Public discussions of privacy in the Internet Age are all the rage. Privacy topics have ranged from hackers compromising personal data online to HIPAA to Facebook reconfigurations that open profiles to the public to the current storm surrounding WikiLeaks. History organizations cannot ignore such discussions because what the public decides is fair in the realm of public versus private data affects what we can collect and, in turn, share with researchers.

Here is a bald-headed fact: Privacy is antithetical to history.

Think about that for a moment. If everyone chose to have absolute privacy govern their personal and societal data, we would have nothing historical to study. Of course, it’s impossible to keep everything a secret, so when it comes to conversations about privacy, what we’re really trying to do is find a balance between which kinds of information should be public and which should remain private. Each of us as individuals will have a different comfort level about sharing our personal information, just as each society as a collective will adjust its notions about the definitions of public and private data to fit its values.

In an “open” society, one that cherishes the ideals of democracy, more information will be considered public because running an effective democracy depends on it. In a “closed” or highly controlled society, more data will be kept secret so that those in power remain in control.

The dirty little secret of historians is that we prefer more information to be open so we can slice it, dice it, use it to tell a full story with the motivations of the players intact, and discuss what we’ve found with others who are interested … even if we are the shy, retiring sorts of historians who cherish our personal privacy. Give us the goods, baby! I dare say we’re not so different from most individuals, who want privacy for their own peccadilloes, but press their noses to a wet window of gossip about the peccadilloes of others.

That said, most of the information history organizations deal in is public data and our goal is to make that data easier for people to access. The Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) is a repository for a variety of past local newspapers, so researchers can make one stop for old news, rather than try to track down newspapers in different locations. We also have past phone books, which are nice consolidations of public directory information.

Just because the aforementioned sources are public doesn’t mean that people want that information shared. Think about how easy it is for anyone in the world to look up your address and phone number on the internet. As long as your land line number is listed, it’s public information and directory services can broadcast it far outside your geographic comfort zone. Newspaper articles, ditto, especially now that most newspapers have an online presence and efforts are underway by larger history organizations to digitize past newspapers for wide-scale access.

We once helped the younger members of a family uncover a long-held family secret that made the front page of the local newspaper, a “secret” involving murder. Were we right to do so? If you were to ask the secret-keepers in the family, no, but if you were to ask those from whom the secret was kept, yes. We were bolstered in our decision because the information was public.

Even if that information had not been made public, but we had discovered it in a private journal donated to the museum, our organization still would have been legally within its rights to divulge that secret. How? Through the permission granted by the donor when s/he signed the journal over to the museum’s collection. Whenever someone makes a collections donation, s/he is required to sign a Donation Form granting MCHS full legal ownership to an item. That includes allowing us to provide public access to that item. Periodically, we are asked to restrict access on an intended donation. When the conversation makes that turn, we politely decline the item in question. Keeping track of such restrictions would be a nightmare, especially when such a restriction stipulates that certain family members get to see an item and other family members don’t. Besides, access restrictions do not play well with our mission of education.

Once history organizations have permission to disseminate private information, they can’t be charged with violating people’s privacy rights. The idea of permission is key to a looming issue regarding private data that appears online. Rather than writing letters and keeping journals in physical notebooks, more and more people are keeping such things digitally, in the form of computer files, emails, blogs, Twitter tweets, Facebook status updates, LinkedIn profiles, and various digital photo albums. In the museum community, we call this stuff “born digital” and we’re trying to figure out how to preserve it.

Some born digital data is public, accessible by anyone. For example, most blogs are open to the public. Other born digital data, including that kept on personal computers, emails, and Facebook profiles, is only open to those who own the accounts and/or the owner’s select circle of family and friends.

There’s been some public discussion about what should happen to online accounts once a person dies. If arrangements are not made in advance, an individual’s online data could easily end up completely inaccessible, stuck in a digital limbo. While people are encouraged to leave wills or use special online services that detail their wishes in regards to managing their digital data post-mortem, these arrangements typically allow only trusted friends and relatives access. We are unaware of any efforts to encourage people to leave a bequest of their digital data to history organizations, which is why we are suggesting it now.

While sites such as Facebook may not yet have a mechanism for allowing history organizations to access a person’s profile, if people start providing the necessary permissions within their wills, they will be laying the groundwork for Facebook and other web applications to provide this service. Most history organizations don’t yet have the capacity to manage digital data, but these permissions need to be in place for the future time in which they do.

If you’d like to make your private data public after death by bequeathing it to a history organization, we urge you to make this clear in your will. You can also use one of a number of online services for managing your digital data after death. Some of these include Entrustet, AssetLock, Death Switch, My Webwill, and Legacy Locker.

Remember, privacy is antithetical to history. Why not make your own decisions on what you want to keep private and what you want to share in terms of your digital data?

By Mary Warner

Copyright 2010, Morrison County Historical Society
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter in 2010, Vol. 23, No. 4.


Online Services for Managing Your Digital Assets After Death


Death Switch:


My Webwill:

MCHS can’t recommend one service over another, so do your research. You’ll want to check on the potential longevity of these websites. There’s no guarantee that any website will last forever. A regular will might make a better option.

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