block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.