Tuesday 3 April 2018

And she gave away the secrets of her past...

So, when last month's theme was announced, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of writing at length on it. I find the idea of professional work being tied to one's happiness hugely problematic - as do I find the idea of my work being tied to somebody else's happiness. But at least I had books.

Then this month's theme, Control, was announced - now there's a topic that I can get my teeth into. Cue the Joy Division soundtrack (i.e. press play below) and continue reading.

So, a little while ago, somebody came into work bemoaning the restrictive limitations that a certain State Library (which shall remain nameless for the sake of my future career prospects) had in its Special Collections Reading Room. Apparently, whilst certain manuscript collections were available for viewing in the reading room - albeit under controlled supervision - they were in no way allowed to take digital photographs of the material for future reference. They could, of course, transcribe and sketch (using a pencil, of course), and read the contents. But without express permission from the donor of the material - or, as is often the case, their descendants. Of course, the kicker is that (until January 1, 2019), all unpublished materials remain in copyright in perpetuity. The other unfortunate possibility is that once the material is no longer protected by copyright, it still might have restrictive access and copying conditions placed on it by a rights agreement between the donor and the library.

Now, I know what you're thinking - this is 2018. Who even cares about boxes of dead trees that were carved out half a century ago? The answer is - a lot of people. Especially when that knowledge is locked away in the physical world, whilst we're living in a digital world. It is literally buried treasure. The moment it is uncovered, captured and set free into the digital world, it no longer has value in its scarcity. Furthermore, once a manuscript collection / archive is fragmented into its parts, it no longer has value in its recordness as a formed set of documents, and it loses context, evidence - effectively, its story.

But I'm a librarian, not an archivist. I'm primarily focused on the needs of the reader, not the wishes of the creator - especially when that creator has been dead for thirty years. Here's why: The world has changed. Back in the 20th century, when old-fashioned rights agreements were being put together with donors, we didn't have digital cameras. We didn't have the internet. We had photocopiers - which were likely to cause irreparable damage to any delicate materials placed in them. Libraries didn't have the same mission to digitise and take collections to the world. The world had to come to the library, get their reader's ticket, get out the white gloves, and preferably have some kind of academic credentials to justify casting their naked eyes on a piece of history.

And people would donate a lifetime's worth of personal papers to the library, trusting that the library would do everything in their power to maintain a controlling eye over these collections, lest a careless reader corrupt the sanctity of their hand-written memories in their wake.

So, this is the legacy that we must contend with, when somebody wants to make digital copies of materials that have come from a time when the idea of digital copying was unfathomable. Furthermore, when archives come in endless boxes of mixed media, from unpublished written work to photos, newspaper clippings, letters from third parties and printed ephemera, the very thought of trying to dictate where copyright starts and ends for each item is enough to make any librarian say, "No!" (When what they're really saying is "I don't want to be responsible for sorting out this mess!")

So that's what (some) libraries do. They say, "No. Not without express permission from whoever it is that can authorise whatever it is that you want to copy. Even if it's just for research purposes and you're not going to actually reproduce the contents."

I say some libraries, because I was pleasantly surprised when attending a session at VALA last month, which addressed the question of how to ethically, morally and legally make digitised archives available through the web. Gavan McCarthy from the University of Melbourne described the archive space as a "Sartrean" space - that is to say that it's full of human variability, in the way that they do not behave in the way that machines do. So, imposing binary yes/no rules for accessing and using collections is always going to be a fraught process, especially when we often don't really know what's in them, and what kind of variables they have.

In the end, their solution was somewhat simple. They just put it out there, with a content notice, access conditions, and conditions of use. By providing your email address, you agreed to the terms, and then you would be sent a download link for the digital collection:

Effectively, they relinquished control, and placed the onus on the reader to be aware of the content, and to do the right thing in terms of accessing and using the materials.

A colleague of mine described this as "ballsy", and I won't lie - there's still a part of me that, as a librarian, is incredibly uncomfortable with this idea. That part of me that feels like this is a naive approach which will lead to mass replication that devalues the work, risks the public disclosure of personal information, and will eventually lead to lawsuits, takedown requests, and the loss of professional reputation (which is important for libraries that are trying to attract quality manuscript collections).

But at the same way, there's something quite liberating about taking a leap of faith, and letting go of that control.