What would you do? Historians’ ethics and digitized archives

On April 8, 2016 at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting, I participated in a roundtable discussion “Leading Together: Archivists & Historians Shaping the Digital Archive.” You can see tweets or read Stacie Williams’ post. The following is taken from my presentation notes.

What would you do?

Searching via google you land on a digitized periodical that while behind a login is available to you. You find there, in a magazine that had at its largest a circulation of 2000, an article that fits exactly in a chapter you are writing. The article is mostly transcribed diary entries. While clearly the diary writer meant to publish her excerpts, she did so long before the internet. You question whether she would do so in the era of the internet, which will no doubt amplify the reach of whatever you eventually write. Do you quote the extracts?

The above is only one of many ethical questions I’ve encountered while using digitized archives. Unable to find much discussion among the users of these archives in my own world, I turned to librarians and archivists who have a long history of thinking about these issues.

Even as I started writing some provisional ethical guidelines in the hopes of getting historians to talk about the issues, Tara Robertson a systems librarian and accessibility advocate, published a blog post “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” which highlighted some concerns I share.

She questions Reveal Digital’s decision to digitize On Our Backs a lesbian porn magazine (1984–2004)

“I quickly thought about friends who appeared in this magazine before the internet existed. I am deeply concerned that this kind of exposure could be personally or professionally harmful for them. .. While Reveal Digital went through the proper steps to get permission from the copyright holder, there are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this.”

April Hathcock, a scholarly communication librarian and former lawyer responded to Roberson’s blog post with her own, “Creative Commons Requires Consent,” Hathcock argues that

“this uncritical act of opening all things to all people is in and of itself an act of aggression and oppression. It is a form of cultural and informational colonialism, taking the works of the marginalized — such as the feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” mentioned above — and forcing it into (uncompensated) availability without their express consent.”

My question for historians is how are we thinking about our responsibilities as the users of these digitized archival material, when what we write is online, and when our reuse of digitized materials may at the least violate copyright and the worst cause harm to individuals?

I welcome discussion, feedback, pushback, and any other sort of acknowledgment that historians need to consider ethics in digitized archives. I’ve drafted the following in the hopes of sparking these conversations.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

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