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Published February 11 2011

UND Library wants law change: Donor papers at center of open records debate

After former Sen. Byron Dorgan agreed last year to donate his congressional papers to the University of North Dakota, Libraries Director Wilbur Stolt said he discovered a long-standing practice for such donations wasn’t in line with state law.

Dorgan, like others in the past, wanted his personal donation restricted from public viewing for a certain number of years – a common request among donors, Stolt said.

But since UND’s Chester Fritz Library is tied to the public institution, agreeing to such requests actually violates North Dakota’s open records law, which ensures public access to government documents.

Stolt requested that state legislators look at changing the law to include an exemption for donations to public library facilities.

House Bill 1396 would allow public libraries, archives or museums to keep donations private at the request of the donor for up to 20 years after the donor’s death.

Legislators will discuss the measure this morning during a committee meeting in Bismarck.

Allowing such exemptions is common archival practice in other states, such as Minnesota and Iowa, Stolt said.

While the bill would restrict the public’s initial access to donated collections, Stolt said there’s a benefit to the greater good.

“We’re not looking to close access for a long period of time, but sometimes donors have these concerns,” he said. “We don’t want to run the risk of having such papers not be preserved – that they be destroyed rather than given to a historical collection.”

Privacy concerns might be a reason a donor would want their materials temporarily closed, Stolt said.

Dorgan’s former state director Pam Gulleson said Dorgan didn’t make any special requests for his donation – only that his personal papers be handled under the same conditions as previous donations made by former Sens. Milton Young, Quentin Burdick and Mark Andrews.

Young’s and Burdick’s collections were closed for 10 to 20 years before being available to the public.

“With the senator’s papers, a lot of the correspondence is with constituents and directly related to constituent interests, so we want to be respectful of their privacy,” Gulleson said, adding that Dorgan has had no involvement with the bill before the state Legislature.

Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, introduced the bill at Stolt’s request and said the legislation is not intended to benefit any one collection of historical papers.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541