In November 2014 the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced its acquisition of the Gabriel García Márquez archive from Mr. García Márquez’s heirs. In early December a number of articles appeared in the press noting that the University had declined to release the purchase price for the materials and that the Associated Press had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the Texas Attorney General. Subsequent to the press coverage, four SAA members individually contacted SAA President Kathleen Roe, Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy Chair Frank Boles, and/or Executive Director Nancy Beaumont to ask that SAA consider issuing a statement regarding the University’s decision.
Roe solicited comments and recommendations from SAA’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct and Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy to inform a Council discussion of the issue. Council members reached an agreement about their response on January 13 and Roe subsequently forwarded the response to the three members who had initiated inquiries. Presented below are the SAA Council’s response to the member request regarding the University of Texas acquisition of the García Márquez archive; the recommendations of the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct and the Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy; and “Additional Issues and Questions Raised in the Council Discussion of the Member Request and Recommendations from CEPC and CAPP.”
Update: On February 25, Harry Ransom Center spokeswoman Jen Tisdale said the center paid $2.2 million for the works of Gabriel García Márquez. The center announced the figure after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s open records division ruled that the archives cannot keep the contract and purchase price secret.
If you have questions or concerns, please contact SAA President Kathleen Roe (kathleen.roe[@]gmail.com] or SAA Executive Director Nancy Beaumont (nbeaumont[@]archivists.org or 866-722-7858).
SAA Council Response to Member Request Re University of Texas Acquisition of García Márquez Archive
On November 24, 2014, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced its acquisition of the Gabriel García Márquez archive from the heirs of Mr. García Márquez. In early December a number of articles appeared in the press noting that the University had declined to release the purchase price for the materials and that the Associated Press had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the Texas Attorney General. Subsequent to the press coverage, four SAA members individually contacted SAA President Kathleen Roe, Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy Chair Frank Boles, and Executive Director Nancy Beaumont to ask that SAA consider issuing a statement regarding the University’s decision, citing their concerns that the University’s actions were inconsistent with SAA’s “Core Values of Archivists” statement and its Code of Ethics.
President Roe solicited comments and recommendations from SAA’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct and Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy to inform a Council discussion of the issue. The Council determined that:
SAA will continue to monitor this situation, pending the decision of the Texas Attorney General on the Associated Press FOIL request. Further action may be considered following the Attorney General’s ruling.
- SAA recognizes the challenge for archival institutions in making decisions when there is a need to balance competing interests of protecting information and ensuring transparency. We affirm our belief that, whenever possible, we support the public’s fundamental right to full and complete information regarding the operation of public agencies.
- In the interest of providing concerned citizens with insight into the decision, SAA encourages the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin to share widely its reasoning for the decision.
- SAA encourages its members and affinity groups to consider identifying forums in which members might pursue further discussion of the complexities of, and varying positions taken on, the purchase of collections, donor requirements and restrictions, collecting parameters, and transparency regarding the collecting process. We acknowledge the existence within our membership of differing opinions and strongly encourage a focused, thoughtful, and respectful dialogue to promote both better understanding and better practice.
Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct Response Regarding the Purchase of Gabriel García Márquez’s Papers by the University of Texas Ransom Center
December 18, 2014
SAA’s President, Kathleen Roe, asked the Committee on Ethical and Professional Conduct (CEPC) to respond to a formal request by SAA member Brad Houston, in which he urged SAA to take action regarding the University of Texas’s Ransom Center’s purchase of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s papers. Specifically, the University of Texas is refusing to release the price it paid for the Harry Ransom Center’s recent acquisition of García Marquez’s papers. The Associated Press filed an open records request which the University denied. Currently, the University is seeking support from the Texas Attorney General.
CEPC reviewed the request from Houston. The following are the Committee’s comments to relevant components pertaining to SAA’s Core Values of Archivists and Code of Ethics:
- The refusal by the University of Texas to release the paper’s sale is potentially in opposition to the Core Values of accountability; professionalism; and social responsibility. Archivists strive for transparency in decision making and adhere to a common set of values and ethics, while keeping in mind their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.
- According to the Code of Ethics, archivists demonstrate professional integrity, ensuring trust in their decisions. Secrecy in archival processes such as acquisitions may be harmful to the public’s trust and in turn, raise doubts regarding an institution’s professionalism.
CEPC recommends the following:
- Reserve Judgment at This Time, Issue Interim Statement: The exact reasons for the University of Texas’s refusal to release the price of the records are unknown at this time. Texas public agencies are governed by open records laws that, while championing access, also have exemptions. The University’s open records denial and subsequent consultation with the Texas Attorney General suggests the University is following a legal process that is not yet complete.
- It is premature for SAA to comment regarding if the University should or should not make the cost of purchasing the records public. It is unclear at this time if this is a donor issue, institutional problem, or another potentially delicate or confidential matter. By reserving judgment, SAA retains the option to comment more fully at a later date.
We recommend that SAA issue a statement that this case is being monitored, which indicates the seriousness with which this matter is being considered. We realize there may be legitimate, confidential reasons to not release the cost of the papers. At this time, we would like the University to be as open and transparent as possible.
Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy Recommendation to SAA President Kathleen Roe Regarding the Acquisition of the Gabriel García Márquez Papers by the University of Texas at Austin
December 19, 2014
On November 24, 2014 the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced the acquisition of the Gabriel García Márquez archive from the heirs of Mr. García Márquez. Subsequently the University declined to release the contract governing the acquisition as well as the price paid to purchase the material, denying requests for this information filed in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act. This denial is now being reviewed by the Texas Attorney General’s office, with a decision expected to be made at the end of January.
Several members of the Society have questioned the propriety of withholding the purchase price, and have asked SAA to issue an opinion on the matter.
In response to this request, SAA observes:
- SAA has consistently supported the public’s right to information from all levels of government.
- Published reports, which have not been contradicted by the Ransom Center staff or the staff of the University of Texas at Austin, state that past practice at the Ransom Center has been to share the purchase price of material.
- The explanation for withholding the purchase price offered by officials at the University of Texas at Austin is that revealing the purchase price may inflate prices within the literary manuscript market and thus cause subsequent financial harm to UT-Austin and thus, indirectly, to the public which supports that institution.
Based on these observations SAA concludes:
- There is no legal reason why the prices paid for the Gabriel García Márquez archive should not be shared with the public. Past practice within the University of Texas at Austin supports sharing with the public the purchase price.
- The speculative argument offered by the University of Texas at Austin regarding possible harm caused by the release of this information is insufficient to take precedence over the public’s legitimate right to financial information by and about the operation of a public agency.
Based on SAA’s belief in the public’s fundamental right to full and complete information regarding the operation of public agencies, SAA strongly encourages the University of Texas at Austin to withdraw the request to the Texas Attorney General’s office for permission to withhold the purchase price paid for the Gabriel García Márquez archive and publicly announce the sum which was paid for the material.
Additional Issues and Questions Raised in the Council Discussion of the Member Request and Recommendations from CEPC and CAPP:
- Do we fully understand Texas law on the specifics or exceptions in this case? Do we have a good understanding of whether purchases made with private, donor funds are subject to public disclosure?
- Although the Ransom Center has released the sales prices of literary manuscripts in the past, it is common practice for both public and private universities not to release such information. Colleagues have in fact criticized the Ransom Center in the past for sharing the sometimes considerable prices it has paid for collections because they feel it has driven up costs for other repositories. Purchase price certainly is information of a sensitive nature, possibly both to the authors and the universities. To date there has not been an indication of whether the source used was public or private funds. If the funding is from a private donor(s), UT may be seen as behaving ethically towards the donors who gave them the resources to help them build their collections.
- Does SAA make statements when private universities make purchases without disclosure? Or if smaller public universities make purchases of lesser cost without disclosure? If not, why not? What makes this particular case different?
- As SAA represents archivists in collecting institutions, consideration should be given to UT's argument that disclosing prices drives the market up, thus making it harder for institutions to purchase materials, and thereby may compromise the opportunity to provide public access to the historical record. It may result in private collectors readily being able to purchase and limit or deny access to the historical record.
- HRC has an obligation to the public to share its reasoning on why it made the decision to withhold the cost. It may not be popular, but it at least shows the public that they are trying to make the best decision possible for the archives and the public.