The final plenary of the 2022 Australian Society of Archivists conference was titled ‘Value of collections + value of governance = value of archives?’. The panellists were Distinguished Professor Maggie Walter (Emerita) of Sociology at the University of Tasmania and Commissioner of the Yoorrook Justice Commission; Dr Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute; and David Fricker, president of the International Council on Archives. I asked the panellists what comment they had to make about the right to be forgotten in archives.
Professor Walter said that a person’s actions and experience affected others, so although she would want her Facebook pages and other social media accounts deleted after she died, she didn’t support the destruction of official records because of their potential relationship to, for example, Indigenous data sovereignty. David Fricker pointed out that the right to be forgotten originated with an Italian restaurant owner wanting to have negative reviews of his business expunged so that they could not be included in Google search results. David Fricker thought the concept a ‘European flight of fancy that had gone too far’ and that a better strategy was to strengthen the rules around privacy. Dr Denniss acknowledged that he hadn’t given the concept much thought as his concern is the increasingly secretive management of government information; he agreed with David Fricker, that strengthening privacy was the better option.
The right to be forgotten is defined, legally, as ‘broadly speaking, the right for individuals to have private information about them removed from public directories in certain circumstances. It exists to prevent inordinate interference with individuals’ privacy and reputations as a result of the ongoing accessibility of information about them which no longer serves sufficient public interest’. (Lalor 2021). I came across the notion in relation to people who have been in care and their responses to records kept about them. Some who have been in care, and sometimes their relatives and descendants, find in their records a means for healing, understanding and acceptance. Others find the content of their records, which can be incomplete, missing or simply wrong, distressing and traumatising and want them destroyed.
There are a few more aspects to the issue than could be considered in answer to a question in a plenary. Firstly, destruction of records is normal – occasionally through accident, sometimes through carelessness or expediency, sometimes with intention to conceal, but also because doing so is built into record-keeping processes of sentencing and disposal. Currently records are destroyed regularly as part of good practice, not for dubious reasons. While someone destroying their records so as to be forgotten is different to institutional destruction, an individual’s right to be forgotten may become one of a number of already established reasons for destroying records.
Secondly, the idea of who owns records has been changing for some time, from the single administrative creator and the eventual custodian, to include those who are present in the records. The Trust and Technology: Building an Archival System for Indigenous Oral Memory project established that Koori people thought of records about them as also belonging to them, and had an expectation that they would control their own historical documentation (Oppenneer 2011). Anne Gilliland’s (2012) discussion of the rights of co-creators, includes a right to jointly own and control records so co-created. The notion of provenance has expanded, from that of single creator or single fonds, to the idea, at the least, of an ambience incorporating multiple simultaneous creators. Hurley (2005a, 2005b) first conceptualised parallel provenance as a problem, indicating that a record’s true provenance hasn’t been identified from the ambience in which it was created. Others (Gilliland and McKemmish 2014, McKemmish and Piggott 2013, Cowan 2018) expand this formulation to suggest that parallel provenance has the potential to represent the rights in records of all parties involved. I would like to suggest that the concept has the potential to indicate not only creators but the existence of enduring knowledges, Western and Indigenous, which underpin the content of a record. Western knowledge is implicit and persists in the systems used to manage archives; Bawaka Country et al (2015) argue that the Country from which Indigenous knowledges come, is author and creator alongside human actors. If these recent conceptualisations are ‘true’, then the right to dispose or destroy rests with more owning agents, including collective and greater than human agents, than the single administrative recorder or eventual custodian.
Thirdly, people in records – often thought of as the subject of records but whom Gilliland (2012) names the co-creators – sometimes want their records destroyed, precisely because the records are about them. This is a fundamentally different motivation than the commercial interests of the restaurant owner David Fricker referred to. It does have to do with the effect on others that Professor Walter suggested was a reason for retaining records. An Aboriginal man consulted about the management of his record of attendance at a mission school, said that as long as his record was ‘good’ he didn’t care who saw it, the implication being that if it wasn’t ‘good’ he would want access to be different (personal communication, 2019). The deficiencies, omissions, untruths, callousness that have been found in records, are hurtful to the people whom the records are about, to whom they arguably belong. The harm potentially extends to others. I have come to think that the desire to destroy records which are damaging in this way, may be an act of love. A person may not want their children to see their records, not because they are embarrassed about the content but because they don’t want their children burdened by it, to carry the wounds that records can inflict. After all, they have survived, despite their experiences of care or colonisation; despite it, they have succeeded, including in establishing a family.
Maybe people who want their records destroyed underestimate their children’s resilience and thus the potential healing power of records. But maybe they nevertheless want to avoid any grief their children may experience over what they find. In response to the trauma of reading her grandmother’s records held by the South Australian Aborigines Protection Board, Natalie Harkin (2020) rewove those records into a cultural artefact holding a different knowledge than that in the Protection Board’s archive. Harkin has honoured her grandmother and restored her memory beautifully in weaving and in writing but maybe Harkin will always mourn and be angered; and maybe her grandmother would have preferred that she be spared that. This is surmise on my part. But as notions of provenance, ownership and control expand, so ought understanding of the different motivations and concerns brought into play by that expansion. The motivation behind Western sentencing and disposal schedules is to support business and administrative operations and preserve evidence for the future. The motivations of people in the records, or peoples whose knowledge and culture are contained or captured in the records, co-creators with rights of ownership and control, can be expected to be different.
Jamila Ghaddar (2016) suggests a different motivation for the right to be forgotten or the longing for oblivion: resistance. She explains how Indigenous peoples, Indigeneity and the disappearance of both are fundamental to the colonial state’s and settler colonists’ perception of superiority and their rights to Indigenous land. She notes that this disappearance is actually always incomplete – Indigenous people are always a presence in the colonial state; there is always a spectre in the archive. Ghaddar then explains how this remnant spectre is also essential to what might be called colonialism’s omnivorous self-production: ‘Even the recategorization or recontextualization of records can turn into the story of colonialism again’ (26). The records of so much Indigenous knowledge have been stored in the colonial archive, where they have been drawn upon to create a narrative of national self-congratulation and honour. The Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples can be thought of as an example of colonial self-reification. The longing for oblivion, or refusal to allow the retention of records containing Indigenous knowledge in Western archives, can be the means by which the oppressed survive and retain their independent selfhood; and resist colonialism’s ongoing self-production.
Fourthly, privacy ends when you die. People who want their records destroyed probably have posterity in mind.
Author: Fiona Blackburn
Bawaka Country, Wright, S, Suchet-Pearson, S, Lloyd, K, Burarrwanga, L, Ganambarr, R, Ganambarr-Stubbs, M, Ganambarr, B and Maymuru, D (2015) ‘Working with and learning from Country: decentring human author-ity’, Cultural geographies, 22(2): 269-283
Gilliland, AJ (2012) ‘Contemplating Co-creator Rights in Archival Description’, Knowledge Organisation, 39(5): 340-346
Lalor (2021) https://www.humanrights.unsw.edu.au/students/blogs/right-to-be-forgotten accessed 26/10/2022
McKemmish, S and Piggott, M (2013) ‘Toward the archival multiverse: challenging the binary opposition of the personal and corporate archive in modern archival theory and practice’, Archivaria, 76: 111-144.
Oppenneer 2011 https://www.ethnosproject.org/trust-and-technology-building-an-archival-system-for-indigenous-oral-memory/ accessed 26 October 2022
Rudd, K (2008) ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’, https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Art/Exhibitions/Custom_Media/Apology_to_Australias_Indigenous_Peoples, accessed 5 Dec 2022