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 Unlike historical documents up for auction, an artifact with no provenience is good for absolutely nothing but sitting on someone’s mantle.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.


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