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This week’s assigned readings focused on the ethics of sharing historical documents, copyright infringement, etc.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 They use the example of removing the names of certain people in historical documents, that are not the names of the historical subject on display.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?


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