The Problem of Recent History

By: Evan Meehan

Journalists are better known that historians for the moral issues they face when it comes to the information they seek to publish.  In Radiolab’s “Sight Unseen” this type of journalistic moral issue is paramount: Should journalists coerce or strong-arm parents of a deceased soldier to allow their images to be used?

While this moral dilemma is important and deals with emotionally charged materials it is not the typical issue that historians deal with on a daily basis.  Why not?

Continue reading

Open Research, Open Archives

In Rosenzweig’s “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” he discusses the 2005 mandate by the National Institutes of Health that all NIH-sponsored research be published in the open access repository PubMed Central and posits this as the beginning of the ongoing movement towards more open access research and less paywalls. More than ten years have passed since this was written and while open access content is a growing trend, there are still many paywalls. Many journals offer some content for free as a way to show their participation but are ultimately unwilling to move to a completely free model. Rosenzweig discusses the various means to providing open access materials without causing publishers to go out of business, like author charges, self archiving, providing delayed or partial access, and cooperation with libraries. Some publishers will allow authors to publish their work in an institutional repository, but it often must be negotiated at the the time of publication. In a previous job, I provided support for an institutional repository and often contacted publishers on behalf of authors to see if they would retroactively allow a copy to be published in the IR; almost always, the answer was no. This all puts a lot of pressure on the author to seek publications that offer open access or are willing to negotiate and accept the SPARC addendum and to sometimes pay or try to find funding for the author charge. I’m not convinced we’ve found a solution to these issues over the past decade, and while the goal of open information is admirable and one worth continuing to work for, we can’t expect the authors to pick up all the slack.

Brown and Kaiser discuss the openness and accessibility of archival materials in the chapter “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past” in Doing Recent History. Ethical issues arise when materials related to still or recently living people are made publicly accessible, and legal issues can also be possible if health or student records are also made accessible in an open archival collection. This chapter provided further insight into the regulations and requirements of FERPA, HIPAA, and state personnel records laws, all of which must be considered when making information related to recent history available more quickly. The authors do discuss both preventative and reactive ways to handle some of the issues that may arise and speculate on what could be done in some situations. The overarching theme of access is, I think, the most important goal in archives providing a service to researchers, and I especially like the call to action for archivists to relinquish some control and to partner with donors and researchers to avoid these dilemmas. Some of these same ethical dilemmas were also faced in the RadioLab episode Sight Unseen, in which the father of a soldier killed in action declined to allow the photographs of his son’s death to be openly published.

Both these readings focus on access and openness; Rosenzweig discusses the importance of open scholarship, while Brown and Kaiser focus on open archives and the access to the materials needed to conduct that scholarship. The theme of openness fits into most library and archives mission statements and access is a key tenet in both professions; I think disrupting the traditional power structures in both settings (publishers as control, archivists as gatekeepers) and focusing more on partnership and collaborations can continue to move the conversation forward.

Musings on ‘Sight Unseen’

For nearly thirty minutes I searched key-words, names and and dates in google looking for the photo spread of Jonathan Taylor’s rescue. I needed to see this—to allow the visual to solidify the story in my head. I felt something akin to Jonathan’s youngest sister when she said she wanted to see the photos to find closure in the reality that her brother was indeed gone. There is something about the person, the single story, the beginning to end that kept me googling until I reached the part in the podcast that told me I would never see these images.

Lynsey Addario in the RadioLab podcast, Sight Unseen, mentioned the small pinch of retreat she had at not being able to publish the spread Time magazine had created with her roll of film— how the spread could have put the conversation of war and our country’s stake in it into greater perspective for our nation. We have been largely shielded from the actualities of warfare unlike our parents and grandparents visuals from Vietnam. The issue of permission, not so much copyright, was evident in this piece. Because of the military’s rules on media and its dissemination, Addario was forced to obtain permission from the next of kin before being able to proceed with its publication.

At this point in the story we see that copyright and permissions are not so cut and dry. The subject matter of the media creates an added barrier to the content. It adds the question, “should this be made available?” Roy Rosenzweig in his article, ‘Should Historical Scholarship be Free?’ makes the point of public good and even further, willingness. In the Taylor case it is hard to place such generalities as these photos were a graphic storyline of the rescue and subsequent death of their son, brother, and friend. Even through this, I thought this might be a litmus test for further discussions of contested material such as these photos in how they might be beneficial if access is open. I certainly understand the Taylor’s decision and their reasoning behind keeping the more graphic materials from public eye. Though I searched for the photos I knew that this was such a personal thing looking into someone’s death as I was.

Though the copyright of the photos is given to Addario, the rights of the family and the regulations of the military gave “licensing” to the family. Permission and copyright were split up in this way and the owner of the work was then tasked with gaining permission for its use from another party. Strange as it may be, this military rule was in great taste and consequently allowed a family to understand and be more fully parted because of that understanding. The public good that came from the published photo spread of fifteen photos was still especially poignant and when coupled with RadioLabs ‘Sight Unseen’ brings the emotion and connection, what I imagine Lynsey Addario wanted her photos to inspire in the first place.

-Lynn Robinson

More Access = Better Narratives

In his piece, “Should Historical Scholarship be Free” Roy Rosenzweig discussed the challenges and potential benefits of making professional historical scholarship more available to the public. This thought process was a direct result of a policy instituted by the NIH that decreed all publicly funded research should be openly accessible to the public within 12 months of publication. Though this rule does not directly apply to historical scholarship, it did prompt Rosenzweig to consider the benefits and limitations of free historical scholarship. Though he acknowledged that it would be difficult to achieve open access to scholarship in a system designed to restrict access based on ability to pay, Rosenzweig argued that freer access would benefit historical research as well as public education.

Open access to scholarship could mean greater access to scholarly resources for anyone with enough curiosity. Currently, the restriction of resources to those individuals and institutions who can afford subscriptions to databases excludes laymen from the process of writing history and perpetuates the notion of historians as lofty scholars in ivory towers. Open access could change this by allowing people the opportunity to keep up with newer interpretations of history. But open access would also allow students of poorer institutions who may not be able to afford all databases to have access to historical materials and scholarships previously forbidden. It could also allow teachers access to more resources, which could in turn create space for a more constructivist learning environment.

The current limiting of resources has a profound impact on the public understanding of historical study, and the historiographicprocess. The episode of Radio Lab “Sight Unseen” gives insight into how a narrative shifts based on the limitation of sources. The original narrative told by Lynsey Addario’s photographs from a medevac unit in Afghanistan was one of death and mourning in war. The inclusion of images featuring a specific soldier in the moments before and after his death made that narrative a powerful one. In the interview, Addario compared the images she took to those taken during the Vietnam war, which served as a brutal reminder of the cost paid by soldiers and their families. According to Addario, photographs like these that featured the brutality of warfare played a role in the American public’s outrage over the Vietnam war. Because of new rules regarding the publication rights,this sort of coverage is far less common in modern  warfare. However, in Addario’s case, she needed permission from the soldier’s family before she could publish any photographs with identifying marks. In the end, the soldier’s parents denied her request to publish images with identifying marks. Though Addario followed ethical guidelines, and the parents were completely within their rights to publish, their decision completely changed the narrative. By simply excluding a few images, the narrative shifted dramatically and became a less poerful story of a medevac team doing their best to save soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan.

A lack of historical resources is currently having a similar effect all over the United States. The narratives told by high school history papers, and the research done at smaller institutions are limited not only by government standards, but also by restricted access to current scholarship and digitized collections. If historical scholarship continues to be restricted to only the school systems, libraries, and Universities that can afford them, students’ understanding of history will be unnecessarily limited.


Too Much and Too Little, Often at the Same Time

The readings this week brought a lot of issues to mind that I have to deal with quite often at work, much of it pertaining to misunderstandings that patrons have about our materials.  Often, we have patrons who come in to look at architectural drawings of their house and they are absolutely shocked that anybody can come in and see the drawings without their permission.  They are somehow under the impression that when they purchased the property, they gained ownership of all things related to it.  This happens with organizations and organizational collections as well.  We try to allow the organizations a bit more freedom, but, in the end, access has to be balanced out with preservation.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also have collections that are ridiculously restricted.  For example, we have a massive (and complete) collection of video feeds from the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta.  It’s an amazing resource that absolutely no one uses.  Most people don’t even know about it, but, even if they did, it wouldn’t really matter.  When we received that collection, we did not receive any of the rights with it.  In fact, the rights are held by four or five different entities.  If a researcher wanted to use the videos at all, they would have to get permission from ( and pay fees to) each of the copyright holders.  If even one person said no, the entire project would be sunk (and I don’t think anybody has ever successfully gotten permission).  As a result, the collection just sits there on the shelves, completely useless because of convoluted copyright laws.

The other issue brought up by the readings was the problem of paywalls.  We do subscribe to a number of databases, including the library version of Ancestry, which adds a lot of resources that the home user could not access.  One of our more popular resources, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is very annoyingly affected by a paywall, though.  We have the entire runs of the Journal and the Constitution back to the 1860’s on microfilm.  The problem, however, is that there aren’t any indexes prior to the 1970’s.  To do any sort of search through the Constitution (the Journal isn’t available), the patron has to use the AJC Archive search to find a list of articles that might be what they are looking for.  The articles have all been digitized within this search, and can be looked at by clicking the result, but only if the patron is a paid subscriber specifically for the AJC Archive database.  These searches could be incredibly easy for our patrons, but instead the information is stuck behind a paywall.  The patron has to go through each possible microfilm roll until they find what they are looking for.  A process that digitally could take minutes, instead becomes a labor that can take hours.

Protecting The Public from Itself

I am all for democratic access to information, especially when the work that goes into producing that information is supported by public funding. Let the people know what they’ve paid for. However, some archival materials may not be accessible to the public, for the good of the resources outlined within the materials. Roseinzweig addresses the issue of public assess to historical research from the angle of publicly funded institutional research. Personally, I have a bit of experience with the art of withholding knowledge from the public. The archaeological record, just like the historical record, is rife with data that can be exploited when it gets into the wrong hands.  From 2009 to 2010 I worked at the Georgia Archaeological Site File, which is managed by the University of Georgia. This institution is responsible for maintaining the archive of archaeological sites for the entire state. Private firms and Universities work in conjunction with the Site Files to ensure that there is an up-to-date record of all the sites within Georgia. The Site Files is a repository for all reports and manuscripts published on archaeological work conducted within the state, and it also maintains the archaeological records in GNHARGIS (Georgia Natural, Historical, Archaeological Resource Geographic Information System).

As a part of the University of Georgia System, the Site Files are publicly funded. However, the repository is not open to the public, and GNHARGIS’ map function is not publicly searchable. To gain access, you must be representing a University or a private CRM firm and be able to show your credentials. The sensitive nature of the Site File’s collections are obvious – If you are an archaeological looter, the Site File is the guardian of the State of Georgia’s giant treasure map. In order to help defend sites against looting, the public cannot stroll in and ask to view quad maps or thumb through the report cabinets (all of the reports have site maps in them, naturally). Looting and black market auctioning of artifacts result in, in most cases, the complete loss of archaeological data. Unlike historical documents up for auction, an artifact with no provenience is good for absolutely nothing but sitting on someone’s mantle. Please. They’re not even good for that. The Site Files cannot allow universal access to such sensitive data.

Brown and Kaiser discuss various methods that may be employed to allow more universal access to archives. In theory, maps and site location information could be redacted from the Site File’s reports, but this is, as they mention, a time consuming activity. The Site File is staffed by students and runs on minimal funding. The primary task of the Site File employees is to process incoming reports and do site searches for private firms. There is little time for much else. Protecting the integrity of Georgia’s archaeological sites is high on the priority list, as it should be. Unfortunately, allowing public access to the records is not.

In the CRM world, protecting site data is equally important. While all artifacts recovered during an archaeological project belong exclusively to the land owner, reports are produced exclusively for the client (and the state Site File) and are considered sensitive in nature. CRM firms are not in the habit of telling land owners where sites were found on their property, unless that landowner is the client. Often, the client is a government agency. So, now you have the publicly funded Site Files housing publicly funded data. But still, it is not for public consumption.

It is in these cases that we find ourselves protecting public resources from the public for its own good. It is a narrow line to walk – especially when your paycheck exists because State and Federal law require that archaeological resources be identified and protected. Those laws can be changed by taxpaying voters who need to know the value in what they are paying for – even if they cannot see the product. This is why I am here. To better understand how to educate the public on the value of historical and archaeological resources that they may not see as important. Sometimes it is simply not feasible to allow the public to hold the tangible resources they’ve paid for, so we must find other ways to show the value in our work.

Week 12: Ethics: Oral history, privacy, and copyright

This week’s assigned readings focused on the ethics of sharing historical documents, copyright infringement, etc.

Author Roy Rosenzweig article “Essays on History and New Media” discusses taking the historical scholarship and sharing them in a digital format. Roy talks about the benefits and implications of offering historical scholarship to the public by comparing it to the recent decision of the NIH to allow scientific articles for free to the public

One of the benefits of offering history in digital format and allowing free access to the public would be the cost to maintain the database of historic scholarship. By offering them for free to the public, this would reduce the cost institutions must pay to maintain historical scholarly papers. By lowering the cost of storing historical scholarly documents, historical institutes can utilize those funds for other important expenses. Another benefit would be increased visibility of the authors of historical scholarship. Free access could potentially lead to a broader audience for the author. Audiences that were once shut out from the access to historical scholarship will find themselves capable of exploring a field that may have ordinarily been foreign to them. This may inspire more people to join the historical field.

One of the cons to having open access to scholarly documents would be copyright infringement. Someone would be responsible for ensuring that the open access scholarly documents aren’t stolen. Another con to having open access to documents is the loss of revenue from institutions that depend upon the revenue from charging the public for membership fees or access fees to scholarly documents.

In Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser’s article “Opening Archives on the Recent American Past,” discusses the ethics of access and the ethics of privacy to historical archival documents. For instance, what should be shared with the public for the sake of historical evidence, but without crossing the line of unethical practices. They use the example of removing the names of certain people in historical documents, that are not the names of the historical subject on display. If they did not agree to have their personal information shared with the public, should you only remove their names or their personal documents altogether? If it were up to me, I’d remove all documents from those who did not agree to share their personal writings, objects, etc., with the public. Should medical inquiries and school evaluations be made to the public? Or employment records and performance evaluations? How do we know what should be restricted from historical research purposes?

Gail Drakes’ article “Who Owns Your Archive?” discusses the difficulties of sharing historical scholarship without infringement of intellectual property rights or breaking the law. Drakes provides detailed examples of who owns the rights to personal history and intellectual property by using two separate examples of private citizens owning Malcolm X’s documents (ranging from bloodstained bible, to speeches) and selling them during private auctions. Should historians have the rights to those documents? Or should private citizens have the right to do what they want with their private historical collections? Should they be forced to hand over the documents to museums for proper care?

Who Owns It? How can I Access It? What Can I do With It?

A grieving father decides he doesn’t want his young daughters to see pictures of the face of his mortally wounded soldier son, so a photo journalist can only publish a few of her pictures.  An archivist decides to redact the personal information of a group of students who were part of a medical experiment and turned up in a collection, while another archivist decides that the explicit information in a diary should be held privately until ten years after the second party has died, denying historians access to important information for their work.  The family of a famous civil rights leader decides there is money to be made and they closely hold the rights to their father’s name, causing headaches even for those trying to honor him with a national memorial.

Historians and the institutions that are charged with collecting and maintaining historical documents face changing legal requirements and serious ethical concerns about what to reveal when and to whom.  Not only do historians and archives, museums, universities and auction houses have to find ways to keep up, work around or sometimes make it up as they go along, they have to do so knowing that the law and ethical standards may be shifting under them as they are making those decisions.

These are issues that come up before we even get to the new complications caused by material created and collected during our digital era.  Technological capability is improving with greater speed than privacy law and archival rules can keep up.  In addition, for research institutions, it is necessary to not only meet the capabilities of new technologies, but to be able to convert records that have been kept in older technological methods.  While recently going through a collection, I came across 16 floppy discs that contained a plethora of documents to which correspondence and memoranda had referred.  Fortunately, the archivist had access to technology that could read that decades old method of creating documents.

Even as a novice at this work, as I research material for my thesis I have encountered some of these ethical conundrums.  While researching the records of an organization for which one of the women who is a subject of my thesis was working, I discovered that half a box of files were personnel records. I knew this particular box was one that had not yet been reviewed by the archivist.  Should I look through them and see if there was anything of interest regarding this woman or her colleagues that might affect my work?  This was an easier decision for me because of the nature of the questions I am trying to answer.  I did not go through those files and I pointed out to the archivist that material in the box looked like it contained personnel information on the employees of the organization.  Would I have reviewed that material and used it if I were attempting to answer research questions for which this might have been useful information?  I would like to hope I would not.  However, it is too easy to answer that question honestly in the hypothetical, so I will not.

I have also bumped into the mirror opposite of the above problem.  I wanted to access the archives of the primary organization of the women I am researching.  I was denied access because those archives have not been reviewed by a professional archivist and the administrator was concerned that I would encounter medical and other sensitive personal information if I had open access.  The agreement – I could ask questions that would require archival search and they would get back to me with the answers and the cites.  Because I am collecting oral histories from the women, most of my questions will be answered by them, but it is not likely to be as objective or complete as getting original documents.

The answers to these questions as they involve living targets of our research or their close living family members – who owns what intellectual and other property and how do historians get access – are clearly complex, involving law, ethics and ultimately people’s privacy.  Failure to consider all aspects of the legal, ethical and technological challenges we face can have a substantial impact on our work, our professional lives and on the people whose lives we are examining.

Selma to Montgomery: Marching and Public Memory Landscapes in Alabama

Montgomery Alabama has had an interesting history with the Selma to Montgomery march. From the beginning, the capital city of Alabama opposed any efforts to further civil rights. Governor Wallace stopped the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1966. On this date, Alabama state troopers waited for marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge with tear gas and billy clubs. Though this altercation resulted in the hospitalization of over fifty marchers, organizers planned another march to Montgomery on March 9th, which was forced back at the same bridge. The final March began on March 21st, 1965 and successfully reached Montgomery thanks to protection from federal troops. Many scholars argued that these marches directly contributed to the success of the voting rights act on August 6 of the same year. The march also left a physical legacy on the lands between Selma and Montgomery. For some residents of area, the route remains an important part of history, for perhaps too many it is simply an hours’ long drive into (or out of) the city.

Since the march itself, many organizations have used the legacy left by civil rights activists to advance their own agendas. On August 9, 1979, the Klu Klux Klan planned a march which would retrace the route of civil rights activists in an effort to demonstrate their power. Because the Klan did not secure a parade permit, Montgomery police arrested at least 130 Klansmen when they arrived in the capital.

By 1985, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned another march for the historic route. While leaders clearly intended this march to commemorate the original one, they also had their own agenda. According to Joseph Lowery, then president of the SCLC and leader of the commemorative march, the intention was to bring attention to “unemployment, world peace, justice, and the liberation of South Africa.” This time governor George Wallace did not oppose the march.

More commemorative celebrations occurred only five years later, on the twenty fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1990. Representative and civil rights marcher John Lewis took advantage of this opportunity to introduce legislation that began the process of creating a national heritage trail out of the area. His efforts were successful, and today the National Parks Service facilitates the preservation of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

However, just because something is actively being preserved does not mean that its place in history is fixed. The trail itself exists in multiple counties, each with their own interpretive centers, historic sites, and visitor bureaus. The ways that these cities, especially the city of Montgomery promote their portion of the trail greatly influences its use and level of preservation. In Montgomery, the portion of the trail which runs from the last campsite to the capitol building occupies space in the historically African American west side of the city. Montgomery’s reluctance to invest in this part of town is evidenced in its efforts to promote and preserve the trail itself. 

March 21st, 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the march. For this anniversary, the city of Montgomery’s Downtown Business Association hosted a free walking tour of the already established “Civil History Tour” which follows a path including sites from the Civil War and the civil rights movement. At the same time, the National Parks Service hosted a “walking classroom,” which allowed participants to explore the trail in its entirety. 

These anniversary celebrations, and each new event contributes to the history of this trail, creating new meaning for stakeholders. I intend to examine how the trail is maintained and interpreted by Montgomery’s visitor’s bureau, and National Parks Services, and why the preservation of this specific space is so important. I will attempt to do this using a series of blog posts on WordPress. Each of these posts will be linked to a specific location on the trail, and will examine a specific part of the trail’s history, its preservation, and at least one image of what the physical land looks like presently.

If you would like more information on any of the events referenced in this post, feel free to comment, and I will reply with my sources.