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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.

Letter Text

To the owners and managers of the Detainee Allies Letter Collection,

We appreciate the presentation shared by Lisa Lamont at the Digital Library Federation Forum (DLF Forum 2019) on Tuesday, October 15, 2019 entitled, “Documenting Detention: The Complexities of Digitizing the Living Archive of a Vulnerable Community.” We acknowledge that it takes significant amounts of time, energy, and emotional labor to present on a topic that is not only highly political in nature, but also engaged in human rights discourse and the possible violation of those rights.

Though the questions immediately following this presentation were not numerous, many of us have now had time to reflect on the presentation, the questions it raises, and their ethical and material implications. As cultural heritage and information professionals, we have a history of being strong advocates for personal privacy and protection, rights and permissions, and for serving as responsible stewards of myriad forms of information. In this letter, we the signees defend these values and respectfully request for reasons detailed below that you remove the Otay Mesa Detention Center digital collection from an openly accessible online environment.

The Otay Mesa digital collection, as represented in the presentation and with investigation afterwards, violates many of the tenets of responsible stewardship. This includes, but is not limited to: Identity protection— though the PII of the writers has been redacted, other information could be triangulated and used to identify the writer or their families, with unknown repercussions; or, law enforcement could arbitrarily punish anyone for their perceived likeness to letter writers (based on country of origin or other factors). Additionally, this is a form of human data collection of a most vulnerable population. Were this project, its metadata practices, and the resulting digital collection to be brought to a reviewing body of ethical data management (including, but not limited to Institutional Review Boards, and other data management organizations), it would likely not pass review without serious revisions to the collection, preservation, and dissemination of this data. The initial use of a Google spreadsheet for metadata that includes multiple forms of personally identifiable information (name, country of origin, “alien” number, commissary number, etc.) runs counter to best practices for sensitive data collection. The subsequent deletion of the spreadsheet from SDSU Google drives does not mean that this data is no longer accessible by Google, able to be subpoenaed, etc. Copyright violation and consent—implied consent by the creators of the letters is not consent and does not meet basic standards of fair use or copyright law. It should also be taken into consideration that lack of definitive consent from letter writers with low literacy levels should not be interpreted as implied consent. We are concerned that the non-redacted files are vulnerable to subpoena or theft by groups that could further harm the detained people and their families. The risks of online open access to these letters outweigh the potential benefits. Properly redacted [PDF] letters could be accessed in reading rooms, shared with allied groups and defenders of detainees’ rights, used in classrooms, or included in exhibits without being made available online, thus accomplishing the goals of the project.

We, the signees, respectfully request that this digital collection be removed from an online environment, and ask that the collection only be made available on an un-networked computer. To protect the identity of the letter writers, we also request that you remove from a networked environment any spreadsheets containing identifying information, and destroy all such identifying information; letter writers should also be encouraged not to self-identify for further security, as the physical collections can be subpoenaed by government officials. Furthermore, like the physical collection of letters that has been embargoed for 70 years, the resulting digital collection should also have an embargo of 70-120 years from the date of creation placed on it.

As cultural heritage and information professionals occupying positions of relative privilege and power, we need to prioritize the protection of the rights and safety of our patrons, collection donors, and, especially, of collection creators—those whose stories and voices are contained in our collections, but often without their knowledge or consent, and who are historically most at risk of being marginalized, mistreated, and silenced.

Responsible stewardship is at the core of our profession, and we must pursue practices that privilege such a value without exception, especially when vulnerable individuals have unwittingly put their trust in our hands. We hope that your institution will strongly reconsider how this digital collection is made available and maintained both currently, and through its continued evolution and growth as a living archive.

With thanks for your careful consideration,

  • Sidney Gao, Digital Imaging Coordinator, University of Cincinnati
  • Hannah Stitzlein, Metadata and Repository Services Librarian, University of Cincinnati
  • Jenna Freedman, Associate Director of Communications and Zine Librarian, Barnard College
  • Carmen Mitchell, Scholarly Communication Librarian, California State University San Marcos
  • Sean Crowe, Digital Analyst & Developer Librarian, University of Cincinnati
  • Gabe Galson, Technology Projects Librarian, Temple University
  • Cathy Aster, Product & Service Manager, Stanford University
  • James Van Mil, Digital Projects & Preservation Librarian, University of Cincinnati
  • Cecily Marcus, Curator, University of Minnesota
  • Raquel Donahue, Reference & Instruction Librarian, Prairie View A&M University
  • Ayla Stein Kenfield, Repository Services Librarian & Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Dinah Handel, Digitization Services Manager, Stanford University
  • Sandy Rodriguez, Assistant Dean of Special Collections & Archives, University of Missouri--Kansas City
  • Rachel Mattson, Curator, University of Minnesota
  • Alexis Logsdon, Librarian, University of Minnesota
  • Rachel Appel, Digital Projects & Services Librarian, Temple University
  • Dorothea Salo, Distinguished Faculty Associate, Information School, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Tara Robertson, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Mozilla
  • Mark A. Matienzo, Assistant Director for Digital Strategy and Access, Stanford University Libraries
  • Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Distinguished University Professor, University of South Florida, School of Information
  • Jamie Carlstone, Authority Metadata Librarian, Northwestern University
  • Kerri Willette, Senior Consultant, AVP
  • Gina Petersen, Assessment Librarian, Northwestern University
  • Eira Tansey, Digital Archivist/Records Manager, University of Cincinnati
  • Sandy Enriquez, Special Collections Public Services, Outreach & Community Engagement Librarian, University of California Riverside
  • Mary Kidd, Systems and Operations Coordinator, NYPL
  • Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, UC Irvine Libraries
  • Anastasia Chiu, Stony Brook University Libraries
  • Hanni Nabahe, University of Virginia Libraries
  • April Hathcock, Director of Scholarly Communications & Information Policy, New York University Libraries
  • Lindsay Olson, Metadata Librarian, Northeastern University
  • Amy Wickner, University of Maryland Libraries
  • Torie Quiñonez, Librarian, California State University San Marcos
  • Brandon Locke, Educopia Institute
  • Jeanine Finn, Claremont Colleges Library
  • Itza Carbajal, Latin American Metadata Librarian, University of Texas Austin
  • Monique Lassere, Digital Preservation Librarian, University of Arizona
  • Krista Oldham, University Archivist, Clemson University