Threat to openness: managing access to public archives

Portrait of Henri Bergson by J.E. Blanche 1891...

Portrait of Henri Bergson by J.E. Blanche 1891 to illustrate Henri Bergson article. Uploaded from (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In November 2015, I attended the Threats to Openness conference held at Northumbria University. The conference had a specific aim “discuss the growing threats to citizens’ rights to access public archives across the digital world.” Although we did not discuss what was meant by openness, it was understood mainly to be defined by the right of access or the right to access public archives. However, this provides only a limited sense of how openness was used during the conference. Participants and speakers regularly referred to difference between access and openness noting that they were often confused. One does not always imply the other. As openness can be understood differently, the threats to it will vary with responses that can potentially conflict with efforts to help with access. What was missing was a detailed discussion of the relationship between access to archives, openness and the nature of the society. A society may be relatively closed yet allow access to its archives and one might have an open archive with few records. The implicit theme was that informational openness presupposes an open society. Yet, without understanding how archives relate to an open society, we could not fully understand threats to openness as a threat to access or how threats to access to archives are a threat to openness. To do this, we need to explore what is meant by openness. To do this, I sketch some ideas about the open society.

The following remarks are based on what I heard at the conference. We need to understand the open society to understand openness and from there to understand the threats to it.

Part 1 What is openness? Some thoughts.

First, openness is usually associated with the idea of an open society– “a society characterized by a flexible structure, freedom of belief, and wide dissemination of information.”[1] The open society presupposes a regime based on openness. What constraints this view, though, is that openness and transparency are not the same. A government may want the public to believe that its transparency indicates openness. That a government will publish a large and varied amount of data and information is a sign transparency. The access to that information and its willingness to provide information as requested indicates openness. Transparency does not mean that there is greater access to information or greater openness by the government.

We can look beyond this view of openness to explore how it connects to the political system. Karl Popper popularized the idea of the open society. He argued that an open society was one in which the government is responsive and tolerant with political mechanisms that are transparent and flexible. For Popper, the open society exists in contradistinction to the “closed” society. The closed society is based on traditional or tribal systems that are intolerant of challenges to its authority. One way to limit challenges to authority is to limit the information that is available. However, Popper’s views are a crude version of what Henri Bergson proposed in his work The Two Sources of Morality and Religion where he developed the idea of an open society. Bergson proposed that the Open Society was an idea that was temporal, as it has yet to be realized, and global in that it would include everyone so that we are all living in a potential open society. In other words, it is an ideal that is present in a nascent form still to be realized. By contrast, the closed society was one that the excluded some individuals even as included others so they were closed to part of humanity. The truly open society would be one that is global in scope.

When we consider openness at this global level we start to see how various threats to openness might emerge. We can see, especially through Bergson’s work that the UK society[2] is closed in many respect. As a monarchy, the archives as litmus test for that openness as they raise the question of arcana imperii, the secret information a regime uses to rule. Like all societies, the UK will have legitimate reasons to limit access to keep information secret or private. They indicate the border within which threats to openness emerge for it is the point at which society, or the rulers, have agreed that openness cannot pass. Even as there are attempts to encourage open information in a general sense, all societies will limit access to information and specifically the archives. Thus, we may have to accept that openness, in terms of information, only means; a specific domain, specific information, or a general idea. Even if it is an extensive domain such as the “public domain”, it may not cover all of society. In other words, the limits on information may indicate the extent to which it is a closed society.

A further question is whether those closed off areas are a threat to openness simply by being closed and thus inaccessible. Such a question, though, presupposes that we know who cannot access the information. If a government minister can access the information, is it closed? If junior civil servants have access, is it closed? Do we have to accept as our standard that if the public cannot get access, then it is considered closed? However, that assumes that the public are the standard by which we measure access and openness. If the public do not rule, as they do not in the UK or in other countries, why do we assume that access is to be measured by what the public can access? Moreover, is a public record what the government decides as people may donate or bequeath papers, documents, and records to record office. Does closed mean that they are inaccessible to the public gaze, neither we nor our representatives can see it (such as state secrets) or that they are not readily accessible, that is they are exempt from disclosure even though they are covered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)? Or are they do not even constitute a public record, such as Royal Archives or private archives so are completely outside the “public” gaze?

In an extreme case, as mentioned earlier the archives can be an extension of, or even coterminous with, the arcana imperii[3]. As the rulers rely on this information to rule, openness threatens their rule or their legitimacy. However, the arcana imperii is not limited to imperial governments or government simply. It is applicable to any intellectual discipline where information provides power or status.[4] Where discoveries can provide competitive advantages for the organisation that has sponsored the research, openness can be a threat as the material is what provides the knowledge which creates an advantage.[5]

By their nature archives are closed off in that they are bounded space for a specific purpose to protect or preserve records even as they make them available for future generations. In this regard, some records are closed by statute and others by request. Within that process, a further threat to openness can be found in the system for cataloguing the records. The catalogue can become a barrier to access as the public have to know the “language” to access the material as well as understand the process to access. However, these are structural barriers, which while problematic do not threaten openness generally even though they may be a particular challenge. The structural barriers can be overcome by the archivists or the user. By contrast, a statute or a legal barrier, imposed externally, cannot be overcome by the user or the archivist without penalty. In this, the structural constraints are not designed to reduce openness or access; they are designed to control it. But what are the other threats? We need to consider these at three levels.


The archival level is where threats to funding become a threat to limit access to archives or a powerful patron seeks to limit access. At this level, there are threats to an organisation hosting the archives where it may close the archives. Other threats might be the technical limits where records, stored as data, become inaccessible and therefore closed. Further, the technical limits can also limit access so that even if the archives are digitized, their access can be controlled more easily and more extensively even to the point of excluding the archivist. By contrast, physical documents, which while closed to the public still exist in a tangible place accessible to the archivist. To put it directly, you cannot encrypt paper.


At a societal level, threats can occur when people no longer value or understand archives. The archive’s role in society may be misunderstood or overlooked. As a result, the lack of interest or understanding can generate threats to funding or access as society allows the archives to be closed. Moreover, the government may wish to close the archives as a way to ensure their arcana imperii remains protected to maintain their dominance within the political system.


The global level the threats can develop from an international or global resistance to openness. We can see this develop because of cultural reasons or for security reasons. In particular, in the West the fear how information will be used means that it is closed to those who might “abuse it”.[6] We note that scientists close their research to tobacco firms and scientists will sometimes close their research to rivals. Alternatively, the government or research sponsor may classify information to limit access. In some cases, the fear may lead to archives being closed to foreigners or to the public. Yet, these only relate to the archives themselves. We need to consider the other part of the issue the citizen’s right of access.

Part 2

threats to citizens’ rights to access public records

We can read the sentence narrowly to consider possible threats to a citizen’s rights. The focus is mainly, but not exclusively, on political threats where governments want to limit, or community, want to limit rights of access or society no longer supports or is informed enough to challenge the government’s proposal on access. Further, the threat may come from the society being unaware of or unconcerned with the government’s failure to ensure citizens’ rights of access. However, these were not the main concern as the focus was on the political and technical threats to access.

Are there political reasons why access is to be limited?

There may be political reasons for closing or limiting access as a regime is not required to have archives or to allow access even if it has archives. The question here is whether there is a right to access in itself or is access part of the nature of being a citizen especially in an open society? In the former, it is that if you have archives there is a right of access. Thus, if no archives exist you cannot have a right of access and even if there is an archive a right of access is not to be inferred. In the latter, it is that as a citizen, especially in an open society, you are expected to have right of access even if archives don’t exist. In that sense, an open society infers that archives will exist and are accessible. The premise is that free access to information is the basis for an open society, which extends to archives. Yet this brings us to the challenge mentioned earlier that the government may wish to make information open or accessible on its terms and not in response to what the public request. In other words, the government wants to be transparent but not open in the sense that it can be forced to given an account by providing access. The issue of “push” (government transparency) versus “pull” (citizen’s right of access) for the citizen rests on the understanding of whether accessible information is the same as open information. Further, information that is accessible may not be open as only a few people may have access it. The approval process can limit access beyond who can physically attend the location to access the information. When we discuss this issue, we are working from the assumption that the information is in an accessible format when someone exercises their right to access it.


As mentioned earlier under the archival threat to openness, a powerful patron or a politically powerful person may seek to limit what the archives contain. They may wish to hollow out the archives to avoid being accountable to history or anyone else. They will ensure documents are well vetted before they get to the archives, if they get to the archives. Once at the archives, they may put the archivists under pressure to accept limits on access. Alternatively, the powerful patron or political figure may encourage individual departments or agencies to limit their access to information or cleanse their records before it arrives at the archives. Although the conference did not explore this idea, the right of access can be threatened by political activity in which records “disappear” and people find that the historical record is sanitized so as to avoid embarrassment at a minimum or hide outright criminality at a maximum.

The deeper threat is that archivists become co-opted by the political process. The archives have to survive in a political system so they will accept such behaviour to protect the archives. The implicit fear is that if they insist too strongly on robust archival retention, their political masters will limit what they receive or limit their funding to operate. As it is their political masters, the government, an archivist has no higher authority to which they can appeal assuming they can make the higher authority see a concern with the issue. Would a national archivist in the UK really be able to face down a Minister who chose to limit what they would provide the National Archives? They may never face an obvious crisis like the Nordlinger Affair which is crude attempt to exert direct political control.[7] Instead, they will have the indirect request to allow greater oversight of the disclosure process or the request to improve the vetting process. All of this will appear to the archivist as a positive step even as it is attempt to encourage even greater political control over the archives by limiting what may be accessible in the future that might hold the government or the politically powerful person to account.

Does technology create a limit to a citizen’s right of access?

We have to consider whether the digital domain changes the nature of the right to access. There is a danger we can believe a right has been expanded through the appearance of openness created through greater access promised by the digital domain. According to this logic, a document can be accessed from anywhere in the world through the web, which makes access global. Yet, that same access can be limited more easily either through controlling the digital access or by keeping the records out of the digital domain. As the closure is less noticeable in that suspending digital access is not as prominent as physically closing a building, it becomes problematic to assume that digital intrinsically creates more openness. Moreover, one can target the closure to people from specific addresses or from certain domains where various login pages can limit access and access can be further limited to what can be searched electronically. By comparison coming into the archives one can have physical access to different documents and is only limited by what the available index allows. Further one has to explain the refusal in person when the digital domain does not require such a personal transaction, which can be open to negotiation or influence. A related problem is that the digital access may not work. In this case, the material that is held digitally is in a format that cannot be accessed. Here the problem is future compatibility. An electronic record from 1990 on a legacy system may not be accessible on a 2015 system. Thus, the technology may constrain the right of access. The technological obsolescence may limit or remove the right of access. Even though someone physically accesses the record, they cannot access the information that it contains.

What if openness is a threat? Can that explain why there are threats to access?

Another way to look at the threat to citizens’ rights of access is to consider how openness is considered a threat. By reversing the question, we can explore why individuals, organisations, societies, and governments would want to limit that openness.

The first point to note is that governments, societies, and individuals have legitimate reasons for keeping things inaccessible to the public or to citizens. Usually, these are state secrets or private information so they will not want to encourage access to these types of records. However, we have to be careful not to confuse the desire to preserve state secrets or personal information with a resistance to openness. The United States and the United Kingdom are open with a large amount of their data, information, and records. Even as they seek to preserve secrets, they also work to ensure openness, which is often manipulated so that critics will say that resistance to disclosing state secrets is considered a threat to openness. The problem is that one is a passive resistance, no access to state secrets, the other is active resistance your right to access is limited. In the UK, for example, the right of access to national security documents still exists as the FOIA can be used, yet it is limited by an absolute exemption.

The second point to note is that openness can be considered a threat to the extent that it would undermine legitimacy of the state, society, or the individual.[8] The openness here is considered corrosive of what provides legitimacy. If someone’s birth records show them to be illegitimate and thus not entitled to what they have claimed, they will want to resist openness. A government may do this when it fears that disclosure will undermine its ability to operate effectively. We can see this most clearly in the FOIA exemption under s.36 (harm to the effective public policy) the right of access is not in question, yet, but what is in used is that disclosure would hinder the government’s ability to operate. It would be tainted by publicity so the information takes on the veneer of arcana imperii

Finally, we have to consider that openness is a threat to those who rely on hidden information, the arcana imperii, that allow them to have an advantage. Here the issue is not so much that knowledge is power it is that limiting access to knowledge is what creates power. One can see this indirectly in the way that websites can limit access, which give them an advantage, which also limits rivals to their position. At a larger level we can see this in the way that certain regimes rely more on arcana imperii as they are not founded on principles that would benefit from openness. The idea here is that openness implies an equality, an equality of access in that it is a right, and therefore challenges the intrinsic inequality of the arcana imperii. Although all these points are made tentatively, since they were not addressed at the conference, they do suggest a possible area to investigate especially if we connect openness and threats to openness to the idea of the public domain whereby we assume that the public domain is open.


[2] All societies are closed to some extent which means that Bergson’s ideal is aspirational or theoretical except in the potential of a world state of enlightened citizens.

[3] ARCANUS IN TACITUS Author(s): Herbert W. Benario Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge, 106. Bd., 4. H. (1963), pp. 356-362 J.D. Sauerländers Verlag Stable URL: Accessed: 06-04-2015 23:51 UTC

In its other sense, arcanus indicates that which, regardless of chance, must be kept from knowledge, things tacenda or celanda. Whatever the reason, promulgation of these secrets would be disastrous, whether the important area be political or religious.

P360 “Here we have one of the keys to power, the ability – and the need – to conceal what is necessary from the general eye. And the verb vulgärentur is instructive; we have met it twice before. The value of arcana is exclusively political here; what is referred to must be tacenda.

Tacenda means Tacenda are things not to be mentioned or made public—things better left unsaid; tacit means “unspoken, silent” or “implied, inferred.” (accessed 7 April 2015)

[4] The arcana imperii can also describe secrets of nature. If man can unlock those secrets, it is believed he can control nature in the way that man controls man when he knows their secrets or possess secret information that they cannot know.

[5] “Thus the study of arcana imperii stressed not only the empirical collection of knowledge as the basis of politics, but the clever management of that knowledge.” Mining Tacitus: secrets of empire, nature and art in the reason of state Vera KellerThe British Journal for the History of Science / Volume 45 / Special Issue 02 / June 2012, pp 189 – 212 DOI: 10.1017/S0007087412000076, Published online: 20 March 2012

Link to this article: p191

[6] The Congressional Record Service (CRS) used to publish its reports on the internet. However, Congress after 11 September attacks, ordered that they are no longer published on the internet. Even though other organisations such as Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) publish them on their own initiative, Congress’s decision has reduced access.


[8] The example of Athens vs Socrates is such an example as the city could not tolerate openness beyond a point where its identity or legitimacy was in question.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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