Why I like to study Dead People

The material this week addressed two distinct but interrelated topics. I want to start with the issue of copyright and archival access before turning to the idea of free scholarship. As a historian who studies the mid-nineteenth century, I never run into the issue of copyright restrictions. Even image or artwork produced during that time, which I would like to include in my works, usually is openly available. I can however feel for all my peers who do more contemporary research (i.e. the dark art—the p. s. stuff—things after 1980) and struggle with the issue of access. Especially the story of the Malcolm X resources was incredible saddening, not just because there likely will never be a possibility to write a comprehensive biography based on the vast body of his work, simply because we do not know where all of his work is. Even more it is saddening that there are people, owning Malcolm X material, who rather keep those items in a vault hidden from everybody, only them knowing what treasures they have, and not share this material with a wider audience who could learn and benefit from this material. Would this not enhance one’s personal wealth too, knowing that one owns valuable civic documents that hold incredible humanistic value beside simple monetary value? But, this probably rather speaks to the general problem within the country for the past century and more. Rich individuals had always looked to their personal wealth and cared little about society and its needs. So nothing has changed between the Robber Barons and the 1% “movement.” Obviously, I personally think documents of historic value should not be in a private bank vault but in an archive, accessible to the public. If a donor wants to be a d***, they can always include stipulations that researchers have to ask for permission from them. It would not be ideal, as the story with the Martin Luther King papers shows, but at least there would be access and public knowledge.

I unfortunately encountered a similar issue in my own research once as I was digging through diaries by Rudolph Schleiden in the state library of Schleswig-Holstein. Hidden in one of the boxes was a finding aid with correspondence, but the librarians said they did not own those materials and had no idea where they were. Almost resigning to the usual war damage storyline, I did some more searching when returned to the United States and discovered that the correspondence was located in the university library of the Christian Albrecht Universität only a stone throw from the state library. I was crossed.

The issue of privacy and copyright was significant in the other piece about medical and student records from Civil Rights Era Mississippi. While for education purposes, I think the author was overly cautious and copyright holders overly vigilant on the issue of showing videos at conference or in classes. I can see where we cross a line when we make entire books, that are still on the market for purchase, available to students online. On the other hand, if I want to show videos without having to worry about the troubling nature of USG provided wireless internet, I think that we need to have some leeway to download/pirate those clips and audios for our class and integrate them into powerpoint presentations. Education purposes obviously stretch the limitations of copyright, but maybe there is also the need for some more freedom, after all we expose potentially hundreds of consumers to images or videos who might buy them.

On a final note and related to all this is the question raised by Roy Rosenzweig about free scholarship. Obviously, this is an issue people are torn about. Should scholarship, books, articles be free to the public? Having signed a contract with a university press that clearly said that only after the first 500th copies sold would I even get a small percentage of the money made, I have no, nor ever had, any illusion of making money of my writing. I write for promotions in my academic job or for new job opportunities, which will provide higher pay. Especially the smaller university presses might bulk at the thought of their already shrinking budgets being further curtailed by free books. At the same time, this might be an opportunity for university presses as well. They usually operate with small stuff and if they offered books as pdf or digital online, they would eliminate the high printing and type setting costs. I do not think that freely providing journal articles would be a major downfall for historic societies. Especially, organization like the Society of Civil War Historians, Southern Historical Association, Society of Historians of the Early Republic would all still have members because their journal is only part of why historians are members, the other is the networking and conferences, which would still provide a major draw. I can see why the overblown bureaucratic American Historical Society would sweat it. I have abandoned my membership because I hardly ever read the AHR whose articles are never remotely in my field of interest and whose meetings are overblown affairs with most jobseekers (like myself). In this case it would be the organization that had to change. Similarly, I think that groups like JStor, EBSCO, and especially Gale should make their material more accessible to the public, cutting dramatically their subscription costs. A broader opportunity to read the latest trends and information in scholarship could open the door for the public to become more involved and engaged.

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