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Data Protection: Archivists, Historians and Researching Twentieth-Century History

11 December 2003
Organisers: Christine Woodland, Hilary Marland and Mathew Thomson

The Modern Records Centre and the Centre for the History of Medicine, both at Warwick, held a one-day workshop on Data Protection: Archivists, Historians and Researching Twentieth-Century History, 11 December 2003 at the Modern Records Centre.

The morning was organised around the theme of the implications of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order of 2000. In brief, the DPA makes individual researchers responsible for any personal data concerning living individuals that they take away from the archives. The researcher is then responsible for ensuring the data are not processed to support measures or decisions with respect to particular individuals, that the data are not used in a way that could cause substantial distress or damage, and that the results are not made available in a form which identifies any subject data. Also personal data may not be transferred outside the European Economic Area.

Susan Healey of the PRO discussed the implications of the Act and how it will impact on historical research; and Catherine Redfern, also of the PRO, reported on the draft guidance on access to health records, once the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) comes into operation. One crucial point is that DPA applies only while the subject is alive, and real difficulties arise where health records of the dead are concerned. The aim of the morning was to educate ourselves on the implications of the Act and also to move towards developing protocols for working within the Act, which was discussed at the end of the afternoon.

The afternoon session broadened the discussion out to focus on the issues and ethics connected to working with historical sources in the twentieth century, particularly in the field of the history of medicine to sensitive material relating to individuals (Professor Virginia Berridge, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), and on the rise of information gathering in the modern state, increasing public disquiet about information handling, and experiences of closing medical records (Dr Eddy Higgs, University of Essex).


10.30 Coffee

11.00-12.30 Susan Healey (The National Archives) ‘The Implications of the Data Protection Act’ (this will include a group session working with examples)

12.30-13.15 Catherine Redfern (The National Archives) ‘Draft Guidelines for Access to Health Records once FOI comes into Operation’

13.15-2.00 Lunch

14.00-15.00 Research in Twentieth-Century History:

Virginia Berridge (LSHTM) ‘Doing Contemporary History: For and Against?’

Eddy Higgs (University of Essex) ‘State Information Gathering in Britain and its Discontents: Some Introductory Comments’

15.00-15.30 Tea

15.30-16.30 ‘Codes of Practice: Moving towards Formulating Guidelines for Researchers’