Two very different access policies for donated papers have developed within the two major traditions of American archival administration, the historical manuscripts tradition and the public archives tradition. Within the former, the policy was founded on an agreement between the repository and the donor that exchanged possession of the papers for restrictions on their use. The donor maintained control of access to some or all of his papers, and the archivist administered the restrictions. A quite different access policy developed within the public archives tradition, based on the assumption that papers with a high public policy content should be open. Restrictions were regarded as necessary, but undesirable.
This article focuses on the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and the presidential libraries system of the National Archives and Records Administration. The author examines the strengths and limitations of the access policies employed by both these institutions and encourages archivists to work toward agreement on what constitutes a good access policy.