Ever since our class on research ethics, which was fascinating, I have had the funny feeling that, sometime earlier this semester, I stumbled upon an ethical issue in relation to historical research. Typically, the ethical issues that we associate with historical research have to do with academic honesty or, I would add, the fair use and impartial representation of evidence. A few days ago, though, I remembered that I had come across the records of two prison libraries in the Archives of Ontario. The archives hold the library record books that, I presume, indicate which inmate borrowed which book. Interestingly, both fonds come with the following condition, which probably accompanies all prison records in the Archives:
"Access to these records is governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Requests for access to records 100 years old or less must be submitted in writing to the Information and Privacy Unit of the Archives of Ontario."
It occurred to me that writing a request for access to these records would be not unlike writing a research protocol for a study involving human subjects. You should probably make an argument about the value of your research, how you will use the information, how you will secure the information, how you will protect the identities of the inmates, to whom you will disclose your results, what you will do with the information after the study, and so on.
So, as it turns out, our training in research ethics applies just as much to textual records as it does to human subjects. Neat.