Voices from the Margins of Society

Today we are republishing an article by historian and Emeritus Professor Margaret Tennant, about her experiences of dealing with restrictions placed on archival material by government departments, since the 1990s.

I was particularly struck by her argument that the placing of restrictions on archival case and personal files, for what may seem like good reasons at the time, denies a voice of those who were on the margins of society, whose letters and interactions with government and voluntary organisations give historians a brief, but invaluable, insight into their lives.

These restrictions have led Margaret to conclude that she very much doubts that she could write her doctoral thesis now, nor many of the articles which have underpinned her research career. Given the importance of her work to our understanding of New Zealand welfare and social history, this is a very concerning conclusion.  

This article was originally written for Phanzine, the magazine for the Professional Historians Association of New Zealand (Phanza).

One of the side benefits of the First World War commemorations has been the digitising of Defence Force personal files. There will be few Phanza members who have not delved into this rich and revealing human treasure trove. It contains around 140,000 individual records, giving such details as family background, personal physical attributes and overall health as well as wounds received and diseases suffered while on service, past criminal convictions, marriage, children, and subsequent death. This is exceedingly personal information, now available world-wide, some of the material not yet 100 years old. It has been released without the sky falling in or the usual timidity surrounding private information held by public agencies, even that which is from a similar period.

Anyone using materials at Archives New Zealand will be aware of vast inconsistencies in access requirements between government agencies. When the Privacy Act was passed in 1993 some departments seem to have responded with a blanket restriction on any historical files which contained personal names of providers or recipients of their services.

I have had the odd experience of returning to notes and photocopies of case materials I referred to in the later 1970s when I was doing my doctoral research. The files were from the 1880s through to the 1930s and my notes were mostly taken without recording the real names of those mentioned in the files, as it was their experience rather than their identity that was my focus. I wrote a thesis and a book which drew extensively on these materials
to examine the gap between policy intentions and their implementation, most especially the ways in which welfare recipients showed agency in resisting or circumventing administrators’ intentions. As promised when I gained access to the files, I changed names and identifying details, even when the ‘cases’ had made it into the newspapers, as they sometimes did in this period. I offered the agencies holding the records the chance to read my text before it went into the public sphere. I don’t recall any of them taking up my offer, and there was no subsequent difficulty.

Not so now. Materials associated with the former Department of Health and the hospital boards which reported to it pose a special difficulty, but they are not alone. Many Health files have blanket restrictions, and a recent attempt to view a file in order to see a copy of an institutional floor plan resulted in my dealing with at least three different people at the Ministry and its legal section because the file 
had restricted access at Archives New Zealand. I had previously made extensive notes from this file, but now was not able to view it without signing a somewhat intimidating deed of confidentially. It was more appropriate to the recent past than to the material from the first decades of the twentieth-century that 
I was seeking. In the end, I ran out for time for the file to be useful and I went with newspaper descriptions of the institution’s layout instead. It was not the first time that such hurdles have made the pursuit of access so cumbersome and intimidating that I have given up.

I very much doubt that I could write my doctoral thesis now, nor many of the articles which underpinned my research career. It is not surprising that so many books and theses seem to be based on newspaper materials rather than official documents these days – Papers Past is by comparison readily available and unrestricted. But a recent scan of some of the World War One Defence force files made me question why some personal materials are privileged in terms of availability, and not others, and why we archive material only to make it unnecessarily difficult to use.

Case records are particularly problematic, and their sensitivity in influences retention as well as access. Here there are the practicalities of dealing with a proliferation of case records, as well as concerns about statistical validity where only a sample of files are retained. Reference is sometimes made to the ‘fat file effect’ where the largest files are retained because they are assumed to be the most interesting.

This rather misses the point – historians are never working on the basis that they can canvass the entire range of human experience when generalising, nor that their conclusions would pass tests of statistical validity; we are always in some way dependent upon that which survives, and many of the most frequently cited sources (especially newspapers) deal with the extremes of human activity and response. Welfare historians, who are especially drawn to case materials, are often as interested in those delivering services, the assumptions they brought to their task and the processes they followed on a day to day basis, as they are in the recipients of aid. The ‘fat file’ may not be typical, but it does raise the question of why such a file was generated, for example.

Not that the recipients are irrelevant. As one for many years used case records relating to public relief, pensions, benevolent institutions, children’s health camps and homes for unmarried mothers, among others, I was interested in the experiences of those ‘in need’, or on the margins of society. Even where their experiences were mediated by the reports of social workers, religious sisters, relieving officers and matrons the case materials revealed an interaction (sometimes sympathetic, sometimes antagonistic) and a social situation. Sometimes they gave actual voice to the recipient, whose claims and complaints were recorded in detail, or whose letters were attached to the file. The views of those on the bottom
 of the social heap were all too often suppressed or disregarded in their own time. I believe we have a responsibility not to repeat this suppression in the name of anachronistic notions of privacy which are very particular to our own age, but which can also provide a convenient rationale for doing nothing, for closing access, or for automatic destruction.

Even if we simply focus on those materials which have already been archived, there needs to be further, and urgent, conversations about the extensive blanket restrictions in many areas. In particular, there should be a review of protocols for the use of files which may mention individual names, especially where files are more than fifty years old. Many restrictions seem to have been put in place hurriedly and without reference to their practicalities during the 1990s, and reflect the risk aversion of the time as much as any real understanding of research processes. They remain because doing nothing is simpler than the alternatives. Part of any new conversation could be where the access decision should lie for materials of a particular age – present-focused government agencies with a frequent turnover of staff may not be the best placed to do this. A review may need to involve the Privacy Commissioner, whose office now has years of experience in dealing with contemporary privacy issues, including their excessively rigorous interpretation by some public bodies. There are, in the end, ways of illuminating experience without disclosing identities.

History is ultimately about people, and it is difficult to write it without reference to sources which touch upon individual lives. Used ethically and sensitively historical materials can give insights into the circumstances of those so often denied a voice in their own time. As the Defence files have shown, our understanding can be hugely enriched by the details of ordinary lives that have come into contact with extraordinary events and powerful state agencies.

Photo: This is an 1884 image of the sons of Louis Lousich, who were collecting money for their father after he was blnded and disabled in a mine explosion. Taken at Kumara, West Coast.  Steffano Webb Collection (PAColl-3061), Reference: 1/2-049635-G , Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. 

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