Owning the Archive

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Dan Cohen (of Zotero and Digital History fame) writes on his blog about the increasing privatization of the public archive. I ordered on Interlibrary Loan Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, a book about the issues related to letting google have control over digitizing the archive. But, a bigger concern to me, at least in the short term is the agreement between the National Archives and Footnote, Inc. Dan covers the central issues in his post, so I won’t repeat them here. Just head on over and read. Its important and gives a sense of the issue at hand.

I want to disagree with one small point though. I believe that open access to the archive, specifically in this case the public archive, seems to me to be a founding principle of democracy. This is one of those cases where market interests are in direct conflict with the interests of the public sphere, and democracy. Letting a company control the dissemination of the information within the archive, even if it is not exclusive, seems to me to be the wrong path. Dan suggests that students ought to have free access, that the National Archives ought to have least struck a deal to make this happen. While I agree with most of what Dan says, I think to divide student from non-student already concedes to much ground. In the end I think we are “students” of the public archive whether we like it or not, and are status and power as citizens is in some ways based on our access to and ability to control its contents. My guess is that University libraries will purchase licenses to allow all students and professors to use this surface. So, what will happen is those outside of the walls of the University will not benefit from the digital access that those within the walls will have. Yet again preserving the power(s) of the institution. I think those who have access to this knowledge base ought to continually work to guarantee access to the largest possible number. (I don’t think Dan would disagree here, having read part of his book he seems to argue this. To be fair I think he is being partly rhetorical. I just want to caution against this rhetorical turn: That somehow those within the walls of academia (public or private, secondary or higher ed.) should have privileged access.) I close with one of my favorite quotes from Archive Fever:

“Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”