In 2019, the Society of American Archivists’ Privacy and Confidentiality Steering Committee surveyed SAA members with the goal of identifying current practices and concerns across the field regarding archival access restrictions. Survey results yielded rich and sometimes contradicting information about how archivists approach access restrictions in theory and practice. The authors explore the survey methodology and results. Key observations include the ubiquity of restricted collections across archival repositories; the influence of donors on repositories’ restriction decisions; and variances in approaches to administering, tracking, and lifting expired restrictions.

Not having a comprehensive codified professional standard for privacy and restrictions is entirely understandable, since access restrictions often are deeply dependent on individual circumstances, legal gray areas, state-specific mandates, and emotional quagmires. Individual archivists confronted with privacy and confidentiality issues must draw upon a patchwork of archival guidelines and published resources, legal precedents, case studies, institutional counsel, and informal peer advice to make their best informed choices, with ramifications that could include jeopardy of their own employment. The weight of these decisions is evident in survey results. The authors recommend the development of more robust profession-wide guidance and decision-making tools around this topic to help archivists more confidently navigate these difficult decisions.