Tag Archives: NARA

The National Archives & Private Digitization

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.

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Letters In Cursive

This past summer I had the opportunity to intern at the National Archives and Records Administration in Colorado. While I was there I began to associate history with the smell of recycled air, old leather and the cardboard feel of Hollinger boxes that contained most of the contents of the archives. I also made it a habit to ask people that worked there what their favorite thing in the archives was, and in general I was rewarded with amazing pieces of history that I never would have come across on my own. I got to see everything from original photographs of the Albuquerque Indian School to glass plate negatives of Chinese workers on the Yangtze river.

One day I asked one of my coworkers, Rick, what his favorite thing in the archives was. “There’s this letter,” he said, “from the governor of Montana to an Indian chief about Sitting Bull that I really like. I’ll show it to you.” He took me back to the archives, pulled down a Hollinger box and handed me the letter. However, I quickly realized that I couldn’t read it.

The letter was in beautiful, flowing cursive and, though neat and proportioned, was mostly unintelligible to me. I could identify a few words here and there, but the general meaning of the letter was lost upon me. I actually had to ask Rick to read the letter aloud. I felt a little embarrassed and not a little childish, and realized while he was reading it that I hadn’t read cursive text at length for over a decade. I had been raised reading and typing in Times New Roman and writing in print for so long that I had lost the ability to really engage in cursive text. I also realized during my internship there that most of the handwriting in the archives is in cursive and, like the letter, would be difficult for me glean significant meaning from.

Being handed that letter was a poignant moment for me, and for the first time made me question if there was any cost for having been raised in a digital environment. At that moment, the cost was intellectual access to an amazing piece of history. It felt unusual and humbling to not to be able to read something in my own language. I can navigate computers, the web and most digital technologies with relative ease and can access vast quantities of information quickly and accurately, yet at that moment those skills seemed to have handicapped my ability to read a piece of the past.

Since that time I have become more aware of the potential effects of technology on my ability to interact with the past, for better and for worse. However, I believe that if used thoughtfully, technology can make many of the tasks that libraries and archives preform more effective and ubiquitous. The contents of these institutions are by no means made obsolete by digital media, and the increase in digital usage can be harnessed to broaden the demographic that can be reached by them. I believe that libraries and archives stand at a unique intersection between technology and the past, and by using technology to preserve, organize and give access to the past, both these institutions and the populations they serve stand to gain a great deal.

Currently, I’m working on a grant to digitize the civil rights collections of several universities in North Carolina. I find this to be a great example of how digital technology can increase access to the past and am really enjoying the work I do. While most of the material I’m working with was produced on a typewriter, every once in a while I come across a handwritten, cursive letter, and ever so slowly, and with greater appreciation, I find that I can understand more and more of them.