Closed Access – discontents.pdf (1.26 MB)

Closed access

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journal contribution
posted on 17.12.2016 by Tim Sherratt
Paper presented at Digital Humanities Australasia, 22 June 2016, Hobart.


We talk freely about online access within the cultural heritage sector, but the politics of access are complex. The supposed democratising effects of easy access to cultural collections are undercut by economic inequalities and technological barriers. The nature of open access is challenged by Indigenous groups seeking to gain or maintain control over their own culture. The meaning of access is also defined by legislative frameworks that control the release of government information.

Under the Australian Archives Act 1983 most Commonwealth records are opened to public scrutiny after twenty years (this was reduced from thirty years in 2010). But the Act also defines 'exempt' records that can be withheld from the public for a variety of reasons, including the defence of national security, and the protection of individual privacy. Access under the Act is not an inevitable destination, but a process that may result in records with the access status of 'closed'.

This paper reports on research into the nature of 'closed access' within the holdings of the National Archives of Australia.

Basic metadata describing 'closed' files is available through the National Archives' online database RecordSearch; although in some cases even the file's title is too sensitive to release. However, the RecordSearch interface is limited, making it impossible, for example, to search for files by categories of exemption as defined under the Act. To allow for more detailed analysis, the metadata of more than 10,000 closed files was harvested from RecordSearch by screenscraping.

This paper will analyse the metadata to reveal, for example, the picture of 'national security' that emerges from the records supposed to threaten it. Notably, many records are not 'closed' under the categories defined by the Archives Act at all, with the fate of a significant proportion waiting upon advice from other government agencies.

This illustrates the paper's central argument, that access is best understood as a process, rather than a state. 'Closed access' is a convenient story that emerges at the intersection of political policy and bureaucratic practice. Understanding the complexities of this process enables us to demonstrate the constructed nature of information systems that limit our ability to scrutinise the workings of government.

In a world where the idea of the 'secret' still holds immense cultural power, it is important to reveal how 'secrets' are manufactured through bureaucratic systems of classification and control.