Recent privacy laws have reinforced the idea of a right to delete personal data held by others. This is broadly welcome but should not lead to situations where libraries and archives are obliged to destroy works in their collections. The new IFLA-ICA statement sets out principles and alternatives.

The emergence of a new, tougher, generation of privacy laws around the world is a welcome step towards ensuring that personal information is not misused, and that the right to a private life – Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is protected.  

A key characteristic of these is the idea that people should have control over their own data, for example allowing them to choose how companies and others use it, benefit themselves from the insights it offers, and even ask for its deletion.

This possibility – known as the ‘right to erasure’ in many places – is a powerful tool. While it can be used to put an end to exploitation of personal data for commercial purposes, it risks also providing a basis for removing news stories, redacting the work of other people, and taking books and files from the shelves or servers of libraries and archives.

In effect, it takes the right to be forgotten, which has already raised concerns about negative impacts on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, to a new level.

In regions such as the European Union, this risk has been recognised. Dedicated institutions such as libraries and archives are exempted from the possibility that individuals can ask that records about them be destroyed. However, with legislation emerging at the national and regional level in other parts of the world, it is important to be vigilant.

Clearly, preserving a work does not always mean that it can or should be made freely available to anyone. There are a number of reasons, both legal and ethical, that may prevent this, such as national security, the preferences of indigenous groups, or copyright.

Yet with this decision often requiring an assessment of the merits of each case, laws are a clumsy tool. In this case, balancing the rights to privacy and to access to information is best achieved using professional judgement based on experience and sound codes of ethics.  

The new joint statement between IFLA and the International Council on Archives (ICA) underlines this point, stressing that laws should never block the acquisition, or mandate the destruction of archived documents. There should, however, be both the legal space and practical support for those working with archival collections to apply professional judgement as effectively as possible.

You can download the statement on our publications page.