Controlling Reuse in Archives: C-EBLIP Journal Club, May 22, 2018

by Stevie Horn
University Archives and Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan

Dryden, Jean. “Just Let It Go? Controlling Reuse of Online Holdings.” Archivaria 77 (Spring 2014). Pp,43-71. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13486

For the last C-EBLIP journal club meeting before our summer hiatus, I brought to the table an article by copyright expert Jean Dryden discussing the tension between access and control within the online archival realm. My selection of a somewhat dated article stemmed from this very tension. Archivaria is Canada’s premiere journal for archival professionals, and I was determined to choose a discussion piece from within its pages. Unfortunately, any issues more recent than 2014 are subscription locked, and so in order to find something that could easily be accessed by the rest of the group, it was necessary to jump back in time a bit.

So here, from the very selection of the article, we run into the issue at hand: the ongoing struggle archives and archivists face in simultaneously making materials available to their researchers, and maintaining some sort of control over those materials. I will note that although this article focuses on online holdings, the same access-control war is also being fought in the day-to-day physical work of the archives. When the job description involves making order out of chaos, control becomes a bit of an obsession.

Pursuing control over archival materials while providing access to them online has led to the creation of a number of unofficial best practices as well as some not-so-good practices that are common across institutions. Dryden highlights several, including the use of low-resolution or watermarked images which force users to contact the institution directly for images of a higher quality; the passive or aggressive application of terms and conditions on the website; and a practice Jason Mazzone termed “copyfraud”, or the claiming of copyright ownership over materials that are actually in the public domain, or whose copyright lies with another entity.

Following an extensive study based on viewing a number of archival websites, collecting surveys, and conducting one-on-one interviews with a number of participants, Dryden concludes that although most institutions employ some means of preventing the copying of online archival holdings, the repository is rarely, in fact, the rights holder. She suggests that archives should use caution in how they employ copyright, or the impression of copyright to ensure that they do not “present a barrier to online documentary heritage” (Dryden, 43).

The discussion around this article was wide-ranging and enriched by the professional backgrounds of those present. We spent some time speaking on how the nature of archival materials as being most often one-of-a-kind can affect the need for control. As an example, the citation requirements for an archival document may be much more stringent than those applied to a widely published text. A good citation may be the only path (and certainly the easiest path) to finding a given archival resource again. For many institutions, it is here that the pressure to assert some sort of control occurs, and where restrictions may be placed on the mass copying and redistribution of a high quality image, regardless of whether the image is in the public domain or not. An improperly cited digital object floating around the internet can be a great causer of future headaches. However, should we contradict our own mandates of providing access simply to avoid a headache (or in the case of institutions that rely on a pay-for-copies model, make a profit)? An ethical dilemma I will not tackle here.

Another interesting element of the discussion was the hypothesis that a better use of technology could more harmoniously provide both access and control over digital objects. For example, a step-by-step process could be applied, walking users through any questions of copyright involving the item they are interested in using. Clickable licenses related to that item could also be present for those looking for more detailed copyright information. Rather than providing a false sense of copyright being held over materials in the public domain in order to maintain control, a downloadable citation option could be offered alongside the image, with a statement as to why a reference back to the institution of origin is important.

Along these user-friendly lines, we also considered whether some of the language and symbolism around Creative Commons licenses could be applied to archival materials. Certainly, Creative Commons is a parlance that is becoming more familiar to many researchers, and applying that language to the materials that archives do hold copyright over may disambiguate some of the current restrictions on and requirements for use. It was suggested that applying a Creative Commons license to a donor’s materials could even be done at the point of acquisition as part of the deed of gift. Although this notion has not taken the archival world by storm, it does seem as though there is some discussion of this sort of synthesis going on from the Creative Commons end of things.

In the end, we came through our discussion of control and access with a few exciting new ideas and, I think, greater understanding all around. I appreciated hearing perspectives from voices outside of the archival world, as sometimes archivists can become so caught up in putting things tidily into boxes that we do not notice that we have boxed ourselves up as well.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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