Promoting Openness, Access, and Use

Margot Note

Margot Note

December 18, 2023

Archives are essential repositories of collective memory, holding the records of individuals, communities, institutions, and governments. 

The dual principles of access and use underpin the work of archivists, guiding their efforts to ensure that historical records remain accessible to users while respecting the legal and ethical restrictions that may apply.


Access to records is a cornerstone of archival practice. Archivists promote and facilitate the accessibility of archival materials. However, they should not undertake this commitment to open access without consideration of the legal and ethical boundaries that govern.

Archivists must navigate access restrictions, including public statutes, cultural protections, donor contracts, and privacy requirements. While the goal is to foster open access, archivists recognize situations where they must limit access. For instance, sensitive personal information may require restricted access. In these cases, archivists must balance the principle of open access and the need to safeguard privacy.


Archival work considers the goal of use at every stage. This holistic perspective ensures that archival materials are preserved and available for research. Even those who do not engage with archival materials still benefit from the work of archivists. They become more aware of the existence of records, their care, and their accessibility when needed.

Promoting use means more than just making records available; it also involves creating an environment where people are encouraged to explore these records. Archivists play a vital role in promoting the active use of documentary materials by providing tools, guides, and educational programs to help users navigate the archives. They work to ensure that archives are not intimidating fortresses of knowledge but welcoming spaces where individuals can discover and learn.

Respecting Restrictions

Respecting access restrictions is a complex and challenging aspect of archival work. Legal and ethical considerations vary, and archivists must remain current on relevant laws and regulations. For example, certain records may be subject to copyright restrictions that limit how they can be used. Archivists must ensure that users know and comply with these restrictions to avoid legal complications.

Another aspect of access restrictions is cultural protection, such as those for indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage. Archivists may need to work closely with cultural authorities and community representatives to develop protocols and agreements for the respectful use of these materials.

Donor contracts are yet another factor that archivists must consider. Some donors impose conditions on using their materials, which must be adhered to to maintain donors’ trust and willingness to contribute to the archives.

Privacy requirements are essential when dealing with personal and sensitive information. Archivists must take measures to safeguard individuals’ privacy, which may involve redacting or restricting access to certain parts of records. This legal and ethical obligation ensures that repositories uphold individuals’ rights.

Balancing Act 

Archivists navigate a complex landscape that requires them to uphold the principles of access and use while respecting the constraints imposed by law, culture, donors, and privacy. It is a delicate balancing act involving vigilance, attention to detail, and commitment to preservation and accessibility.

Access and use are fundamental principles that guide the work of archivists. They are the bridge that connects the past with the present and the present with the future. Through open access and active promotion, archivists ensure that the invaluable records of collective history remain relevant. At the same time, they must carefully navigate the legal and ethical boundaries that protect individuals, cultures, and sensitive information. In the dance between openness and restriction, archivists preserve shared heritage and facilitate the journey of discovery for future generations.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea—provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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