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.

The Problem with the Present: C-EBLIP Journal Club, June 21, 2016

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

Article: Dupont, Christian & Elizabeth Yakel. “’What’s So Special about Special Collections?’ Or, Assessing the Value Special Collections Bring to Academic Libraries.” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice [Online], 8.2(2013): 9-21. https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/19615/15221

I was pleased to have the opportunity to lead the last C-EBLIP Journal Club session of the season. I chose an article which looked at the difficulties in employing performance measures to assess the value of a special collection or archives to the academic library. The article has some failings in that it is written largely from a business perspective, and uses special collections and archives interchangeably in a way that becomes problematic if you consider the archives’ responsibility as a repository for institutional records (which go through many different phases of use)—however, it did serve as a useful springboard for our talk.

What interested me was that those present immediately latched on to the problem of “What about preservation value?” when considering the article’s model of measuring performance. The article poses that the best way to measure a special collection/archives’ “return on investment” is not simply by counting the number of times an item is used (a collection-based method), but rather by reporting the number of hours a user spends working with an item, and what the learning outcomes of that use are determined to be (a user-based method) (Dupont and Yakel, 11).

In some ways, a user-centric approach to measuring performance in archives and special collections makes good sense. A single researcher may spend five weeks exploring fifteen boxes, or taking a close look at a single manuscript, and so recording the user hours spent may prove a more accurate measure of use. To reinforce this, there are a number of difficulties in utilizing collection-based metrics with manuscript collections. Individual documents studied within an archival collection are almost impossible to track. Generally a file is treated as an “item”, and the number of files in a box might be averaged. The article points out, accurately, that this imprecision renders collection-based tabulation of archival documents, images, and ephemera virtually “meaningless” (Dupont and Yakel, 14).

However, if the end goal is determining “return on investment”, user-centric data also leaves out a large piece of the picture. This piece is the previously mentioned “preservation value”, or the innate value in safeguarding unique historical documents. Both collection-based and user-based metrics record current usage in order to determine the value of a collection at the present time. This in-the-present approach becomes problematic when applied to a special collections or archives, however, for the simple reason that these bodies not only preserve the past for study in the present, but also for study in the distant future.

To pull apart this problem of using present-based metrics to measure the worth of a future-purposed unit of the academic library, we look at the recent surge in scholarship surrounding aboriginal histories. As Truth and Reconciliation surfaces in the public consciousness, materials which may have been ignored for decades within archival/special collections are now in high demand. Questions of this nature accounted for approximately forty percent of our usage in the last month alone. Had collections-centric or user-centric metrics been applied for those decades of non-use, these materials would have appeared to be of little worth, and the special collections/archives’ “return on investment” may also have been brought into question. The persistence of archives and special collections in preserving unique historic materials regardless of patterns of use means that these materials can play a role in changing perspectives and changing lives nationwide.

If, as Albie Sachs says in his 2006 article on “Archives, Truth, and Reconciliation”, archives and special collections preserve history “for the unborn . . . not, as we used to think, to guard certainty [but] to protect uncertainty because who knows how the future might use those documents”, might not the employment of only present-centric metrics do more damage than good? (Sachs, 14). And, if the value of an archives or special collections cannot be judged solely in the present, but must take an unknown and unknowable future into account, perhaps the formulation of a truly comprehensive measure of “return on investment” in this field is impossible.

Sources:
Dupont, Christian & Elizabeth Yakel. “’What’s So Special about Special Collections?’ Or, Assessing the Value Special Collections Bring to Academic Libraries.” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice [Online], 8.2(2013): 9-21. https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/19615/15221

Sachs, Albie. “Archives, Truth, and Reconciliation”. Archivaria , 62 (2006): pp. 1 -14.

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.