This last semester I wrote a paper about how the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has contracted out the digitization of some of its records through private companies, who then sold access to those digital records. Through the process of writing the paper I became aware of the complexity of digital rights management (DRM) and had my opinions about access verses rights challenged repeatedly. Originally, when I read the agreements that NARA had made with these companies I thought they were great; they provided online access to digitized records for a fraction of the cost of visiting a potentially distant location to access them. From the perspective of someone who wants to use the archives, paying a private company twenty dollars a month to access the material online sounds vastly superior to flying to D.C. and renting a hotel to access the same thing in person.
While NARA loses the digital rights to anything digitized by a private company for five years, in the interest of expanding access to users and opening up the archives to the public, I thought the temporary loss of digital rights was a small cost. The agreements themselves are complicated and there are many differences among them but their particularities are not of interest here. What is interesting is what some in the archival community had to say about them.
To put it broadly, there was a tone of caution among archivists that warned against public institutions giving away rights over their material, even if it meant an increase in public access. At first I thought their warnings were the reservations of traditionalists who didn’t understand the impending ubiquity a digital culture. “Throw wide the gates to history,” I thought. “Let digitization herald in the new wave of online access!” But slowly, their arguments began to coalesce in my mind and after further reading, what I had taken to be stale conservatism I began to see as thoughtful critiques from people who probably understand digital culture better than I do.
The critics of NARA’s digitization agreements are invested in and support digitization and public access to information as much as I do. However, what they saw in the agreements that I did not is the potential to limit public access to digitized content in the future by presently gambling with their digital rights. If institutions are not in full control of the rights to their content, third party agents can restrict, redact or even erase material. This is not unprecedented with digital material, and if digital rights are not carefully considered, it will be the users that suffer.
In her blog Archives Next, Kate Thiemer presents some reasonable permutations of how NARA’s decisions regarding these digitization contracts could play out. In his blog Free Government Information, James Jacobs expresses concern for the precedent that this kind of DRM compromise sets for the archival community and private cooperative ventures.
I still think that digitization can offer archives some incredible benefits and remains an exciting prospect. I still think the private sector can engage in this process and work with archives in a mutually beneficial arrangement. However, beginnings are fragile and precedents carry weight. What is needed is a continued thoughtful discourse and willingness to explore new possibilities.