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Open Letter on the San Diego State University Library Detainee Allies Letter Collection

Statement from the Government Records Transparency and Accountability Group

Posted below is an open letter addressed to the Owners and Managers of the Otay Mesa Detention Center digital collection. The letter was authored and signed by a group of individuals, many of whom attended a session at the 2019 Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum (Tampa, Florida, October 2019) which included a presentation about the Detainee Allies Letter Collection ( –– an online collection of letters written by people detained in immigration prisons in California, curated by archivists at San Diego State University. This presentation introduced attendees to the project and considered the “complex ethical and legal issues and ever-evolving workflow of digitizing and providing public access to such a collection.” Over the course of the presentation and the Q&A that followed, several members of the audience grew concerned and began to raise questions about the security and privacy of the individuals (all of whom are immigrants detained in immigration prisons) who had authored the letters contained in the collection. They were also concerned about other issues, including the possibility that information contained in these letters could be misused by state agents such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shortly afterwards, a group representing the letter writers approached the DLF Government Records Transparency & Accountability interest group to ask that we consider hosting the letter on our wiki, as the issues at hand intersect with our focus on open records culture and the possible misuse of public data sets by government entities in ways that can cause harm to vulnerable members of our communities.

After reflection, we have agreed to host this letter here in order to raise awareness and promote discussion about the complex security and privacy issues that this online collection raises. Issues of consent, autonomy, and the ethics of creating and publishing online archival materials containing potentially sensitive information about vulnerable individuals in our society are of paramount importance to our communities.

The fact that the Government Records Transparency and Accountability interest group is hosting this letter on our wiki does not constitute an endorsement of the letter, either by this group or the Digital Library Federation. The membership of the GRTA group holds a wide range of opinions on the issues at stake with this collection and the letter itself, and has not collectively agreed to sign on to it. Indeed, the authors of the letter did not seek a unanimous agreement from our group on the letter’s contents; they simply requested that we host it for public accessibility.

The volunteer leads of GRTA have agreed to host this letter because we believe that it raises questions that are of enormous consequence for the work of digital library professionals. Although this case does not feature materials that would qualify as “government records” under the traditional definition of that term, the issues at hand here are deeply connected to the broad mission of our group: to our interest in provoking conversations about the relationship between records transparency, accountability, and justice in a digital age, as well as our stated desire to “bring conversations about transparency and accountability into our schools, workplaces, and professional communities.”

In the interest of raising awareness and enabling thoughtful discussion, we encourage our community to read the letter below and to engage with existing scholarship and conversation around digital privacy and our ethical responsibilities to vulnerable communities represented in our archives. We have listed a small number of readings below; but there are many, many more works that address these questions, including guidance from and writing about institutional review boards and working with ‘vulnerable populations,’ and professional forums for practitioners working with community-based collections.

Selected readings

  • Bernd-Klodt, M., & Wosh, P. (Eds.). (2005). Privacy and Confidentiality Perspectives: Archivists and Archival Records. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists.
  • Dressler, V. (2018). Framing Privacy in Digital Collections with Ethical Decision Making. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers.
  • Jules, B., Summers, E., and Mitchell, Jr., V. (2018). Documenting The Now White Paper: Ethical Considerations for Archiving Social Media Content Generated by Contemporary Social Movements: Challenges Opportunities, and Recommendations.

Open Letter on the San Diego State University Library Detainee Allies Letter Collection