One of the ways of securing the position of archives in our societies has long been through legislation. Laws on archives and/or on access to information have always been considered victories, especially when they place information in the public domain unless otherwise specified and when they set fair deadlines for public release of documents not yet freely available and afford possibilities for lodging appeals if access is refused. The right to use public information and the concept of open data are all part of this trend.
But laws and legislation are just the heart of an amorphous mass that is constantly expanding as our societies move increasingly towards digitisation, at times threatening situations previously deemed inviolable. One of the aspects making up this amorphous mass is the right to privacy, now covered in the European Union by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This regulation revolves essentially around the concept of the “right to be forgotten” and, in its earliest versions, was in direct contradiction with legislation on archives. Archivists and historians were spurred into hitherto unprecedented action to obtain waivers enabling them to preserve the right to memory and to history. While they may have triumphed in the early skirmishes, the subject is still a live issue and the archiving community must remain vigilant, regularly confirming its vital societal role. This is certainly true in the case of personal data but also applies to other forms of legislation, for example, that governing intellectual property, the laws on which have become so restrictive that archivists at times find themselves having to weigh up the legal risks.
In societies faced with new geopolitical risks where domestic tensions are again running high, the public is increasingly insistent on the need for transparency. While it may seem paradoxical on the surface, they also demand greater protection for their privacy from the very real risk of the over-exposure created by digitisation. The laws governing archives are therefore having to chart a course through highly turbulent waters. In the triangular relationship between lawmakers, citizens and experts, archivists in democratic societies have the opportunity to play a part in drafting texts. They must now use this possibility to propose ways of striking a happy balance to protect the main principles behind archive management in the longer term and underpin the vital role of archives, history and memory for present and future generations.
Bruno Ricard, Head of the French National Archives