Access for All? It’s not that simple.

Access is the reason why archives exist. As much as archives have been closed to marginalized communities for decades, they have always been open to someone. With digital materials, we have unprecedented ways of granting access to millions of people. But how do we reconcile that with fear over doing it wrong or of no longer having control?

In our Owens chapter for this week, we get a hard look at what access means. We’ve been having discussions about emulation vs migration vs legacy computing for weeks, but this chapter was much more practical and can be boiled down into one sentence:

Just do it

A stumbling block to providing access to digital materials is the feeling that we don’t understand the materials (especially the technical aspects) well enough to be able to provide access. We can provide access to things we don’t understand if we present them in their simplest form. No emulation, relying on the consumer to figure it out. If they want to access it, they will find a way to do and may be able to figure it out better than we can. They might even make copies. This results in a more vernacular/folkloric preservation, which lasts longer and has been a part of world cultures for centuries (Owens 186). We love theory but when it all comes down to it: don’t go into all of the ways that you could make it accessible, choose the easiest one to get it up there and then do all of the theoretical work about the best way to make it accessible later. Access, like digital preservation is an evolving process rather than a one-and-done solution. I admit, I love reading theory and trying to figure out the best way, but that gets in the way of actually getting the material to the patron, and that’s what we are here for.

There is another side to it: “access for the sake of access should not be the objective of cultural heritage institutions” (Owens 166). I know I’m completely contradicting my first section but I whole-heartedly believe in access restrictions. Copyright has a role, documents contain personal information and sensitive information and there are cultural reasons why access may need to be restricted. The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive is well-rounded example of what it means to provide access. They don’t provide access to photographs of sacred objects or culturally restricted objects to patrons or researchers who would not have access to that object in the analog world. The profiles allow people to access what they culturally are allowed to and allows them to add their own images and stories to the archive. This is what good access means to me: we don’t violate personal privacy (as defined by the law or by the individual) or cultural restrictions, but we still let people view and add objects. (This can also be seen in the recently adopted practices for handling and describing objects from native cultures in the US).

I believe in as much access as possible but I don’t think that ignoring personal or cultural practices promotes a respect for the objects within our care.

Part II: Everything is data.

Part of extending access means looking at what we have in a different way to be able to give as many people access as possible. Thinking about the output of the humanities as data, gives us a freedom to represent and test these pieces in new ways. (As explored in “Library Collections as Humanities Data: The Facet Effect”) Let’s remove the binary opposition between experimental data and what researchers do in the humanities, it’s all data, it just looks different. We are challenging archives, why can’t we challenge what data is? Data in its simplest form is information. Text, images, strings of numbers, are all different forms of information and therefore data. We can manipulate all of that to learn new things about the world around us and about what we create. Access and consideration of humanities data results in a cool way to make literature performative. It’s like an underwater version of A Streetcar Named Desire or every Baz Luhrman movie based on a classic work (think Romeo + Juliet). It’s a new way of looking at old texts, with an eye of realizing the constructed nature of how we view these materials. Using humanities data is about data manipulation, same as with scientific data. As archivists, we fear manipulation because it distorts the original, but part of providing access means providing access for research, for pleasure reading or for someone to decide to replace all of the proper nouns in Persuasion with the latin names for aquarium fish. We can’t just provide access for what we determine to be the right way of relating to material because that is exclusionary and goes against all arguments in favor of access.

Part of access is about allowing people to manipulate old things in new ways (think about The Real Face of White Australia – the original creators couldn’t image that we would use their records to show how diverse Australia has always been in a scrolling gallery of faces). We have to allow enough access to not prevent forms of use that we can’t imagine. Then there is the fear of damage, the digital equivalent of ripping the Declaration of Independence in half, that prevents us from extending access to the remote corners of our digital materials. We have to somehow do both: provide access and protect history.


Anyone else feel weird about the whole “users can use the data to make new things” idea? Maybe it’s a clinging to the idea of an archive holding physical and intellectual control of the objects, but how do we protect the data from corruption and provide such extended access?

Is the secret to providing access and protecting history to maintain protected versions that can’t be manipulated? Does that fall under not providing access or is it just good stewardship?

10 Replies to “Access for All? It’s not that simple.”

  1. I like your first question because I actually feel the complete opposite – the thought of archives (and archivists) maintaining control over how their collections are used/displayed is what gives me the heebie jeebies. I think the key here is that archives continue to be the protectors of collections – putting policies in place to ensure long-term preservation, the rights of donors and researchers, . Professionals are still the physical custodians, but intellectual control over collections is shared by everyone. It’s not really all that different than it always has been, researchers use the collections for their own purposes and we don’t control how they analyze them or what they publish, as long as it’s properly cited. We don’t censor researchers’ use of archives beyond addressing privacy over sensitive information, things like that. I see digital humanities as expanding the ways that researchers look at collections by bringing in other tools and technologies, things that help us all analyze and see things in materials in ways we hadn’t before.

    1. I feel like I’m in between you and Margaret Rose’s views on the place of archival/archivist intellectual control over how collections and used and displayed! My biggest pet peeve in attending DH conferences remains when someone starts a talk by saying something like “my digital humanities project is creating a digital archive,” and… that phrase is said A TON. My concern is that while DH projects and interfaces are ways of increasing access while also engaging in scholarship, when the ~interesting and cool~ work gets completely separates from the institution of the archive it also gets separated from the work of the archivist. This is not great, as someone who wants to do that interesting work, but more problematically, it erases the labor that goes into making the content these derivative interfaces are remixing available. And that erasure generally leads to less funding and less hiring at archives, creating a cycle where access is increasingly siloed into these scholarly projects, because it can’t be done within the archival institution, if that makes sense.

      1. This is super interesting and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I think the problem you’re talking about is a symptom of the disconnect between many DH specialists and archivists. My pet peeve is all the DH presentations I’ve seen where it’s clear the creator had no sense of archival principles or standards (and maybe didn’t care). There definitely needs to be less of a gap between the two, and maybe archivists encouraging DH projects is a way to do that… to make sure we’re guiding users towards resources that will help them think harder about why and how they arrange and present things as they do, and what that says about the original records (and the record keepers!) A reminder that without archives (and archivists) to provide those resources, they wouldn’t be there in the first place. I definitely see your point and thank you for giving me so much to think about!

    2. I think part of it is also that I frequently forget the many aspects of digital archiving that are taken from analog archiving. There’s like a weird switch in my brain that flicks off as soon as I start the reading and then turns back on when I’m halfway through the readings.

      I really like that you separated intellectual and physical control, something that I think are more closely linked in analog archives but are much looser with digital archives. Intellectual control in physical archives is also bound by the fact that the document (for example) exists only in one space and has to be accessed in the same space, which is controlled by the archive. With digital archives, the information can be more easily accessed and then intellectual control can be shared.

  2. Totally agree with Perri.

    I think the only thing that was defensible about archivist reticence to get too experimental with physical archival holdings is that there was always only one object. If they allowed users to do crazy things with that, then that’s it, it’s gone forever. So sure, caution is warranted. With digital objects an exact copy can be made and functionally it’s just as good as the original. Just like the Geocities data. A hundred different people could download that and do a hundred and fifty different things with it and the original would still be fine. And I have to say I found the idea of analyzing collections as data sets capable of being quantified in new ways fascinating. It makes me wonder how long it will be before archives are expected to offer APIs to allow users to build services out of their data. It might be a steep hill to climb, but what a great way to prove the enduring value of archives!

  3. For the record, I would love to see an underwater version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m imagining a bunch of air bubbles coming out of Marlon Brando’s mouth as he screams, “Stella!!!!” 10/10 would watch.

    On to more serious things, I agree with both Andy and Perri on the differences between physical and intellectual stewardship. Andy brought up a great point about the affordances of digital media in that multiple copies can be generated and manipulated. In a way it allows archivists to have their cake and eat it to: we can maintain a data set while still allowing users to take our digital objects and make something new of it.

    Does your bigger issue have to do with the ways records can be manipulated to be misrepresentative? In this case, I feel like some of this is on other professions to act as gatekeepers. Historians, for example, can go back and comb footnotes if something reads fishy in an argument (which they will do and tar and feather the offender in the most academic way possible). Questioning archivists role in this is interesting though. Due to the sheer amount of material most of us will have to care for in our professional lives, I feel like we aren’t called to the same level of subject-knowledge that some of our predecessors might have been. Still, I don’t think that should prevent us from speaking out if we see records being used in unethical or misrepresentative ways.

  4. I agree with you that it’s important to balance our desire to provide access with the need to impose restrictions for practical, legal, or ethical reasons. If anything, I think archivists could do a better job of explaining why certain materials might not be available in a world that expects content to be shared online. In one of the first weeks of the course, we discussed public perception and the problems that can result when people don’t understand what archivists do. People sometimes fail to appreciate the amount of time and money it requires to make content accessible and they might not understand that archivists have responsibilities to other groups besides users. For example, Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor have suggested that we also have a duty of care to records subjects, creators, and larger communities ( Perhaps some restrictions are more straightforward than others. The average person might not understand the nuances of intellectual property law but they’ve at least heard of copyright. But how many users are even aware of the Protocols for Native American Materials?

    1. This is a great discussion. But I’ll admit that I do feel a little betwixt and between on the topic of control and access. The non-rivalrous nature of digital objects creates possibilities for access that don’t run the same risks as with physical media. But as you’ve said, “archivists have responsibilities to other groups besides users.” We’re all aware of this but I do think it gets lost in the optimism that surrounds the web and discussions of access.

      And I know that I let out a cheer every time a rock star threatens to sue a rightwing politician for appropriating their song at rallies. Likewise, as archivists, I think we have to be on our guard against misrepresentation and unethical use of the digital objects in our care. We might seek to limit our “control” over the objects while still recognizing our obligation to be “stewards.”

  5. While reading through everyone’s comments I realized that I missed an essential part of understanding digital objects: when the object is downloaded onto another computer, it still exists in its original form on the organization’s website.

    How that managed to not occur to me (a frequent downloader of scholarly articles) is a question for another day.

    Of course then it makes sense; there is no digital equivalent of ripping the declaration of independence in half, you are only ripping the gift shop copy of the declaration. It’s the same information, but it is only a copy.

    Thinking about it from this direction, increasing access/downloadability is more about privacy concerns and financial considerations, rather than a fear of destruction. Dealing with these concerns is based on the intent of the institution and the sensitivity of the materials and probably shouldn’t be defined in blanket statements.

    It’s still a tricky situation, but less tricky once I realized that I was missing a key thought when writing about it.

  6. Great summary. I found the different levels of access for the Mukurtu Archive fascinating. I had questioned whether something like that could be sustainable since the relationship between the user and the material was so dynamic. The URLs in the paper didn’t work for me, but apparently they did follow through on developing the open source platform:

    Regarding your question, as you pointed out in your follow-up post, making something new won’t change the archived object. Last week, I had expressed some concern over the problem of a lack of context when digital objects are downloaded and reshared. I think the nice thing about having the archive is that at least there will be that record. If someone is curious enough about it and knew the object had been altered, they may at least be able to trace it back themselves. (I know I would try. Personally, I can’t stand it when I can’t place a quote. I think GIFs are annoying, but I’d find them even more annoying if I didn’t know where the image came from.)

    Ultimately, if there’s no reason for restricted access (copyright, privacy, cultural norms…), I’d have to accept that the user will do what he or she wants with it. I actually like the idea of using data science as a way of drawing connections between disparate collections.

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