Focus and reframe: rights and unpublished materials

I’m using this blog posting to wrap together a bunch of ideas I’ll be presenting at a meeting tomorrow, Undue Diligence: Seeking Low-risk Strategies for Making Collections of Unpublished Materials More Accessible.

Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner helped to reframe processing modern archival collections in More Product, Less Process. Similarly, Shifting Gears helped to recast digitization from special collections. The purpose of Undue Diligence is to help professionals to look anew at rights issues around unpublished materials, specifically with regard to digitization of those materials, particularly 20th and 21st century collections.

The RLG Partnership exists to identify shared problems spaces, and to reduce pain and effort in those areas. With increasing expectations that our holdings will be made digitally accessible, assessing rights (copyright, along with privacy rights, and potentially sensitive materials) within archival collections is one of those points of pain. The prospect of analyzing items within archival collections is so painful, in fact, that many institutions avoid digitizing collections that were created in the last 70 to 100 years. While this is a very safe practice, it does little to advance broad and democratic access to collections in our care.

The RLG Partnership likewise dodged the copyright bullet in 2007 when we held our forum, Digitization Matters (from which Shifting Gears was born). We ruled copyright out of scope. While reframing the conversation around digitization — from preservation to access, from quality to quantity — did help move the conversation on digitization forward, it did little for those institutions who have major collections relating to … the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, the civil rights movement, the free speech movement… the list goes on and on. This is a small slice of topics that are studied by researchers, taught in classrooms, and of interest to citizens everywhere.

In 2008, we published a short paper called Copyright Investigation Summary Report, which looked at then-current practices around copyright with both published and unpublished materials. Here, we learned that most investigations related to copyright were in relationship to permissions and almost never to digitization. Work was high effort and low return. “We say no a lot,” said one interviewee. Having conducted the interviews, I was pretty depressed by what I heard, which was a tale of professionals paralyzed by potential risks, and of collections shackled.

One of the proposed outcomes of the paper was to “…further explore community practice and issues around unpublished materials held in special collections and archives.” We did so by sponsoring the meeting that lead to the SAA Orphan Works Statement of Best Practices, which was published in 2009. This document provides good guidance for institutions to conduct a “reasonable search,” but does not frame rights assessment in a risk management strategy.

The risk of perceived harm in digitizing a collection is quite variable, based on factors like content, purpose of creation, and date of creation. We believe, in addition to standards for conducting a reasonable search, the community needs to reframe the issues of rights and risks as a community, and also to embrace rights assessment as archivists: at a collection or series level and not at an item level.

We are holding this event, with a star studded cast of presenters, to help set the stage for an important conversation, which is the development of what we are calling a set of “well intentioned practices.” We hope that this will have two effects. The first is that archivists will not need to reinvent the wheel, and can draw from community practices to identify lower risk collections of high research interest. The second is that institutions will digitize collections more freely. Even if institutions consider digitizing two out of ten collections, as opposed to one out of ten collections, access to collections will double!

We will follow up with subsequent blog postings both to report on the content of Undue Diligence and also to report on outcomes.

Many thanks to the advisory group who both helped to shape this event and our program of work in this area.

If you wish to follow the event on Twitter, follow #UndueD. I’ve also set up a Twapper Keeper for the event.

2 Comments on “Focus and reframe: rights and unpublished materials”

  1. I would also encourage those interested in this topic to read Dr. Jean Dryden’s (now at U.Md.) excellent published article in Archival Science, her dissertation, and other published pieces related to this topic. Dr. Dryden completed a comprehensive research study on copyright issues, fear of copyright infrigement and its impact on the archival community in Canada. The implications are the same for the US archival community.

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