January 26, 2021

Association of Research Libraries Files Amicus Brief in Michigan Supreme Court Case Ahmad v. University of Michigan

From an ARL News Release:

Today the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) filed an amicus brief in the Michigan Supreme Court case Ahmad v. University of Michigan, a case involving the use of a public records request to circumvent a deed of gift, which is a contract that libraries and archives routinely negotiate with donors and that sets the conditions of access to donated papers.

The decision to file this brief  was not an easy one given both the subject matter and the individual in question. However, issues concerning donated papers and other sensitive materials of deceased individuals often have a serious impact on living individuals, and vulnerable and marginalized populations. Additionally, this case could impact the future preservation of papers and documents needed for research, teaching, and preservation of the cultural and historical record.

Ahmad v. Michigan involves an immigration attorney trying to gain access to the papers of John Tanton. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tanton “was the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” Parts of the Tanton papers are restricted under the deed of gift with the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, and can’t be made public until 2035. ARL disavows Tanton’s philosophies and contributions to anti-immigrant policies in the strongest possible terms. “ARL did not get involved in this case to protect John Tanton or his legacy,” said Mary Lee Kennedy, executive director of ARL. “As the brief states, archivists typically prefer to make materials publicly available as soon as possible, but they understand that they need to sometimes agree to access restrictions in order to secure the materials in the first place.”

ARL, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Historical Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the University of California Libraries, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Library, and the University of Iowa Libraries filed the brief to explain to the court that personal papers sometimes contain sensitive information that could compromise living subjects if made public. In such cases, libraries agree to accept papers but not make them publicly available for research for a period of time. These arrangements are particularly important to preserve historical documents and materials needed for research and for protecting vulnerable individuals and populations who may be referenced in those collections.

ARL’s overarching concern in this case is that an adverse outcome for the University of Michigan could set precedent for other states with public records laws, effectively invalidating past deeds of gift that public institutions have negotiated with donors and preventing future donors from trusting public institutions with sensitive material.

Learn More, Read the Complete News Release

Direct to Full Text of Amicus Brief

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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