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Access considerations

We’ve made a helpful list of FAQs to navigate the tricky subject of access and restrictions on documents.

Have a look at one of our blog posts, talking about how we provide access to fragile or damaged material. Read it here.

Accessing restricted documents

You can use most of the original documents we look after by visiting our research room.  But there are a number of documents (less than 5%) that we can't let you use in the normal way - we call them 'restricted documents'.

We do this when:

  • A document is fragile and handling it could cause more damage
  • A document is 'born digital' and only available in an electronic format
  • The owner has requested that it isn't made available for research for a while or shouldn't be copied
  • There is a statutory or legal reason that prevents open access to the document

We're currently improving the descriptions in our online catalogue so you'll know when there are restrictions on something you'd like to look at.  This is a big task and will take some time.  For now it's best to pre-order your documents so we can check for restrictions on your behalf and tell you about any that apply before you visit.

Whenever possible, we will make special arrangements for you to access the information you're looking for.

If it's a fragile document, depending on its nature and condition, we might:

  • Offer you a copy on microfilm/fiche or DVD or a printed transcript.
  • Set it out for you in our research room, and pack it up when you've finished.  And ask you to use special equipment (eg protective sheets and gloves) while you're using it.  This ensures careful handling.
  • Ask you to make an appointment to use it so we have time to prepare it for you.

If a document is marked in the online catalogue as a 'digital record' we may need up to five working days to make a copy available for you.

If the owner of the document has limited its use we will explain the restrictions and, depending on the document or collection concerned, we might:

  • Contact the owner or their representative to check that the restriction(s) is/are still valid;
  • Suggest an alternative source which might include some of the information you need;
  • Put you in touch with the owner so you can apply for their permission to use and/or copy the restricted items; and/or
  • Ask you to provide details of your research interest to share with the owner.

If access to the document is limited because of a statutory or legal restriction we will explain why and let you know if and how you might be able to get the information you're looking for.  You can find more information about legislative restrictions on our Accessing information that's restricted for statutory and legal reasons section below.

Accessing information that's restricted for statutory and legal reasons

Sometimes we have to restrict access to original documents to comply with legislation, particularly the Data Protection Act, 2018 which relates to sensitive or confidential information about people who might still be alive.

You can do this by visiting the Transparency and Freedom of Information sections of the Council's main website.

The terms of the legislation let us make some documents with restricted information routinely available to you.  They also let you access some other restricted information that we hold.  You can do this by request.

Under the terms of the Data Protection Act, 2018 we can let you see some types of documents containing restricted information about people providing you agree not to use this in a way that might cause distress to those concerned or inform decisions relating to them.  The documents that fall into this category are all less than 100 years old and include some school, Board of Guardians and parish records.  We will let you know when this restriction applies and ask you to sign a Researcher Undertaking.

Under the terms of the Data Protection Act, 2018 and the Representation of the People Act, 2000 we can let you see electoral registers that are less than 10 years old providing you agree to make only hand-written copies. We will ask you to sign a Conditions of Use declaration before you use them.

You can make a Subject Access Request for information the Council has about you in its records, including information in the following records at the Archives:

  • Adoption and fostering registers and files
  • School punishment books and pupil's files
  • Some gaol (prison) records which might include information about the victim
  • Some Magistrates' Court records which might include information about adoptions or fostering
  • Some police records
  • Some parish records

You can also see some documents containing restricted information if you get permission from the organisation that created them.  If the organisation no longer exists you can seek permission from its successor organisation.  The documents that fall into this category are:

Medical records less than 100 years old for many hospitals in Gloucestershire, a few hospitals in South Gloucestershire and the Gloucestershire lunatic asylum - please contact the Health Records Manager of the NHS Trust concerned.  You can get their details via the NHS Choices website.

Coroner's inquest files less than 75 years old for Gloucestershire and some coroner's inquest files less than 75 years old for South Gloucestershire - please contact the relevant service, either Gloucestershire Coroner's service or Avon Coroner's service

Sensitive material

You may come across material that contains sensitive information, which includes information you may find upsetting or distressing. We have some FAQ's about this topic, centred around what is known as 'vicarious trauma'.

This is a phenomenon that is becoming more widely accepted in the archives’ sector, and research into this area is now being carried out. It is sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma” or “indirect trauma”. It describes an unwelcome emotional response in someone who comes into contact with (in the case of archives’ collections) records from the past, such as witness statements, coroner’s reports, and a wide variety of other material, which you may find upsetting.

Vicarious trauma is when you feel emotionally traumatised by what you may be exposed to in our collections, such as the records of an individual, or an organisation’s or institution’s dealings with them. This could be in terms of how that individual was treated, what happened to them, or the language used about them in the records.

This trauma could include feeling upset, angry, tearful, numb, confused or any other emotional response which is unexpected, unwelcome, intrusive, possibly prolonged, difficult to deal with, or which leaves you feeling disturbed and unsettled.

Vicarious trauma is more than feeling just a bit sad; it is where you have a direct, negative, unsettling emotional response to the records you are reading, which leaves you feeling upset. Sometimes this distress may be extreme.

Yes; you could be looking at historic lunatic asylum records, or workhouse records, and find that treatments, or institutional care, given to individuals – some of whom may be your ancestors – falls below what we would expect today, and seems at odds with what we now find acceptable, compassionate or humane.

Or you could be looking at your own records, for example through a SAR (Subject Access Request), perhaps when you were a child living in residential care. You may discover disturbing facts you were unaware of, or read reports on your care, including assessments that were made at the time, or comments about you, and this could trigger an emotionally upsetting response in you.

Or you could be reading about things like the kindertransport, and may or may not have connections with the Jewish community, but feel – through the records – a deep connection with people fleeing terror or persecution.

First, we recognise this is a reality for some people. Whenever we find something upsetting, it is always best to talk to someone who we believe will understand. You

can talk to us about how you feel. You could talk to friends and family, who will know you far better than we do, and who may be able to support you better.

It is widely recognised that for some professions, such as policing, human rights lawyers, rescue workers, people may need professional help with their vicarious trauma, such as counselling. 

If more than one person is affected, we would consider setting up a support group, or a workshop, to explore this phenomenon and how we can help.

  • Do remember, in most cases this will pass.
  • Do acknowledge that feeling as you do is a perfectly normal human response.
  • Do talk to others about how you feel.
  • Do consider raising it with us at Gloucestershire Archives.
  • Do look online for suggestions as to how you can cope.
  • Do remember that people react differently to vicarious trauma, and that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways of dealing with it.


Still have questions?

Get in touch to enquire about the archives collections or services we offer.

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