Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology

As the news cycled through the latest Wikileaks surprise–250,000 US Embassy Diplomatic Cables–my students were giving their final presentations in class. Ruth and I (with much technical assistance from Michael Ashley) taught a class on Archaeology and New Media this semester, culminating in a fairly open-ended final group project about some aspect of archaeology in the Bay Area.

The projects tended to be a mix of media that the students had produced themselves such as videos and photographs, along with historical materials that they gleaned from archives. Mixing their own microhistories with the historical archive results in more interesting, innovative, and intellectually robust interpretations of the past and emphasizes participatory culture and history-making.

Sadly, their eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined.

I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom. The students have taken photos that they aren’t sure they can use. They have gathered quotes from interviews that the archive refuses to publish. I try to make the students fully understand copyright law, their place in the educational system and their rights, and the consequences of violating copyright. But I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth–I tell them to share, and, as much as they are able, to free information from obsolete or tyrannical bureaucracy. They are already learning to negotiate and operate within radical transparency. Facebook, Google and the government are omnipresent–collecting information at every turn–and the students are learning from this example and turning it back onto the companies that control content, rejecting the right to keep any information under lock and key.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

These collections are dying, strangled by ridiculous restrictions, outdated copyright law, and protectionist garbage. If my students commandeer and share archival material is it stealing media or is it liberating information? Many educators are horrified that students no longer read or reference books or journal articles that are not available online. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t actually encourage this behavior and boycott offline research. If something is not available, make it available. If you do not make your research widely available, then perhaps it is rightfully ignored.

Digitize and share your archive, by hook or crook. You might just be saving its life.

See also:

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

7 thoughts on “Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology”

  1. “I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period.”
    I cannot agree more.
    And if they argue there is a reason to do so, in the future there will be no public money and no archive anymore. (The stored material will increase, but without public support it will not happen. To keep it for few scientists it will be not enough ).

  2. I’d just like to chime in as an archivist (and the copyright officer for my institution) and let you know that there is a lot of discussion about these same issues within the archival community.

    While some collections are supported by selling copies and use rights to the material in their holdings, this isn’t the norm, and even when a repository makes substantial profits from holdings, it is only ever a very small section of the material that is going to have any monetary value. I’d say even archivists whose jobs are supported by that small section of material would love to increase access to the other 99% of the collection. The culprits?: US copyright law and institutions with a very low risk tolerance for being sued.

    There is some forward progress, though. I was really happy to see this statement of best practices on Orphan Works put out by the SAA ( — which argues that it is okay to digitize things if you can’t find the creator or his/her heirs as long as you make “reasonable efforts to identify and locate rights holders,” and then describes what those efforts are. Having official statements like this to lean on helps us archivists make the argument to our legal counsel that it is okay to digitize materials and put them online, even if we don’t have a signed release form from the creator.

    As far as the Getty study slides go, that really sucks. Their situation is a little different from archival materials, though, since they are a published set of images (which would also presumably mean that the Getty doesn’t have the only copy). Copyright law allows libraries to make a copy in a different format to provide access to material in an obsolete format to in-house patrons (so you could view the images on computers within the four walls of the library, but not outside of it), unless the set of study slides is already being sold by the vendor in digital form. I’m not sure how that clause forbidding digitization would play into that though… I hope that the Getty will at least find another institution to give the slides to (one with, perhaps a working slide projector).

    This ended up being really long. In conclusion: Yay archaeology! Yay archives! and Yay digitization!

    [And in awesome digitization news, I just got a grant to have UNT digitize over 900 prints and slides of Mexican-American Presbyterian churches in Texas from the 1940s and 1950s from my repository for the Portal to Texas History ( I am soooo excited about making these available.]

  3. What is so bizarre about these archives stories is that there seems to be no reason behind the restrictions. I can at least see the logic when commercial publishers try to restrict access to journal articles, since they are making a buck on the backs of scholars. I disagree with them, and I pay no attention and post all of my materials anyway, but at least I understand where they are coming from. But scholarly libraries and archives? What is the logic there?

  4. Totally agree. I truly believe the *only* reason my dissertation has even been read by anyone is because it is freely available on my website and

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: