Access is a primary archival value, driven by many things: legal or organizational mandates, copyright, available technology and resources, a deep-seated belief that access to information is the foundation of a free and educated society, and, in fact, a right. With human rights materials the challenges are particularly acute, sometimes pitting personal safety, security and privacy against advocacy goals and the right to know. At WITNESS we are particularly focused on this question at the moment, as we contemplate broader online access, the ethics of video remix, expectations of openness underpinning archival and human rights values, and active engagement in the online sphere.

Selectivity, rigorous understanding of safety and security implications, good documentation, informed consent, sensitivity to the variety of cultural and personal norms regarding privacy; these are key. Within these parameters we provide access to others selectively, based on purpose and ability to pay. This is good as far as it goes, but what if any are our broader obligations? to the subjects depicted? the creators? to researchers, human rights defenders, legal entities, journalists and issue-oriented documentarians, both now and in the unknown future? There is an increasing articulation of the obligation of states and governments to preserve and provide access to guarantee accountability, the rights of citizens, of collective memory and a knowledge of the past. As archivists of private NGOs do we have the same obligations, if not from a legal standpoint from a moral and ethical one?

I am still working my way through Rand Jimerson’s excellent Archives Power: Memory, Accountability and Social Justice (2009: SAA). It is a wide-ranging book encompassing the history of archival theory and practice in societal terms, addressing the relationship of archives and documents to memory, justice, accountability, diversity, and societal power.

Jimerson, a strong proponent of what Verne Harris has deemed “archives for justice,” acknowledges that private archives – those of corporations, or organizations such as WITNESS for that matter – are not legally or perhaps ethically under the same obligations as those with public access mandates; archivists working in private entities may thus be harder pressed to justify access to outside researchers, or the inclusion of diverse voices. But, he asserts, all archivists should be broadening their conceptions of professional ethics to encompass and be informed by values of social justice, accountability, and public responsibility, even when their options to contribute may be limited.

And here from a different perspective, that of documentary filmmaking and media literacy, some thoughts on the ethics and pragmatics of archival access. Rick Prelinger had this to say on his blog back in June (and worth reading the entire post + comments):

“Let’s put original, unedited archival material out in the world in such a way that it competes with documentaries. This isn’t going to kill our stock footage income, because producers and directors always feel they can improve on reality by imposing structures of their design, and they’ll still come around. But it will insure that audiences can see original documents without the imposition of artificial layers of narrativity. (Plus, I have always wondered how archives can ethically let historical mediamakers use clips without making the original works from which the clips come available to anyone who wants to see the complete continuity. When someone cites a passage of text or a still image, there’s a powerful implication that someone can check the citation themselves. We don’t make this easy.)”

Sheila Curran Bernard, filmmaker and author of Documentary Storytelling and Archival Storytelling, and a consultant on the Center for Social Media’s new report on ethics in documentary filmmaking, commented in response:

“I think the lack of resources for quality storytelling stems from a greater problem: weak documentary literacy. To explain: Most people can walk into a bookstore and distinguish between the quality, purpose, rigor, and craft of books and other print materials. Readers can differentiate between a Pulitzer Prize-winning history and an illustrated Time-Life offering on the same topic, and between The New Yorker and National Enquirer. They understand that both Sean Smith (Britney: The Unauthorized Biography…) and David McCullough (John Adams) have used the tools of storytelling, but quite differently.”

“Anecdotally, documentary film viewers are not as discerning. They recognize common storytelling devices – interviews, narration, recreations – but not key differences in how and why (and how effectively) these devices are created and employed. Archival use is accepted as a documentary convention, but how materials are used, whether specifically or generically, whether it’s been manipulated, etc., is too rarely part of the discussion. This lack of literacy is especially significant when it involves educators, gatekeepers, policymakers, philanthropists, and even film subjects. If people don’t understand the differences, they’re not likely to support projects that take greater financial, creative, or programming risks – and so we get more of the same: faster and cheaper. It’s as if the bookstore is filling with works about celebrities and haunted houses, but new and innovative works of creative nonfiction, well-crafted historical narratives, rigorous and up-to-date science or public policy materials, are appearing with less and less frequency.

Not only would be terrific to “put original, unedited archival material out in the world” – it would also be a chance to compare the story and storytelling choices made by media makers in days past.”

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