Freedom of information: a practical guide for historians

Course date(s): 
10 Apr 2013
Course tutor(s): 
Dr Andrew Flinn


The Freedom of Information Act 2000 dramatically altered arrangements for access to information held by public bodies, vastly widening opportunities for researchers of all sorts. Historians increasingly are using FoI requests to obtain sources that traditionally would have been inaccessible for long periods, but there is an art to using the Act creatively and drafting requests which will be met fully and promptly by the authorities. Taught by Andrew Flinn from UCL, this one-day workshop details the rights of the historian under FoI provisions, considers the theoretical implications of increased access and explains how to compose the most successful FoI requests.

Course details

Since its measures were first applied in 2005, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoI) has transformed access to data held by government and other public bodies, throwing open recently-created government records to scrutiny and analysis that traditionally could only have occurred after a delay of thirty years or more. Journalists have been very quick to exercise the powers of the act, but increasingly they are also being used by historians, social scientists and a wide array of other academic researchers. The aim of this one-day workshop is to help researchers to make the most of the act, explaining its terms, scope and application and demonstrating how to set about making requests for information under FoI.

The day will consist of a mixture of lectures and seminar discussions, and will be led by Dr Michael Kandiah of the University of London’s Centre for Contemporary British History. The terms both of FoI and of related legislation such as the Data Protection Act will be discussed, describing the scope and the limitations of the rights enshrined, the institutions and organisations to which the Act applies and the types of information which are exempt or excluded from its provisions. This will lead to a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of making a Freedom of Information request. Participants will be shown how to construct a request to obtain the best results as quickly and easily as possible, with further instruction on how to obtain guidance in writing specialised requests for unusual or obscure materials. The subsequent process will be described, with discussion of the statutory time-limits and the various different means in which information may be supplied, together with an exploration of appeals procedures in the event of a request being refused or data being withheld. Participants will leave the workshop not just with a full understanding of the workings of FoI, but equipped and ready to make their own requests from any public body covered by the Act.

The course is open to postgraduate students, academics, and all who are interested in exploring these techniques and issues.