Lorrie Dong 2016-07-11 12:58:26
The first mental health institution to exclusively care for African Americans after the Civil War recently received needed digital treatment for its sensitive records. Thanks to a three-year $763,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the spring of 2015, three faculty members in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin developed a digital archives that will preserve and provide access to a collection of historical records from Central State Hospital, a nearly 150-year-old mental institution in Petersburg, Virginia. Two team members—Patricia Galloway (co-principal investigator) and Lorrie Dong (post-doctoral researcher)—are providing the archival perspective to this interdisciplinary endeavor. Goals for the project include the creation of a dark archives and an online portal that will offer tiered access to handwritten records, many of which contain sensitive personal information that carry legal restrictions. Central State Hospital, formerly called the Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane, was created at the end of the Civil War by the Virginia state government under pressure from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The hospital was the first mental health institution to exclusively treat African Americans. Along with other medical facilities and educational institutions, it was built to serve the needs of newly freed slaves in the South, and it was one of the few state mental facilities for African Americans throughout the “separate but equal” Jim Crow years. The hospital was desegregated in 1968, and today continues to provide mental healthcare to the state. The University of Texas project is particularly unique due to the many institutional and individual entities, including the hospital administration, who are active participants in the development of the digital archives. Balancing Access with Privacy The ethical considerations involved in providing digital access to hospital records—and thus increasing the potential to expose sensitive health information—is always at the forefront for the Central State Hospital project team. Beyond the Virginia state laws that dictate when and what information from psychiatric facility records is open to the public, the team is also guided by the multiple stakeholders whose lives and livelihoods may be affected by the historical records and the project’s goal to facilitate access to the collection. These individuals and groups include patients’ relatives, the current and former staff members at the hospital, the state archives, and the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. On one hand, the team is striving to provide information about and digital access to records that would otherwise be unavailable in their original paper format. The digitized records can provide invaluable longitudinal information to social historians, epidemiologists, and genealogists, among others. Both Galloway and Dong are working to ensure that the records will be contextualized in the digital archives. By providing historical context to the records’ contents and forms, they can assist future researchers in understanding the available information, even when certain information remains restricted. On the other hand, the intended digital infrastructure for the collection will maintain a level of privacy protection that goes beyond existing state and federal laws. Another team member and iSchool professor, Unmil Karadkar, is developing customizable digital tools that will be able to search and redact information according to current legal restrictions and the identity of the information seeker. Potential Digital Tools With the cooperation of state archives across the U.S., Galloway is surveying technological and staffing capacities to implement digital projects similar to the one for Central State Hospital. The potential outcome is a set of digital tools that would help archives make collections with challenging privacy issues more readily discoverable and potentially available for use. For more information on the project, go to www.coloredinsaneasylums.org or contact Patricia Galloway at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
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