Letters Intended for Someone Else: Ethical Reflections on Access to Historical Experience in Private Collections

Guest post by Johanna Sköld, Karin Osvaldsson Cromdal and Klara Andersson. Child Studies Unit, Department of Thematic Studies and the Department of Social and Welfare Studies, Linköping University, Sweden.

E-mail: johanna.skold@liu.se

In her famous work Dust: Archive and the Cultural History (2001), Carolyn Steedman stated that “the Historian who goes to the Archive must always be an unintended reader, will always read that which was never intended for his or her eyes.” (Steedman 2001: 75). The fact that we are the unintended readers have ethical consequences, especially when the sources concern experiences of sensitive personal matters. In Sweden, when accumulating such sources from an archive, access will be regulated by rules enforced by law or by the archive.[1] In order to safeguard the integrity of the historical subjects the archive might allow restricted access to sources, for example by redacting any personal information in the data made available to the researcher. However, when using private collections that are not stored in an archive, no professional gatekeeper is present to safeguard the integrity of the historical subjects. Instead we must rely on our own ethical judgements. Moreover, in several countries, ethical vetting boards now also have to approve of research projects on sensitive matters that involve individual historical – though possibly still living – actors. But what if the historian’s ethical judgement conflicts with the ethical vetting board’s? What happens to historical research if we adjust our knowledge interests towards queries and sources ethical vetting boards are likely to approve? In this blog post we discuss two cases from Sweden where the Regional Ethical Vetting Board at Linköping University has evaluated two research projects, which have dealt with letters in private collections. The respective decision processes illustrate the dilemmas and problems that the process of ethical vetting might pose to historians.

According to the Swedish Ethical Review Act, any research that contains sensitive personal information about individuals must be approved by an Ethical Vetting Board (§ 3 SFS 2003:460), which in turn bases its decision on whether the risks the research poses for research subjects’ health, safety and personal integrity are outweighed by the research project’s scientific value (§ 9). If the research involves physical intervention, or if it is conducted by a method that either affects the individual physically or mentally, or entails an obvious risk of harming the individual physically or mentally, informed consent from the individual is required (§4, §16-22). The definition of sensitive personal information was given by the Personal Records Act (SFS 1988:204) until May 25 2018, then replaced by the European union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Both legislations define sensitive personal information as racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, membership of a trade union, health or a person’s sex life or sexual orientation.[2] Consequently, the introduction of GDPR did not change much for Swedish scholars in this regard. However, as the two case studies below show, it is important that historians are proactive and challenge the premises for what ethically sound research entails, as ethical regulations are rooted in medicine and not in the history discipline (Colnerud 2014).[3]

The first case – Children’s rights in society (BRIS)

Image of BRIS Telephone
Link to BRIS homepage

Our first case concerns letters from children to the Swedish child rights organization BRIS (Children’s rights in society). This organization was founded in 1971 as a reaction against cases of physical child abuse in Sweden. BRIS was involved in the drafting of the corporal punishment ban, enforced in 1979 as the first corporal punishment ban in the world. However, BRIS is more famous for its Kids’ helpline, which the organization established in 1980. Through the helpline (nowadays not only by phone, but also email and chat) BRIS has become an important channel for children’s voices. The organization also advocates children’s rights in the Swedish public. By cataloguing the issues children bring to the fore when they contact the helpline, BRIS has developed a system for representing children’s voices.

When we visited BRIS’ central office in 2016 looking for data for a research project, we came across a bunch of letters written by children in the 1970s and early 80s to one of BRIS’ founders – the famous children’s literature author Gunnel Linde. We quickly realized that this was an important finding: By these letters we would be able to identify what issues children themselves thought would be important for BRIS to be aware of before the Kids’ helpline was even established. Inasmuch as the letters may have concerned individual children’s problems and calls for help, the letters may also contain children’s views on what issues a child rights organization ought to engage in. As BRIS is an organization of adults working for children it is important from a child studies scholar point of view to critically discuss how children’s voices are represented.

BRIS has not donated their documents to any archive. All material is stored at the central office in Stockholm. By the first time we visited BRIS, the material was stored in the basement, together with old furniture and boxes of campaign material. Access to the letters demanded BRIS’ permission as well as their assistance to let us in in the storage room. However, access is also regulated by the ethical legislation we must follow as researchers.

The ethical regulations’ emphasis on informed consent poses challenges to historians. In our case the letters were written decades ago (40 years back), and they were often signed with the child’s first name only. In our application to the Regional Ethical Vetting Board we argued that while the letters may contain sensitive personal information, the probability of being able to identify any individual in the material was quite limited and informed consent therefore was a) not justified, and b) impossible to obtain. We stressed that we would not disclose any information that could be connected to any individual in our publications, and that we were interested in finding out which themes were mentioned in the letters – not in how individual children described their problems. However, the Regional Ethical Vetting Board was not persuaded by our arguments. They asked us to complement our application reflecting on the following questions:

The researchers should reflect on the risk that the now adult research subjects can suffer mental harm by knowing that their letters with sensitive issues have been studied by researchers, without their consent […]  The researchers should reflect on how children’s and young people’s confidence in BRIS can be affected in the future if it becomes known that researchers have had access to children’s and young people’s letters without their consent, even if the letters are anonymized.

These remarks implied that informed consent was the only way forward. This was impossible for us – the letters did simply not contain enough information to identify each writer so we could contact them and ask if they were ok with us taking part of their letters. Moreover, had we been able to identify a couple of individuals and contacted them, we would have risked harming their integrity by disclosing that we knew that they had written letters to BRIS 40 years back. We thus found ourselves caught in a catch 22-situation.

The second question indicated that the Regional Ethical Vetting Board treated BRIS as research subject that required similar ethical considerations as research on any living human. If we got access to the letters, this might harm BRIS’ future reputation amongst children, the Ethical Vetting Board speculated. The fact that BRIS had given us access and that they were interested in our research was apparently irrelevant. Despite our efforts to clarify our ethical reflections around the issue, the Regional Ethical Vetting Board turned down our application for ethical approval arguing that “the scientific value of the research does not outweigh the risks that the project might entail for the research subjects’ health, safety and integrity” with reference to § 9 of the Ethical Review Act. Moreover, the Regional Vetting Board argued that no such research was allowed without informed consent from the research subjects.

If this reject decision had set precedence for the handling of historical letters with sensitive information, this would have endangered any future attempt by historians to access written records of past experiences in private collections. However, we appealed against the decision to the Central Ethical Vetting Board, and eventually got approval. The Central Board did not find that § 4 was applicable to our project, and therefore informed consent was not required. But by the time we received the approval, the project period was nearly up, and we did not have time to study the letters.

The second case – the children’s hotels

Korsnäsverkens Barnpensionat Kärradal

Our second case deals with letters that a journalist received after a radio broadcast about so-called children’s hotels (Sw barnpensionat) in the 1990s. This collection of letters, stored in the journalist’s home, were written by adults with childhood experiences of being sent away to such children’s hotels. For a research project in which we aim to investigate private out-of-home care arrangements, these letters contain very valuable information. The journalist had promised us access to the letters. However, as the letters may contain sensitive personal information about the authors, we sought ethical approval for this project as well – this time after the enforcement of GDPR in 2018. Once again, we argued that seeking informed consent from people who wrote these letters 20 years ago would not be possible due to incomplete information about full names, addresses etc. We also emphasized the risk of interfering with integrity if we contact people asking them for their consent to read their letters. Instead, we suggested that we would anonymize the letters before analyzing them. However, as the letters are stored in a private home, the anonymization cannot be carried out at site. The letters must be transferred to the university first. Moreover, since the anonymization will be conducted by us – the researchers – a total anonymization is not possible. If the letters had been stored in an archive, the anonymization would have been carried out by professional archivists before handling the data over to researchers. But private collections do not come with such facilities.

This time the Regional Ethical Vetting Board approved our application. It is of course satisfying that the vetting board found our argumentation sufficient to safeguard the ethical principles, but it is fascinating that similar ethical dilemmas (private collections of letters with sensitive personal information where informed consent is difficult to achieve) have been assessed quite differently by the same regional vetting board.

Is anonymization an ethical solution?

The ethical dilemmas historians face cannot be reduced to informed consent or anonymization (Vehkalahti 2016). In the second project where we adjusted our data collection towards anonymization in order to satisfy the principles that guide the Ethical Vetting Board, one might reasonably question whether anonymization is the most ethically accurate response. People who listened to the radio broadcast about the children’s hotels, and then wrote about their own experiences of having resided in such a place and sent it to a journalist may not have wished for anonymity. In fact, our experiences from addressing difficult life narratives in history have demonstrated that people often want to have their narratives acknowledged. By anonymizing the historical subjects, the archive our research project will create will be full of anonymous voices, not individuals. Those who devoted time to write down their narratives on which our research depends will never earn the credit they deserve.

So how can letters intended for someone else be used in research projects that require anonymization in order to address ethical principles, while at the same time creating another dilemma: that people’s personal narratives become stripped from everything that is personal? Or put differently: Researchers working with historical data need to be attentive to how ethical regulation created with medicine in focus, might result in new ethical dilemmas.

References:

Colnerud, G. (2014). “Ethical dilemmas in research in relation to ethical review: An empirical study” in Research Ethics, Vol. 10 Issue 4, 238-253.

Steedman, C. (2001). Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Vehkalahti, K. (2016). Dusting the archives of childhood: child welfare records as historical sources. History of Education, 45(4), 430–445


[1] Access to official documents in state administrative archives is regulated by Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act (SFS 2009:400), and access to private archives stored in a public archive is , are regulated by agreements between the donor and the public archive.

[2] GDPR also include genetic data and biometric data ”that uniquely identifies a person” as sensitive personal information, see https://www.datainspektionen.se/other-lang/in-english/the-general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr/sensitive-personal-data/ (accessed 20190401).

[3] It should be noted that since our two cases were evaluated, a new state authority – the so called Swedish Ethical Review Authority has replaced the regional Ethical Vetting Boards from January 1st 2019. 

Do Mothers have a Right to Secrecy rather than Privacy?

Reflections on Family Secrecy around Danish German Children Born of War

Martina Koegeler-Abdi

Danish mothers often hid the identity of a biological father from their child, if the father in question was a German soldier during the WWII Occupation. Even as adults many of these children born of war (chibows) did not know about their fathers’ identities. Sometimes children would develop suspicions, based on gossip and rumors circulating around them. Mothers, though, in most cases chose to bury this secret.[1] In this situation mothers and children face an ethical dilemma. A mother’s right to privacy about these deeply personal (and, back then, often shameful) experiences comes up against the child’s right to information about their biological father. This ethical dilemma is also not easily resolved by the mere fact of revelation.

Lotte Tarp, a Danish actress and child born of war, describes in her memoir – det sku’ nødig hedde sig (1999) how secrecy around her German father’s identity burdened her relationship with her mother Åse. Once she finally confronted her mother as an adult woman and learned the truth, however, the burden did not disappear. On the contrary, when Lotte started to search for her biological family on her own, Åse became uneasy and did not actively support the search. By uncovering her family secret, Lotte was intruding into and taking part in her mother’s private history, making it her own.[2]  

How we understand secrecy and privacy here matters. They are not identical concepts, but closely tied to each other. In most general terms, both concepts limit access to information for others. Secrecy can be seen as an intentional act of withholding or concealing information and privacy as a personal right that does not require any specific action on behalf of the subject itself. Privacy, though, also entails a normative claim over the behavior of others. We are not supposed to actively seek out private information about somebody else.[3] While this claim may be easily justified between a general public sphere and an individual, within a family rights to privacy are much less straight-forward.

Historian Deborah Cohen has shown that secrecy and privacy were two sides of the same coin in 19th century (middle-class) British family life. One could not exist without the other, as secrecy facilitated privacy for family affairs and respect for private spheres made secrecy easier. Cohen further argues that in many cases the acceptance of stigmata within families lead to a wider, societal de-stigmatization of the given secret and to the rise of the right to personal privacy in the public sphere—giving way to what Cohen calls our current confessional tell-it-all culture that demands an end to family secrecy. Privacy remains highly valued today, even though the age of social media and smart homes is currently changing our relation to personal privacy yet again. Overall, though, secrecy still tends to be seen as a problem and privacy as a good.[4]   

This binary view neither captures the ambiguous relation between the two concepts, nor does it apply to all kinds of family secrets in the same way.  The stakes of privacy within reproductive secrecy, that is, hidden information about biological relations and family members, are particularly high. Kinship can take many forms, but Carol Smart notes that in Euro-American contexts biological connections continue to be constitutive of relationships. Uncovering reproductive family secrets can change perceptions of one’s identity as well as of one’s legal status.[5]  The challenges of chibow family secrecy thus resonate here with ethical questions arising from Assisted Reproductive Technology or Adoption cases as well.

In the Danish context the German Occupation was a distinct historical event and the silences around the identities of German fathers often continued well into the 1990s. Many mothers only shared their secret with their children late in life or not at all. Even though the former stigma around having a German soldier as a father diminished with time, mothers rarely followed the trend toward confessional culture. And such persistent silences within families could pose significant challenges to those chibows who, growing up and as adults, felt the need to find their biological fathers. Not knowing one’s roots could be very difficult.[6]

During and shortly after the Occupation a mother’s decision to hide the identity of a German father from a child served to ward off social retributions. But for how long could this concealment be justified? Bjarne Schmidt, another Danish chibow in search of information about his biological father as an adult man, approached a Danish court in Aalborg in the 1990s to gain access to his paternity case file from the war period. The judge refused the request, noting that such access would have harmed his mother as he might use this information against her.[7] Here, the court set the privacy of the mother in absolute and normative terms. According to the court, the child should not look for the mother’s hidden histories. This decision solves the above-mentioned ethical dilemma in a particular way. It affirms the mother’s right to personal privacy far past the vulnerable situation after the war and negates the adult child’s personal right to know their biological father at the same time.

Cohen complicates the simplistic good privacy/bad secrecy binary from a historical perspective, but I believe we need a more specific understanding of how privacy and secrecy are modulated through power dynamics within families to theorize family secrecy for children born of war. The crux here seems to be that the right to maternal privacy applies to society at large, but that there comes a point when it does not apply anymore to children within the micro-cosmos of the family. It is not possible, of course, to say when this point arrives within the context of each family. But maybe a different theoretical approach to the dynamics between secrecy and privacy can help us understand these developments better. In the following, I suggest turning to theories on state secrecy as one way of offering an alternative perspective on the ethical dilemma between mothers and chibows sketched out above.

While not identical, there are relevant parallels in state and family secrecy that can inform each other on questions of authority and accountability in hiding information. Just like family secrecy, state secrecy is often considered harmful or repressive, and most democratic theory does not see any place for secrecy in politics. In her recent defense of state secrecy Dorota Mokrosinska disputes this general dismissal of secrecy.  She argues that democratic states can benefit from and have the right to restrict information—within certain limits: state secrecy is not a default option, but a special right granted through a democratic decision process.  If citizens know information is hidden, they are also able to hold governments accountable for these actions, especially once the pressing need for secrecy has subsided.[8] If governments conceal actions in the name of privacy, though, they could conduct “deep secrecy” fully hidden from public view and scrutiny. Practices of state secrecy offer at least the possibility of accountability and thus a more legitimate way of hiding information if situations require confidential state actions. In this view, states thus rather have a right to secrecy than privacy.[9]

Do Danish mothers then also have a right to secrecy rather than privacy toward their children born of war? Secrecy does not solve the underlying ethical dilemma between the conflicting needs of a mother’s right to bury difficult experiences and a child’s right to knowing its roots. However, perhaps secrecy can help manage a form of co-existence of these needs in ways privacy cannot. The crucial difference in the respective legitimacy of state privacy and state secrecy lies in their relation to liberty rights: The liberty to hide information must coexist with the liberty to seek out this knowledge to be democratically and ethically acceptable for states.[10]

I would like to extend this argument to family secrecy. Also within families a mother’s normative claim to privacy can be problematic, if it expects chibows to refrain from searching for their biological fathers. Secrecy still impacts the child, but it does not foreclose a search as such. Adult children born of war can seek out information independent from their mother’s willingness to share details—allowing for a modicum of co-existence between conflicting needs.

Works Cited

Cohen, Deborah. Family Secrets – The Things We Tried to Hide. Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.

Mokrosinska, Dorota. “Why states have no right to privacy, but may be entitled to secrecy: A non-consequentialist defense of state secrecy.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 11, no. 1 (2018): 1-30.

Tarp, Lotte. – det sku’ nødig hedde sig. Falun: Bogklubben 12 Bøger, 1999.

Schmidt, Bjarne. “Bjarne Schmidt, fodt den 8. april 1944.” In Horeunger og helligdage – tyskerbørns beretninger. Edited by Arne Øland, 141-58. Schønberg: Schønbergske Forl, 2001.

Smart, Carol. “Families, Secrets and Memories.” Sociology 45, no. 4 (2011): 539-53.

Warren, Carol and Barbara Laslett. “Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison.” In Secrecy: A cross-cultural perspective. Edited by Stanton K. Tefft, 25-34. NY: Human sciences press, 1980.

Øland, Arne, ed. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger. Schønberg: Schønbergske Forl, 2001.


[1] Arne Øland. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger, p. 18-19.

[2] Lotte Tarp. – det sku’ nødig hedde sig, p. 155. 

[3] Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett. “Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison.” p. 27.

[4] Deborah Cohen. Family Secrets – The Things We Tried to Hide, p. xii-xvi.

[5] Carol Smart. “Families, Secrets and Memories,”p.543.

[6] Arne Øland. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger

[7] Bjarne Schmidt. “Bjarne Schmidt, fodt den 8. april 1944.” p. 148-9.

[8] Dorota Mokrosinska. “Why states have no right to privacy, but may be entitled to secrecy: A non-consequentialist defense of state secrecy,” p. 24-6.

[9] Ibid, p. 6-11.

[10] Ibid, p. 13.