Tag Archives: archives

How much privacy do we owe to Civil War soldiers?

This story out of Connecticut is more than a little bizarre.

The state mental health commissioner is fighting efforts by freedom of information advocates to undo a law — which they say passed under last-minute, “murky circumstances” in 2011 — that blocks historians’ research into Civil War soldiers afflicted with what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the state FOI Commission and the Connecticut State Library all gave legislative testimony this past week in favor of H.B. 5124, a bill that would change the law so that medical and mental-health records could be released 50 years after the death of the person involved.

History professor Matthew Warshauer of Central Connecticut State University also testified and said that the state’s position is frustrating valuable historical research into the treatment of veterans a century before the term PTSD was invented to describe the lingering results of wartime trauma.

Warshauer and his students have fought in recent years for access to state mental hospital records of Civil War veterans. They prevailed in a 2010 case at the FOI Commission, which ordered release of the records. But the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) fought back in a different way, persuading legislative leaders to tuck the current prohibition into a 98-section public health bill in the 2011 end-of-legislative-session rush.

Why the sensitivity about Civil War-era medical records, you ask?

Rehmer said in her testimony: “Though the individuals … are deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed.”

…Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., said, “While historical accounts of what treatment entailed fifty years ago would be valuable to the public — releasing the names of individuals involved with psychiatric services will result in discrimination against their relatives.”

Historians shouldn’t be allowed to access the mental health records of Civil War soldiers because it will result in discrimination against their relatives? Can anybody out there actually imagine a scenario where that would be possible?  Is somebody going to get turned down on a job application because his great-great-grandfather developed PTSD after the Overland Campaign?

Look, I think we can all agree that people’s health records should be kept private for a good, long while after their death. But in this case we’re talking about a span of multiple generations.  Indeed, many Americans do not even know the names of their Civil War ancestors, let alone harbor any sensitivity over those ancestors’ mental state.

Is fifty years after someone’s death too soon to open their private records to the public? Maybe, maybe not. But I dare say that a century is quite enough water under the bridge.  Amend the legislation accordingly and open those files.

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Returning the souvenirs from Barry and Jason’s excellent adventure

The items Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff swiped from some two dozen archival repositories are gradually making their way back home.

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More good news

The Georgia State Archives won’t be closing after all.  This is shaping up to be a pretty good Christmas for all us history buffs.

Oh, and the world didn’t end yesterday.  So there’s that, too.

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Hope you weren’t planning on doing research at the Georgia State Archives

As of November 1, the Georgia State Archives are closed to the public.  Open access hours aren’t being reduced, mind you—they’re being eliminated entirely.  You’ll need an appointment to use a state’s main archival repository.  Appointments will be limited, of course, based on the availability of the remaining staff.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Georgia’s fiscal situation, but I’d imagine $30 million would go a long way toward helping the public servants at the archives keep their jobs.  That’s the amount Delta Airlines got in tax breaks authorized by Gov. Nathan Deal last year.  Two weeks after Deal signed off on that, he and his wife received preferred customer benefits from Delta worth some $8,000 consisting of “free upgrades when seats are available, Sky Club membership, bonus miles, priority check-in and boarding, fee waivers and more,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  A spokesman called the perks a “contribution to the state of Georgia.”  Deal will only utilize his seat upgrades and priority check-in while traveling on official business, you see.  Georgians who are unable to access their public records can thus take comfort in knowing that the governor’s check-in at the Delta counter has been expedited.

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Who benefits from state archives? Not just historians

Try as I might, I still can’t manage to suppress my irritation at some of the thick-headed arguments being espoused in favor of slashing the Tennessee State Library and Archives budget.

Last time I quoted one Concerned Citizen who remarked, in response to Mark Cheathem’s pro-TSLA editorial, that he was being asked to pay taxes to support a service that would benefit someone else.  Since this is basically how taxation works, it’s a rather odd argument.  It’s odd also because the fellow is assuming that academic researchers are TSLA’s main—if not sole—constituency.

Here’s a nugget of wisdom from another commenter: “By the way, this article does fail to point out one group that will be dramatically affected by libraries closing: The Homeless. At least in Nashville, they used the library more than anyone else and form a line on Church Street every morning – I guess Homeless people read more than most of us.”  I guess they do, since they’re informed enough to be able to distinguish between TSLA and the regular public library—a distinction that the commenter is apparently unable to make.

Another reader stated that institutions like libraries “are non-critical even if very desirable. They should all be at the front of items to be cut to balance a budget.”  Let me submit to you that archives are more than “very desirable.”  Indeed, preserving and maintaining records has been a function of governments since the days of the first civilizations.  This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; this is an obligation to society thing.

It seems that too many of us are simply ignorant of the scale of contributions that institutions like TSLA provide.  So here, for the enlightenment of those who think the state archives exist only for the benefit of researchers and history buffs, is a sampling of some services we Tennesseans enjoy thanks to these folks:

  • TSLA administers the Tennessee Electronic Library, an online collection of hundreds of thousands of reference resources provided free of charge to the state’s schools, libraries, and colleges.  For all these institutions to pay for this service on their own, the cost would be over $90 million annually, but TEL pays $1.5 million per year to provide this material at no cost to the state’s citizens.  TEL users conduct over 30 million online searches every year.
  • TSLA conducts free workshops for Tennesseans who are trying to trace their family history and provides information on preserving family records and materials.
  • TSLA provides a free library service geared specifically toward the blind and visually impaired, providing braille and large print materials to Tennesseans who would not otherwise have access to this reading material.
  • The Archives Development program makes TSLA’s expertise available to smaller repositories throughout the state, ensuring that local and county records are maintained for the benefit of people who live in these communities.
  • TSLA’s Education Outreach program provides teachers and children with access to primary source material for use in the classroom, which is a tremendous enhancement to Tennessee education provided without cost on the part of county or city schools.

I could go on, but the point should be clear.  State archives and library facilities do more than give us history nuts a place to do research.  Schoolkids, teachers, local officials, and the disabled are just a few of the other groups that benefit from these facilities, even if they never set foot in the facilities themselves.

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Unexpected risks of archival work

…now include exposure to radioactive material.  Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about eyestrain from microfilm readers.

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More ominous news

…for history institutions, and this time it’s in my home state.  Gordon Belt has the details.

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