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?