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Are Archives Doomed?

March 10th, 2006 · 4 Comments · Archives Access Systems, Collective Memory, Personal Digital Archives

Wow. I just watched an excellent webcast presentation by Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Film Archives and one of the people behind the Open Content Alliance.

The ominous title of the presentation “Are the Archives Doomed?” is in reference to the growing restrictions on access to archival materials that are due to copyright issues, restrictive archival practices or the poor use of available technology.

This is the link to the webcast provided by the University of Pittsburgh Mediasite.

If you are at all interested in open access, the management of archival institutions or recent trends in archives access you should take the hour to view this presentation.

There are no slides accompanying the presentation and I can’t find a transcript anywhere but here are a few juicy quotes from my own notes:

  • “There’s something I call ‘archival privilege’…Archives used to be able to decide whom to serve and whose requests to ignore and that’s become dangerous behaviour. We used to try and often succeeded in framing the context in which archival material is used, to impose conditions on re-use, to demand credit for re-use and often to control the means by which archival material is represented and published.”
  • “Copyright is for lawyers and archives are about preservation and access so I think we need to reclaim the higher ground about copyright…Archival access is being crippled by property laws that most of us had no role in making. Most of us were not part of the conversations that led to the enactment of present day copyright laws
  • “I think we are not being Utopian enough, we are reactive. We react to things that people do in other fields. I think we need to think a lot more about where we would like the world of research, scholarship, education, and cultural production to be in the next few years…Just as musicians are sitting down with their fans to talk about what to do about these nasty file-sharing issues, I am wondering why archives users and donors don’t do the same thing?”
  • “access means making it as simple and inexpensive for anyone, anywhere, anytime to access copies of works for the broadest possible array of purposes, and whenever possible, I think we should define access expansively and generously.”
  • “I realize I am stating the obvious but I’m not sure that everybody in the world realizes that wonderful and unpredictable things happen when ordinary people are given access to primary materials.”
  • “I don’t see us [archives] coming to terms with technology. This is not a critical statement, it is a wake-up call. I think we need to push much harder in welcoming technology to our workflows and into the relations between archives and our patrons.”
  • “Archives generally consume technology, rather than create it…Archives tend to delegate their technology needs to outside parties…Archives have major unmet technology needs…We don’t have the money. This would tend to favour the development of open-source software. With a few exceptions we are primarily purchasing packages. Imagine a different world. Who couldn’t use an open-source media management system? or a set of open-source DRM tools? or open-source tools to extract structural metadata or to do OCR?…This is where the state-of-the-art activity should be happening.”

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Thomas Kiehne // Mar 24, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks for the tip… this is an area that resides at the junction of two of my primary research interests: digital archives and information policy.

  • 2 Steve Kwan // Jul 7, 2006 at 10:07 am

    I don’t think archives are nearly as doomed as libraries. ;)

  • 3 Catherine Yasui // Apr 5, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Peter,
    I’ve been slowly reading through various segments of your website for the insight you provide and the thoughts and ideas you help stimulate. I find it particularly helpful with respect to my interest in personal records and in considering ways to approach a personal project related to educating my generation of Japanese-Canadians (J-C) on how to maintain their parents & grandparents records, and in how to make these records accessible.

    You quoted above, the idea about how musicians are sitting down with their fans to talk about access issues and how this raises the question as to why archives users and donors don’t do the same thing. I think my thoughts on this are only indirectly related to restrictive archival practices or the poor use of available technology.

    I’ve been hearing from many of those in my parent’s generation and within the J-C community in general. As their years mount and the passing of friends and relatives become more frequent, I hear more about what is important to them – their past. Not only do they want to hear more stories and tell more stories, they want to see someone bring their personal histories out to share. Many want access to what has already been donated; to what has been documented, collected, retained/maintained in archives, museums and the like so as to hear & read about people, places and events that they have known. Gaining access by J-C elders provides a means of sharing memories, and for many, is a way to verify that something important about *them* is there for others to also appreciate in the future. As potential users and donors, they want to see records that relate to their history, but many never think of how their own records might contribute or be of value. More frequently in recent years, however, I’ve heard questions raised about what the elders in the J-C community should do with their records, and this is where I think I can be of service. This has led me to question how I, or certain archives, might better use technology to provide greater access for viewing/sharing or in gathering information (e.g., oral histories, identifying elements in photos, etc.).

    The records of my parents and grandparents generations represent a significant part of Canadian history due to the saga of internship during WWII. My thought has been that there is still much that needs to be maintained & preserved with much important information & many stories (in records) yet untold. Increasingly, stories I’ve heard emphasize the very real and significant geographic element of *place* since much of their stories relate to three distinct places & phases in J-C elders’ lives and to which there are strong affiliations: a *hometown* (where they derived and where their parents/grandparents first settled in BC), a *ghosttown* (the word used to refer to one of a number of areas where Japanese Canadians were interned), and a resettlement town/city in the post-war period where many remain until today. The strong affiliations with such locations make me wonder how well their histories, as part of these places, is 1) documented; 2) maintained and/or preserved, and 3) made accessible.

    There are many potential donors & users in the J-C community out there. These records might still reveal aspects of history that could not otherwise be discovered unless such records, and the details they contain, are maintained and made accessible. The question of whether they actually get donated is secondary to my attempt which, first and foremost, is to get people to try and help ‘salvage’ (not sure if that’s a good word to use) missing information (such as in naming people & places in photos and establishing dates) and by simply mitigating further damage being done through, e.g., scrapbooking, poor storage, etc. There is also the growing tendency to distribute photos after pulling apart albums, and the possibility of records being discarded is becoming more real (since some/many see no reason to leave their families something they think no one is interested in anyway. Unfortunately, many of my generation also do not appreciate the value of their family records).

    It has been suggested to me that enough of the J-C history as this relates to the internship has already been gathered. I have yet to determine if this is true, and perhaps need to test how strong this voice is by asking even more members of the community whether such an effort is worthwhile or redundant. As well, I wonder if the aspect of *place* as I have described above has been addressed. So, with respect to the quote you gave, what I’ve heard directly from the J-C community indicates a need to help educate others in my generation (& beyond) to maintain their family’s records and to find a way to make them accessible so they can be shared by J-C elders.

  • 4 Peter Van Garderen // Apr 6, 2007 at 7:07 am

    Hi again Cathy. It sounds like we are pursuing some similar interests. I myself emigrated from the Netherlands when I was 10 years old and all my life I have also been processing my relationship with my Dutch hometown, the ‘ghosttown’ where my parents settled in Canada and the town, New Westminster, which I’ve now embraced as my new hometown.

    As a result, I am very interested in the history of the Dutch-Canadian immigrant experience which also had WWII as its defining event. I hope to prototype a virtual collection dealing with the Dutch-Canadian experience as part of my research.