FOIA and other sunshine laws

I’ve been quite gratified by the response to my little data dump so far! Folks have been thoughtful and concerned.

Over on MetaFilter, a commenter asked about the boundaries of sunshine laws with respect to confidential records. Let me walk through some of what I learned while putting together a sunshine-law assignment for LIS 510.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a US federal law that requires federal government agencies to produce records on citizen request, unless those records are classified or confidential. (This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but it’ll do to go on with.) FOIA only applies to the feds, but most US states have a FOIA analogue; collectively, these laws are called “sunshine laws,” and colloquially, many people call a records request to a public entity a “FOIA request” even when FOIA isn’t the exact law in question.

Okay so far? Okay.

We can’t go to a public library, or an academic library in a public institution, to ask for all their circulation records. Absolutely not—those records are confidential (as they should be!) and the records officer will immediately refuse on that basis. The loophole here, which I drove my little toy truck through, is that sunshine laws do allow us to ask for our own records in the system. The public records officer may well ask to verify our identity, reasonably enough, but once that hurdle is past they will usually come back with the records.

I was a particularly good test subject this time, because I’ve been associated with UW-Madison off and on for over 25 years. There are in fact some circ records I must have occasioned that didn’t appear in the data dump, such that I must assume they’ve been deleted: those from my unsuccessful run at a Ph.D from 1994 to 1998. (I certainly remember checking out a pile of books before master’s exams in 1996… do they still have that photocopied Urraca, I wonder?) I don’t know when exactly UW-Madison adopted Voyager, so this absence could be due diligence on records or it could just be tossing whatever was in NOTIS (I think it was NOTIS?) when it was decommissioned.

Anyway, the point is that to pick up the most information possible from a give-me-my-records sunshine-law request, find someone to make it who’s been around a while.

One of the best resources out there for figuring out how sunshine-law requests work is the Muckrock website. As with many bureaucratic systems, sunshine-law requests do better when they’re precisely worded and in line with what records officers expect to see. (Mine was… not the best in that respect, but it got the job done.) Poke around for requests similar to yours and see how the requesters worded them.

Expect to pay, also. As I told my LIS 510 students, it’s easy to imagine a denial-of-service attack on a records office: just flood it with spurious but time-consuming requests. Records officers have some leeway to tell you “go away; you’re being a time-wasting jerk,” but they have another defense as well: they can charge you for the labor of pulling the records, as they did with me. There is “please go easy on me” verbiage, which you can find in many Muckrock requests, but I didn’t bother; I understand why the system is the way it is and I assuredly don’t mind paying for the work of fellow information professionals.

Sunshine laws are powerful tools. I’m glad I taught my LIS 510 students a little about them, and I hope this post will teach a few more folks.