4 Replies Latest reply on Sep 23, 2019 6:03 PM by David Friedman

    Publishing of Previously Private Materials


      Perhaps this question has been asked before, but in the course of beginning to work on transcription of materials in the Mary Church Terrell collection I started to wonder about the publishing of previously private materials to the public.


      The issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine that I've worked on was already public when it was published back in 1891.


      These are after all her diaries, letters, school papers, etc. I visited the page on the collection and also the Wikipedia article, and so learned a bit more about her life, but I don't know the course of events by which the library got access to the documents and then made them available.


      I wonder if there is any sort of general policy about not publishing materials that a particular historical figure directly and explicitly wished to remain private. I imagine that in some cases there could be disputes within the family about what to do with documents that might be of historical interest and also potentially of monetary value.


      But many people may have much wanted their writings and letters to be available after they passed away, and made provision for that to be the case. The vast majority of the materials are most likely in no way at all of a scandalous or derogatory nature.


      I had some of these thoughts when I heard about the Jefferson Bible some years ago. When I read about the course of events that led to the discovery and publishing of the Jefferson Bible it seemed to me that it wasn't really clear that Thomas Jefferson ever intended his creation to be made available to the public. Likewise, as far as I know, he didn't say anything about it remaining strictly private and was never to be published ever.


      I'd say that on the one hand people naturally respect and honor the wishes of those who have passed on, but on the other hand if one were excessively scrupulous about matters then very little could ever get done.

        • Re: Publishing of Previously Private Materials

          Hi David,


          Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think my knowledgeable LOC Manuscript Division colleagues will have some cogent things to say about Mary Church Terrell in particular, and about broader Library policy in general. What I can say with some confidence is that the Library carefully vets the material it digitizes and places online, erring on the side of caution when it comes to copyright and privacy concerns. Most collections stipulate how/when/if materials are to be released for research purposes both in person and online.


          On a personal note, I've researched various renaissance convents, and authors writing in the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. In many cases the materials are still housed at the descendant convents or in personal family archives. I've found that the nuns or family-archivists of many of these private archives are careful about how they make their collections and centuries worth of history available--most want to get to know a researcher a bit before they open the archive to them, for many of the reasons you've articulated.


          State, county, national archives and libraries are usually a bit different. Collections are typically either open to all or closed to all. In some cases very rare material might only be open to select researchers with very specific reasons for needing to see the physical object rather than a facsimile or digital surrogate.


          Anyhow, all that to say that your questions and your instincts are good, and they reflect the wide range of archival and library practice around the world, and some of the ethical questions that researchers grapple with. Personally, I think that when people take the trouble to write a lot, and then sell or donate their collection to a library or archive or museum, their hope is that someday, someone will take an interest in their life and their documents. In the case of Mary Church Terrell and many of our suffragists, I think they'd enjoy the idea that people were studying and learning about their fight for freedom (on many fronts!), and making their words accessible in new ways.


          -Victoria, a Community Manager

          • Re: Publishing of Previously Private Materials
            Henry Rosenberg Navigator

            Hi David- I'm not 100% positive but I believe the bulk of the papers were donated by the Langston family, Mary's daughter Phyllis's Stepchildren or StepGrandchildren.  I agree with your premise that individuals may not want personal documents released. For instance, it was rumored that Mary and her husband Robert were separated and had lived apart for the last 10 years of his life. I have read her diaries and letters and they either never talked about it, never wrote about it or destroyed those communications. BTW, I'm just a volunteer so don't put too much stock into my comments. Victoria is the expert.

            Just thought I'd chime in.



            • Re: Publishing of Previously Private Materials
              LOC Manuscript Division Tracker

              Hi David,

              The Manuscript Division collection development policy may be of interest to you on the topic of how these personal papers make their way into the public’s hands.  An important part of that policy is in the fact that materials are typically acquired through donation by their owners as gifts or in special circumstances by deposit (with a commitment to donate the deposited materials at an appropriate time). During that process of acquisition, individuals, families, estates, etc. typically have the opportunity to place restrictions on access to items such as those that are particularly personal to the individual. We certainly do hold various collections that require permission from donors or estates for access.



              Reference Librarian
              Manuscript Division
              Library of Congress

              • Re: Publishing of Previously Private Materials

                Thank you to Victoria, Henry, and Lara for the responses.


                I've been thinking about this over the past days, and it occurs to me that of the historical texts I've read or the historical resources I've accessed generally speaking the issue of provenance or permission is not discussed.


                In fact even in the issue of Lippincott's from 1891 that I mentioned above there are a number of instances where this is the case:



                But I think in these cases, as in others, one just takes as a reasonable assumption that materials were obtained and published taking reasonable considerations into account.


                It is the case that in "Some Familiar Letters By Horace Greeley" mention is made of the conditions under which they were obtained and matters of privacy.


                This is talked about in the second page in the paragraph starting with "During the campaign spoken of—...".


                The recipient of the letters offered them to Joel Benton:


                "In fact, its freedom was so great that passages in these letters can never properly be printed. Fortunately, they happen to throw some light upon the matter of his ambition, and illustrate the man in more than one retrieving direction. These familiar and friendly letters have been confided to me to edit, and to publish, so far as they can be reasonably exhibited to public scrutiny. They are offered by the person to whom they were addressed, in the belief that they will do him credit, and help— where he has been maligned—to give the truth which will prove to be his vindication."


                During his lifetime Horace Greeley may have expressed some view on making letters or other materials available to the public or he may have not; however, one way or another, it seems to me that he put trust in the recipient of the letters and that it was her judgment that portions of them ought to be published.


                So I would just close by repeating that one can take some reasonable working assumptions. One can take as an assumption that materials were obtained and published with reasonable considerations taken into account.