Archival Access Policies
June 19, 2003
The material below is excerpted and/or copied from the sources. Information was gathered from U.N.-affiliated organizations, and U.S. federal and state agencies. Findings suggest that few records at the state level have prescribed closed periods. The number is also small at the federal level. In international archives, the closed period varies depending on the organization and type of record. The shortest close period, imposed by the U. N., restricts records for a period of 20 years if the records were closed upon acquisition or if the confidentiality of the record is in question.
Selected guidelines for the management of records and archives : A RAMP reader. Prepared by Peter Walne [for the] General Information Programme and UNISIST. – Paris, Unesco, 1990. Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/ramp/html/r9006e/r9006e0q.htm#Access%20to%20the%20archives%20of%20united%20nations%20agencie s
[Ch. 25- Access to the archives of United Nations agencies]
6.2 The State of Affairs
Records/archives lacking standards and procedures for classification and declassification, retention periods, disposal policies and realistic conditions of access mean frustration to archivists as well as to internal and external users. The present survey has revealed a number of inadequacies in regard to the international organisations. Among the sample of the 34 international organisations chosen, only 41.2 per cent answered the questionnaire in a comprehensive manner. What is happening, if anything, in the field of archives administration in the other 58.8 per cent? So much information is missing that it seems almost impossible to get a clear picture of the actual situation….
..In general, rules and procedures relating to archives are rather scarce in the international organisations, although these instructions are essential in the maintenance of an operative records/archives management service. In this survey 11 organisations reported that they have such instructions, but only five submitted the texts as requested. Instructions of the IMF, UN Secretariat (also followed by UNECA and UNOG), UNESCO, UNICEF and WHO satisfy the standards of what is considered to be good archives administration. Otherwise, the so-called instructions are simply correspondence and registry manuals for secretaries, if the organisation has even such instructions….
6.3 Diversity in Access
Accepting the definition of access as "the availability of records/archives for consultation as a result both of legal authorisation and the existence of finding aids" means detailed responsibilities for archives administration. The manner in which UN agencies are dealing with this question differ in many respects and, for that reason, it is of interest to examine the content of selected rules and procedures.
6.3.1 The United Nations Archives
An Administrative Instruction, ST/AI/326, of 28 December 1984 "explains the guidelines concerning internal and public access to the United Nations archives". Access is given both to archives and non-current records kept by the service. It is clearly stated that staff members of the Secretariat may have access if they need the documents for official business, "except those subject to restrictions imposed by the Secretary-General". Regarding public access to archives and records, it is asserted that:
(a) they are open if they were
accessible when created;
(b) they are open if they are more than 20 years and not subject to restrictions; and,
(c) they are open if they are less than 20 years and not subject to restrictions.
Consequently, the United Nations Secretariat follows a time limit of 20 years, but with flexibility in regard to non-restricted material. With respect to restricted records the Secretary-General has imposed two levels of classification:
- ST - Strictly Confidential to
records originating with the Secretary-General, the unauthorised disclosure of
which could "cause grave damage to confidence in the Secretary-General's
Office(s) or to the United Nations".
- SG - Confidential to records originating with the Secretary-General, the unauthorised disclosure of which could "cause damage to the proper functioning of the United Nations Secretariat".
"SG - Confidential" records are automatically declassified when 20 years old, and "SG - Strictly Confidential" are reviewed for declassification at this age. Declassification in either case can be approved prior to the expiration of 20 years.
The United Nations Archives rule of a 20 year time limit is gaining wider acceptance, as in the case of UNESCO and UNICEF, and it could be a starting point in discussions on the subject of access.
6.3.2 UNESCO Archives
The "Rules governing access by outside persons to UNESCO's Archives" reveal that the holdings consist of documents, field mission reports and records. The first two are "freely accessible in the reading room of the Archives Section", although documents can be marked
"restricted and confidential" and access given only "if the prior agreement of the relevant unit of the Secretariat has been obtained". Often, the documents are mimeographed or other multicopied material but not archival documents.
The third category, records, is another case. According to the Chief Archivist, a relaxation in access is currently under consideration, following the UN Secretariat's rule of 20 year time limit. Until any changes are made, the rules in force place it at 30 years, "with the exception of certain types of material where UNESCO may decide on a shorter period". A closed period limit of 50 years is imposed on the following material:
- files containing exceptionally
sensitive information on relations between Unesco and its Member States,
between Unesco and the United Nations, intergovernmental and non-governmental
- files containing papers which, if divulged, might injure the reputation, affect the privacy or endanger the safety of individuals;
- personnel files of officials or agents of Unesco; and,
- confidential files of the offices of the Unesco Director-General; Deputy Director-General and Assistant Directors-General.
It should be stressed that access to archives within the open period can be refused if they are "unmistakably of confidential nature still" and exceptions "to a paper or file that is not yet in the open period may be made by the Chief Archivist" after some provisions are fulfilled. The UNESCO rules thus also have a degree of flexibility.
6.3.3 UNICEF Records and Archives
This organisation has adopted rules and regulations similar to those promulgated by the UN Archives. The "Procedural guidelines for UNICEF records and archives" of 9 November 1983 follow closely the access conditions and 20-year rule adopted by the UN Secretariat. Archives and non-current records follow the same pattern of consultations and restrictions. Except that the latter can be imposed either by the Secretary-General of the UN, the Executive Director of UNICEF or their authorised representatives.
6.3.4 WHO Archives
These archives are defined primarily as "documents and correspondence of various kinds, received or produced by the Organisation .... in the course of carrying out its functions, and which have been preserved in whatsoever form for documentary and historical purposes. External material, whether public or private, relating to the activities of the Organisation may be added to the archives; such material shall also be subject to these rules". That reference appears in "Rules governing access to WHO Archives" of 15 February 1974.
Access is given in situ after a time limit of 40 years but more recent material can also be freely consulted if it does not have any confidential component. In practice a pragmatic 10-year time limit is also employed. The determination of what is confidential is a prerogative of the organisation and is not clarified in the rules. WHO Archives also has material with closed periods of up to 60 years, i.e. "files containing information which, if disclosed, might prejudice the reputation, personal safety or privacy of individuals".
6.3.5 IMF Archives
This organisation applies no time limit for access to its holdings. "General Administrative Order No.26, Rev.l" of 1st November 1969, states: "All Fund documents and other records shall be considered restricted and not for public use except when designed for transmission to the public or specifically authorised for distribution to a particular recipient or group of recipients". The documents may also be classified as confidential or secret:
- "Confidential -
records containing information, the unauthorised disclosure of which might be
prejudicial to the interest of the Fund or its members. Records, the subject of
which required limitations on use for reason of administrative privacy.
- Secret - records containing information, the unauthorised disclosure of which would endanger the effectiveness of a program or policy, or hamper negotiations in progress, or which could be used to private advantage. Use of this classification should be held to an absolute minimum".
In summary, from the above examples, it appears that access to the records/archives of international organisations is related to the identification of whatis in the archives: the interpretation of the right to information:; respect for privacy of individuals; and the protection of the organisation's different spheres of interest. In addition, to open archives to the public means that the organisation must comply with basic requisites, including a good record management systemand the provision of user facilities. These goals have not been realised in many international organisations at the present time….
Guide to the archives of intergovernmental organizations. International Council on Archives. (Not dated). Retrieved online June 19, 2003 from:
*This site lists a number of international organizations with information on their archives administration policies. Listed below is a selection of those organizations that specified actual time periods to keep records sealed.
1. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
The archival records are open to the public by appointment with the archivist, and in accordance with the following access conditions:
i. The Secretariat classifies as public the following records:
a. Federation publications that the Secretariat makes available for sale to the public or distributes to the public for free;
b. Decisions of the General Assembly, and policies or reports adopted through a Decision, except for those decisions, policies and reports designated confidential by the General Assembly.
c. Decisions of the Governing Board, and reports adopted through a Decision, except for those decisions and reports designated confidential by the Governing Board.
d. minutes and reports of statutory bodies more than 20 years old;
e. non-confidential files of the Secretariat that are more than 30 years old.
ii. The period after which a record becomes public is calculated from the date on which the record is closed.
iii. Records classified confidential, which are generally records containing personal data, are closed to the public.
2. TheFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
The archival records of FAO are available for consultation by staff members in the course of their official duties in situ or on loan. Non-staff members, demonstrating a legitimate interest, may be given access to archival records, which have been closed for 15 or more years. In addition to the general 15 years closure period of records, special restrictions apply to records of confidential nature, such as personnel files of separated staff members, confidential reports, etc. The Director-General may, in appropriate circumstances and on recommendation of the Chief, Records and Archives Unit, remove these restrictions.
3. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
In January 1996, the ICRC Assembly adopted new "Rules governing access to the archives of the ICRC", which gave the public unrestricted access to archives dating from before 1950.
This historic decision was taken to respond to the desire of historians and many other people in search of accounts regarding individual victims of conflict and the conflicts themselves to extend the historical research undertaken since the late 1970s, at the initiative of the ICRC itself. A noteworthy example of this is a book entitled Une mission impossible? Le CICR, les déportations et les camps de concentration nazis, written by Professor Jean-Claude Favez of the University of Geneva, with initial publication in 1988 and a new edition appearing in 1996.
Extract from the "Rules governing access to the archives of the ICRC" of 17 January 1996.
"SECTION III: PUBLIC
Public archives Art. 6 : The general public has access to archives classified as public. The ICRC archivists select and make an inventory of archives to be classified as "public". After a set period of time, to ensure that such access will in no way be detrimental to the ICRC, to the victims that it is its duty to protect, or to any other private or public interests requiring protection.
Public archives Art. 7 :
1)Three types of document are to be found in the "public" archives :
· General ICRC files dating back more than 50 years, including minutes of the decision-making bodies;
· The minutes of the Recruitment Commission, the personal files of staff members and the record series containing personal or medical information dating back more than 100 years :
– Access to biographical or
autobiographical information on a specific individual is allowed after 50
years; such research, however, must be carried out by an ICRC archivist (see
– If permission is obtained from the individual concerned, the 50-year period may be shortened;
· Access to archival material from other sources which has been stored in the ICRC archives is authorized from the date set by the individuals or institutions that deposited the material at the ICRC.
2)The period during which the public is barred from consulting a file runs from the date on which the file is closed.
3)Documents that were open to consultation by the general public before being deposited in the ICRC archives remain so thereafter.
Special access Art. 8 :
1)The Executive Board may, before expiry of the time limits set in Article 7, grant special access to facilitate academic work which the ICRC itself wishes to see successfully completed or which it finds of interest.
2)The Executive Board adopts the Rules governing special access to the ICRC's classified archives.
Restrictions Art. 9 : Public access to ICRC archives may be temporarily delayed in order to permit necessary conservation work to be carried out on the documents requested, or if no space is available in the reading room.
Fees Art. 10 : A charge is made for research carried out by ICRC staff at the request of persons outside the organization (see Article 7).
Use Art. 11 : No use may be made of the archives for commercial purposes unless a specific contract to that effect has been concluded with the ICRC."
With regard to access to the ICRC archives, see also Jean-François Pitteloud, "New access rules open the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to historical research and to the general public", in International Review of the Red Cross, September-October 1996, No. 314, p. 551-561.
Parent and Child’s Guide to Juvenile Records. Texas Youth Commission. (Last updated September 19, 2001). Retrieved online June 1, 2003 from: http://www.tyc.state.tx.us/programs/parentguide_records.html
“In Texas there now exists a records system that is designed to limit access to your juvenile records after you reach 21 years of age if you do not commit criminal offenses after becoming 17 years of age. The system is called ‘Automatic Restriction of Access to Records.’ This is in addition to your opportunity to have your records sealed and destroyed under other provisions of the Texas Family Code.”
The Voluntary Adoption Registry System. Texas Department of Health-Bureau of Vital Statistics. (Not dated). Retrieved online June 1, 2003 from: http://www.tdh.state.tx.us/bvs/car/open
The Voluntary Adoption Registry system becomes open to adoptees, birth parents, and biological siblings once they are 18 years or older.
Research Presidential Materials. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). (Not dated). Retrieved online June 19, 2003 from: http://www.archives.gov/research_room/getting_started/research_presidential_materials.html#records
“In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which changed the legal status of Presidential and Vice Presidential materials. Under the PRA, the official records of the President and his staff are owned by the United States, not by the President. The Archivist is required to take custody of these records when the President leaves office, and to maintain them in a Federal depository. These records are eligible for access under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) five years after the President leaves office. The President may restrict access to specific kinds of information for up to 12 years after he leaves office, but after that point the records are reviewed for FOIA exemptions only. This legislation took effect on January 20, 1981, and the records of the Reagan administration were the first to be administered under this law. Staff at the Reagan Library and Bush Library can provide additional information regarding access to Presidential records in their collections.”
Rules of Access to the House and Senate Records. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). (Not dated). Retrieved online June 192003 from: http://www.archives.gov/records_of_congress/information_for_researchers/rules_of_access.html
the House and Senate regularly transfer records to the National Archives and
Records Administration, these remain closed to researchers for designated
periods of time: 30 years for most House records, with investigative records
and records involving personal privacy closed for 50 years; 20 years for most
Senate records, with a similar 50-year closure period for sensitive Senate
records. Some Senate committees have instructed the Center to open selected series
of records to researchers upon receipt of the records by the National Archives
and Records Administration.
The records of Congress are not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.”