secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

Dr. Mary Lee Bundy on Secrecy

Shame on me, I recently discovered Mary Lee Bundy’s work. I’m incredulous I hadn’t previously read Bundy, not even while in library school in the late 1980s.

As evidenced by her publications (Secrecy and Medical Experimentation on Prisoners: A Case Study of the Role of Government Information Suppression in the Repression and Exploitation of People, Leslie Burger and Mary Lee Bundy,  University of Maryland, 1973?; The National Prison Directory: Organizational Profiles of Prison Reform Groups in the United States, Mary Lee Bundy and Kenneth R. Harmon, Urban Information Interpreters, 1975;  Helping People Take Control: The Public Library’s Mission in a Democracy, Urban Information Interpreters, 1980; Activism in American Librarianship, 1962-1973, Mary Lee Bundy and Frederick J. Stielow, eds., Greenwood Press, 1987), Bundy was deeply committed to freedom of information, the importance of libraries in the open society, and the osmotic role of information professionals in operating outside library walls in bridging the often bipolar worlds of access to information and information restriction.

It is two of her works – Secrecy and Medical Experimentation on Prisoners and Helping People Take Control: The Public Library’s Mission in a Democracy  – that inspired me to blog Bundy on secrecy.

Secrecy and Medical Experimentation on Prisoners reports an attempt to gather information on a “volunteer” experimental vaccine program conducted by University of Maryland, School of Medicine, funded by  NIH and U.S. Army at the Maryland House of Corrections, Jessup (” a seriously overcrowded, obsolete facility run in the old style penal tradition”). The study, “Accessibility of Information Available to the Public Concerning the Experimentation Taking Place in the Infectious Disease Unit, Maryland House of Correction, Jessup Maryland, December, 1973, was undertaken as part of a research methods class at the University of Maryland, conducted by Dr. Mary Lee Bundy” and  hoped to answer the following questions:

What experiments take place? How risky are they? Are inmates receiving adequate medical care? Have there been accidents, side effect etc. as a result of the experiments? Is informed consent obtained? Are inmates volunteering for a lack of other ways to earn money? Are doctors or others making profits from these experiments? How does participation effect work in prison, participation in educational and rehabilitative programs, and the prospects for parole? What legal and other protections do inmates have? (p.2)

Reading along, I wasn’t clear why a Freedom of Information Act /open records request wasn’t filed with various agencies to obtain info on the volunteer vaccine prisoner program; Bundy and her students used the following methods to gather data:

The results of this effort support the conclusion that with regard to this program, there exists a virtually closed government information system, for an estimated total of five letters, five interviews and twenty telephone calls to sixteen different government agencies, resulted in retrieving little of the most significant data. Important sources of information either refused or simply failed to supply information which should have been in their possession. (p.3)

At the conclusion of  the study, Burger and Bundy observe that

Secrecy shields the exploitation of paying inmates only a fraction of what “free world” volunteers get. Secrecy, if not in this situation, then in others, permits doctors, drug companies and others in their hire to make enormous profits from the exploitation of incarcerated people. In a closed information system deaths and other casualties resulting from experiments can be covered up. The real significance of government secrecy is the very role it plays in the systematized exploitation of people. (p.8)

I emphasize the last sentence simply because the statement is profound – and obvious. Of the vast philosophical, theoretical tomes on secrecy I’ve read over the last decade, no one has really made this connection. Burger and Bundy did it back in the early 1970s with little fanfare, and in one carefully crafted sentence.


In Helping People Take Control: The Public Library’s Mission in a Democracy, Bundy writes on a related complex of issues: national security,  surveillance, spying, government secrecy, “media manipulation,”  information advocacy, and library support of citizen research. Bundy also makes a plea for citizens to examine “the public library for its community responsiveness” (p.182).

Bundy (p.184) also calls for continued professional responsibility and vigilance in a grand way:

When middle-of-the-road organizations like the American Library Association speak out against police spying, government secrecy and discrimination in the media, we can expect they will be heard and carry weight. We would, therefore, propose that the library profession become actively involved in these information struggles.

Whether change emanates from citizens or librarians, whether from traditional libraries or new alternative libraries and information centers, whatever the line of development,the goal is an open information situation in the U. S.

The first, crucial step is to recognize the manipulation and censorship in the existing information system for what it is — a shocking, dangerous situation for all Americans, thwarting our effort at achieving a democratic society, and threatening our very future.

I urge both LIS students and  information professionals in the field to reconsider Dr. Bundy’s work in a contemporary sociopolitical context, for the role of librarian-information worker – at least the way I believe Bundy thought of the field – is part of a greater information system beyond four walls and beige metal shelving.  Bundy offers  permission for information workers to think of themselves as advocates in the truest sense of the word.


Written by S.

August 18, 2009 at 3:12 am