As the news cycled through the latest Wikileaks surprise–250,000 US Embassy Diplomatic Cables–my students were giving their final presentations in class. Ruth and I (with much technical assistance from Michael Ashley) taught a class on Archaeology and New Media this semester, culminating in a fairly open-ended final group project about some aspect of archaeology in the Bay Area.
The projects tended to be a mix of media that the students had produced themselves such as videos and photographs, along with historical materials that they gleaned from archives. Mixing their own microhistories with the historical archive results in more interesting, innovative, and intellectually robust interpretations of the past and emphasizes participatory culture and history-making.
Sadly, their eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined.
I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom. The students have taken photos that they aren’t sure they can use. They have gathered quotes from interviews that the archive refuses to publish. I try to make the students fully understand copyright law, their place in the educational system and their rights, and the consequences of violating copyright. But I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–I tell them to share, and, as much as they are able, to free information from obsolete or tyrannical bureaucracy. They are already learning to negotiate and operate within radical transparency. Facebook, Google and the government are omnipresent–collecting information at every turn–and the students are learning from this example and turning it back onto the companies that control content, rejecting the right to keep any information under lock and key.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.
These collections are dying, strangled by ridiculous restrictions, outdated copyright law, and protectionist garbage. If my students commandeer and share archival material is it stealing media or is it liberating information? Many educators are horrified that students no longer read or reference books or journal articles that are not available online. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t actually encourage this behavior and boycott offline research. If something is not available, make it available. If you do not make your research widely available, then perhaps it is rightfully ignored.
Digitize and share your archive, by hook or crook. You might just be saving its life.