Archival materials, copyright, and teaching history

Micalee Sullivan has written an interesting post on the blog for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.

http://chi.matrix.msu.edu/2011/03/10/digital-archive-and-copyright/

Sullivan, who is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Michigan State University, wanted to take digital photographs of letters held at Arizona State University’s Archives and Special Collections and post them on a website as materials for her class. As she says in her blog post:

“Allowing students to view high res photos of the actual documents gives them the opportunity to struggle with interpreting the faded, spotty, and outdated handwriting just as a historian would and can be much more interesting to view than just transcribed material on a word document.”

However, the copyright for those letters was not retained by ASU and they therefore cannot give permission to reproduce the letters on a public website, even if they have been reproduced for educational purposes.

Sullivan’s post does a good job of listing the various ins and outs of the copyright advice she received from various sources. The post also highlights the potential pitfalls of using archival materials as a teaching aid (not to mention the restrictions archivists face when they make decisions about access to and use of their holdings).

The thing that really resonated with me was Sullivan’s interest in using the original documents (or facsimiles thereof) in her teaching. Quoting again:

“As a historian, maybe it’s naïve of me to think that history can be exciting to most people. But when your only experience with the subject has been confined to textbooks and lectures, it would be difficult to find the thrill of it all. Digital technology provides teachers with the tools to make history more than lectures and textbooks. When students are given a variety of historical materials they can form their own opinions about certain time periods and events, rather than just taking notes on them. While distance may seperate [sic] students from the actual artifacts of history, digital archives can provide a close substitute. Hopefully the legalities won’t get in the way.”

Maybe I’m naive too, but I believe history can be exciting, possibly even to “most people.” Just look at the interest in genealogy, which essentially is a way of using research about your family’s ancestry as a way of learning about history. Sure, some genealogists never get beyond “name-collecting,” but others find their interest expanding to include the larger history of a location, or of a time period. The interest is there. The question is how (or if) historians, archivists, amateur history geeks, genealogists, and other interested parties can work together to support the cause.

H/T @ndiipp via @EinAtlanta and @archivesnext

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