Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Records, redaction and respecting the subject

As Louise discussed in her recent post on closed records, there are a number of legal restrictions that we have to navigate when providing access to the records in our care, such as the Data Protection Act (1998) and NHS Scotland guidance on records of deceased individuals. Not every access concern is legislated though, and this week Alice explains some of the thinking behind our procedures.

A volume of case notes from the early 20th century. These record not just medical information, but personal and familial information too. (LHB44/20/1)
The 19th and early 20th century case notes and patient registers that LHSA hold are a valuable resource for family historians, and we often receive enquiries relating to a specific patient. Where possible, if we find information on an individual we always aim to send photos of any relevant records to the enquirer. It is our general practice to block out or redact identifying information about any other patients when providing these photos, and understandably, this can seem strange to some researchers. Why bother redacting information about someone who has long been dead?

The case notes for this patient fall comfortably into the closure periods, but we've still taken measures to protect the patient's identity. (LHB44/20/1)
At a recent conference on the societal impact of records, I heard Dr Joanne Evans of Melbourne University, Australia, speak about how her feelings towards ‘open’ records have changed somewhat in recent years. The increased media coverage of historical abuses and the resulting inquiries has reminded us all that ‘records subjects’ are much, much more than this epithet suggests. The passing of time – say, 100 years - between a record being created and that same record becoming ‘open’ can easily lead us to disconnect the items we deal with from the lives they represent, but as these issues have highlighted, these items weren’t created in a vacuum. Although the subject of a record may have passed away a long time ago, the records themselves can represent a part of that person’s life, and – to some extent – live on as an avatar for them.  

A note accompanying one woman's admission papers. As well as redacting her name, age and number of children - all of which could be identifiers - we've also removed a further piece of particularly distinguishing information. (LHB44/29/1)

Another talk at the conference brought this even closer to home. In his discussion on the impact of the Public Records (Scotland) Act of 2011, Dr Hugh Hagan of the NRS noted that records made by and about us throughout our lives help us to answer the question of “how do you know who you are?”, in that they allow us to identify and describe ourselves and our relationships to others. With that in mind, it is important that we are mindful of how we as archivists treat such records. Dr Hagan recounted how one victim told the Shaw Inquiry on historical abuse that he had struggled to obtain records about his time in care, and when he did receive them, they were incomplete or had been so poorly managed that crucial contextual information was lost. He remarked to the Shaw inquiry that he felt the lack of respect the records had been shown reflected the lack of respect he had been shown as a young person in care. As the repository for historically important local records of NHS hospitals, LHSA exists almost as a branch of NHS Lothian, and we therefore need to consider how our treatment of and attitudes towards patient records reflects on them.

A case of 'congenital idiocy', brought about by "a fright from a mad woman" during pregnancy (LHB7/51/59)
Another factor that has to be considered is how much language – and particularly language around mental health – has changed since some of the records were first created. It’s not uncommon to find a 19th century patient described as “a profound idiot” or “dull and stupid”, or to hear fantastical and salacious accounts of how insanity manifested itself and what had instigated a patients admission to an asylum. While we can certainly glean a lot from such accounts – not least an understanding of how our attitudes have changed – it is vital we remember that these records are not created, kept, preserved and made available for our entertainment. They contain and reflect people’s lives, and we must never lose sight of the person in our search for the information.

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