specific reasons that ARL and its partners have decided to file an amicus brief supporting the University of Michigan’s position that donated papers should remain closed until the contractually agreed upon date for disclosure.
About the Association of Research Libraries
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in Canada and the US whose mission is to advance research, learning, and scholarly communication. The Association fosters the open exchange of ideas and expertise; advances diversity, equity, and inclusion; and pursues advocacy and public policy efforts that reflect the values of the library, scholarly, and higher education communities. ARL forges partnerships and catalyzes the collective efforts of research libraries to enable knowledge creation and to achieve enduring and barrier-free access to information. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.
About the American Council of Learned Societies
Formed in 1919, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is a nonprofit federation of 75 scholarly organizations. As the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences, ACLS holds a core belief that knowledge is a public good. As such, ACLS strives to promote the circulation of humanistic knowledge throughout society. In addition to stewarding and representing its member organizations, ACLS employs its $140 million endowment and $35 million annual operating budget to support scholarship in the humanities and social sciences and to advocate for the centrality of the humanities in the modern world.
About the American Historical Association
The American Historical Association is a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies. The AHA provides leadership for the discipline by protecting academic freedom, developing professional standards, supporting scholarship and innovative teaching, and helping to sustain and enhance the work of historians. As the largest organization of professional historians in the world, the AHA represents nearly 12,000 members and serves historians representing every historical period and geographical area in a wide variety of professions. The AHA is a trusted voice for history education, the professional work of historians, and the critical role of historical thinking in public life.
About the Association of College & Research Libraries
The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) is the higher education association for academic libraries and library workers. Representing nearly 10,000 individuals and libraries, ACRL (a division of the American Library Association) develops programs, products, and services to help those working in academic and research libraries learn, innovate, and lead within the academic community. Founded in 1940, ACRL is committed to advancing learning, transforming scholarship, and creating diverse and inclusive communities.
About the University of California Libraries
The University of California (UC) Libraries is one of the largest academic library systems in the world. It includes libraries from 10 campuses and the California Digital Library (CDL), manages more than 40 million print volumes in over 100 libraries, and provides access to millions of electronic items such as e-books and e-journals. The UC libraries provide information resources and services to UC faculty, students, and staff in direct support of the University of California’s teaching, learning, research, patient care, and public service goals.
About the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Library
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Library is one of the largest public academic libraries in the country and holds one of the preeminent research collections in the world, encompassing more than 14 million volumes. The University Library is committed to maintaining the strongest collections and service programs possible, and to engaging in research, development, and scholarly practice—all of which support the university’s missions of educational opportunity, research, and public engagement.
About the University of Iowa Libraries
The University of Iowa Libraries is a network of seven research libraries on the UI campus. Its mission is to serve and collaborate with faculty, staff, students, and the public to advance teaching, learning, research, creative work, and clinical care. The Libraries works actively to foster diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. The UI Libraries holds extensive special collections and archives. It operates a full-service preservation and conservation lab, provides specialized support for digital scholarship, and serves as a regional office for the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM).