Intellectual Control v. Just Plain Control

July 29, 2009

I attended a workshop last week,with a variety of people in the history field. There were a couple of academics, but most were in what I like to think of as public history or related fields. There were archivists, librarians, oral historians, film curators, etc. Some had undergrad education, some graduate. Some worked for large organizations such as the National Archives and Records Administration, a couple were the only paid (indeed in one case I think the only— period) staff in their institutions. All told, a pretty eclectic group of people. Yet I wasn’t surprised when the topic of putting records, images, audio, and video online produced an almost universal concern about protecting “intellectual control.” I say almost because, while some folks expressed fear of only some degree of “intellectual control” loss and others thought it their ethical, if not moral duty, to protect that ideal but were uncertain how realistic that was, I was the only one present that said that putting collections online did not, in any way, threaten intellectual control. I was the “almost.”

You see, I have heard this discussion at most places I have worked in archives or special collections. It shows up in workshops, seminars, publications, board meetings, conferences and general conversation. (Yes, one might wonder what type of people with whom I must associate if such a topic comes up in general conversation. It won’t be the first time someone has wondered about me or my friends.) There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the difference between “intellectual control” and “intellectual property rights.”

I worked at a museum once that was not a non-profit (regardless of some ethics codes and definitions of a museum used by some associations, such things do exist; perhaps a topic for a future entry.) They had an extensive and commercially valuable image collection that they did not make available for the asking because they owned “intellectual property rights” to the images. Copyright had been transferred. This was understandable to me. Where I have a problem with such things is when the property rights are transferred to public institutions, particularly when this is done with the public access to the items as part of donor intent, and the institution then tries to limit access to all but people who will pay a price above recovery of necessary costs. I even have difficulties with the latter, if those costs are already paid by the taxation of the users, and then those very same users who own the rights and have paid for the upkeep of the items are denied access unless they pay high fees. I see there is a gray area here where the public funding could be quickly used up by those who abuse the system, thus also denying access to others, but just the same, in such cases the fees are at best a hidden tax and at worse extortion from people for access to their on property.

Okay. The argument can be made for and against limiting access in the case when the public owns “intellectual property rights.” But what about “intellectual control?” Isn’t that the real question? As archivists, are we not professionally required to maintain “intellectual control” over our collections and doesn’t placing them on the Internet limit or eliminate this control? Well, it potentially limits or eliminates “control,” but not “intellectual control.” You see, in spite of what I hear at staff meetings, professional seminars and organizational meetings, we are not required to determine how our collections are used or by whom, except when there are copyright (intellectual property) issues or when such limitations were a condition of the donation and comply with the law. In fact, I would argue that we are ethically bound to avoid such determinations and in some cases trying to make such decisions actually damages our “intellectual control.”

The definition of intellectual control found in the glossary on the Society of American Archivists Website is:

“intellectual control

n. ~ The creation of tools such as catalogs, finding aids, or other guides that enable researchers to locate relevant materials relevant to their interests. [sic]

Notes:

Intellectual control includes exploiting access tools developed by the creator of the materials and, typically, received with the collection. However, these tools must be integrated into the repository’s other tools.”

http://www.archivists.org/glossary/term_details.asp?DefinitionKey=818 [accessed 07/28/2009].

Nope. Nothing about deciding who gets to use it in what way. Nothing about setting up various hoops through which one must jump if you want to use the items. Nothing about protecting the collection from too much access and use.

So how does putting images online, where admittedly they might be downloaded and used for purposes unapproved by the archivist, violate this definition? Does not such an action actually enhance the ability of the researcher to “locate relevant materials relevant to their interests” [sic]? Even if one wishes to view all this as just an access, as opposed to control, issue, the intellectual control is not damaged.

[Aside: I am always fascinated at how hard many archivists try to make it for researchers trying to access their collections. Although I have often heard the term “gatekeeper” claimed by those in the profession, it seems self defeating for a person whose job, if not existence of employing institution, relies upon the goodwill of others and the persuading of people to the effect that the collections are used and valuable to researchers to take such a stance. When I was doing research I was run off by people who worked in places that are now closed or vastly understaffed. There is a connection.]

Neither, as has been argued elsewhere, is context sacrificed. The fact that a researcher may choose to view individual items rather than entire collections is a choice of the researcher, one he can make whether the documents are online or not. Sure, it is true that such a researcher might miss something without viewing the rest of the collection, but on the other hand he might be able to view the documents in the context of an even larger context of documents created in a similar manner by similar (or even the same) creators, but kept in separate collections at separate locations. I have experienced this when doing research on the Methodist Bishop, Joshua Soule. Letters and documents referred to in other letters and documents were in different locations. If I had been unable to view content remotely, I would never have connected documents that could only be understood in connection with each other. I know others have had this experience.

What it boils down to is this. Archivists do not have the ethical, moral, or in many cases legal, right to limit access to their collections based on their own concept of intellectual control. Where intellectual rights are at stake, there may be not only a right but a duty to do this, but it is not a matter of the archivist’s personal desire nor should it be a policy of the institution.

The Heretic

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