Digitization and the Dream of Openness

—By Nicole Kang Ferraiolo

This is the second post in a five-part series called “Five Years of Listening” on the evolution of the Digitizing Hidden Collections program.

At its best, digitization is about equity. It’s the dream of breaking down the financial barriers to original-source research so that it’s no longer the exclusive domain of scholars at elite institutions and those who can afford to self-fund travel to special collections and archives. In this dream, materials are easily discoverable, quick to access, free to use, and adaptable to new research methodologies. When the Digitizing Hidden Collections program first launched, it was organized around five core values, but one in particular spoke most directly to this vision: the value of openness.

CLIR sought to leverage the new program to shift the culture at collecting institutions in North America toward greater openness. Access restrictions were cited as one of the top impediments to scholarship by CLIR’s archival research fellows, and we did not want to see these issues replicated in the digital research environment. With this in mind, CLIR established three rules for proposed projects: 1) all metadata would be dedicated to the public domain, 2) projects could not impose additional rights or restrictions on use, and 3) materials in the public domain in analog form must remain in the public domain once digitized. CLIR underlined the importance of facilitating use in the definition of two other core values. The value of “comprehensiveness” signaled that institutions should prioritize digitizing full collections rather than cherry-picking selections, and “connectedness,” added as a sixth value in the second cycle, emphasized the importance of making digitized materials discoverable alongside related content.

For more than a year, CLIR consulted with prospective applicants and advisors to determine how we would address the tensions between rights and access, yet it only took half an application cycle to expose the imperfections in our approach. That first year, our review panel identified a number of barriers to access that we hadn’t previously considered incorporating into our guidelines. Some applications proposed digital access copies with such low resolution that they couldn’t be used by educators in a projected slide presentation. There were requests to create digital images and recordings with watermarks and bandings, which reviewers felt reduced accessibility, obscured content, and interfered with innovative research approaches. Meanwhile, a number of applicants didn’t perceive that requiring users to ask permission to download and/or re-use digital files could itself be a barrier to access.

Many of the digitization projects proposed in that initial round also had important ethical questions at their cores. Reviewers noted issues related to privacy and the lack of consent of the documented individuals or their descendents. There were legacies of colonialism to grapple with, including questions of appropriation, cultural sensitivity, and materials that were (all but) stolen by previous generations. Staff found that, unprompted, many applicants would shy away from these complex ethical questions; or maybe it was that they didn’t have the space within the application to engage with these issues in a meaningful way.

It was clear from the initial pool that it wasn’t enough to ask about the legal rights of collections; the questions were broader and inextricably intertwined. Thus, halfway through the first year of the program, we overhauled the rights section and renamed it “Rights, Ethics, and Reuse.” In many ways, we’ve doubled down on openness in the years since: we strengthened the language in our guidelines to further discourage fees for use, watermarks, and banding, and eventually prohibited the latter two. In other ways, the program has built greater flexibility into its approach. The three rights-related rules mentioned earlier were adjusted to create exceptions for culturally sensitive materials and metadata, a decision largely inspired by initiatives such as Murkurtu and Traditional Knowledge Labels. Program staff meanwhile took to heart applicant concerns about the complex rights issues for many audio and audiovisual materials. When we had an opportunity to design a new program specifically for time-based media (Recordings at Risk), we implemented lighter rights requirements so applicants could focus on the collections’ urgent preservation needs. So while CLIR’s commitment to openness has strengthened with time, it has also evolved. As we’ve refined our own understanding of openness, we’ve tried to better communicate these expectations to applicants; this includes correcting rumors like, “Hidden Collections only supports the digitization of content in the public domain,” which is not at all the case.

After all of this, has CLIR succeeded in shifting the culture at collecting institutions toward greater openness? Yes…and no. We’ve heard reports of institutions that have been inspired by the program to change their internal policies. Some have instituted policies of comprehensive digitization and the dedication of metadata and/or digital images to the public domain. We’ve seen organizations drop fees for high-resolution images. And perhaps most exciting, we’re seeing librarians and archivists who have wanted for years to push their organizations toward greater openness present our guidelines to their institution’s leadership as evidence of the benefits of sharing. On the other hand, we know that digitization is not everyone’s highest priority, and even when it is, not every digital collection can or should be openly available. There will always be institutions and collections that are better fits for other approaches and funding sources.

We’re continuing to push for an open, ethical, and equitable digital research environment. Although it may never fully be realized, Digitizing Hidden Collections will keep trying to move all of us a little closer to the dream.

If you have feedback or ideas to share about Digitizing Hidden Collections and/or Recordings at Risk, or general thoughts for CLIR’s grantmaking team, you can submit them here or write to hiddencollections@clir.org or recordingsatrisk@clir.org












Photo courtesy of University of Southern California. “Out Front: 60 Years of LGBTQ Political Graphics at ONE Archives” project, funded 2016. Christopher Street West Association Collection, Coll2012-135, Christopher Street West Gay Parade Poster, 1971.