Friday, November 10, 2006

FOI Day for researchers and archivists, National Libarary of Wales

I went to interesting conference on wednesday of this week at the National Library of Wales - the focus of the day was looking at uses of the FOIA for academic researchers and the impact on archives, specifically in the social sciences.

One of the most interesting papers was by Professor Duncan Tanner of Welsh Institute for Social and Cuktural Affairs, University of Wales, Bangor. He has been trying to use the Act to research Welsh devolution. He outlined how he has benefited from the proactive release programmes of the both the National Archives and the National Library of Wales: the National Archives archives offer a "click to review" option on closed files on its website. He also outlined some of the problems he has had trying to retrieve information from the Home Office about Poltical violence and the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles - most files were exempted under S24 and S31 - "it would not be in the public interest to disclose police tactics for dealing with terrorist threats in the past as disclosure would undermine current and future operation for eadling similar threats". According to Professor Tanner many of the 1960's tactics used were common knowledge and ammounted to bugging public telephone boxes and infiltrating public meetings. Professor Tanner has been working hard in trying to promote potential uses of the Act by historians and researchers in the social sciences (he also recently wrote to the Guardian about the potential impact on his research of the proposed changes to the fees regs).

In the other general discussions about the fees regs that emerged it was interesting to remember that the Welsh Assembly's Code of Practice on Access to Information sets out that the requests to the Assembly will be free and will not use the cost limit. The Code also sets out that the Assembly will intpret exemptions using an additional substantial harm test. The Code isn't a legal document but sets out the principles in which the assembly will handle FOI requests.

I gave a general paper offering an overview of the FOIA so far:Download my presentation

I am also currently interested in trying make the case for academics to make greater use of the Act and am unclear about academic levels of usage (if you are an academic using the Act, from any discipline I'd like to hear from you). To this end I am hoping to get some funding for an academic study into use of FOIA by researchers. Last month I outlined some of my thoughts on the FOIA and implications for researchers in a paper I gave to the Research Information Network (RIN) (including issues such as archiving of requests, training and materials to encourage use.) There is also an issue of getting responses from National Academic Bodies on the possible impact of the proposed changes to the FOIA whilst an opportunity for consultation exists. The proposed changes in adding reading, consideration & consultation, plus further aggregation could have similar impacts on researchers as have been outlined by journalists.

Whilst not workable in our "applicant blind" FOIA it is interesting to note that when I've used the US FOIA I've been able apply for a fee waiver due to academic nature of my work.

The paper I delivered to the RIN Oct 2006: FOI & its implications for researchers

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