Undoubtedly, by now, there has been a lot written about the issue of copyrights and digitized archival material. Yet, I’m pretty sure no one has a definite answer for me yet. I came to Arizona to do some research this week and was determined to find an answer to this problem. In my “Sixteen Tons” project, I wanted to use pictures that I have taken in the archives of, not just archival photographs, but also actual documents. 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high res photos of the actual documents gives them the opportunity to struggle with interpreting the faded, spotty, and outdated handwriting just as a historian would and can be much more interesting to view than just transcribed material on a word document.

But even posting photographs of these documents provides many of the same problems that using archival photographs does – problems that go beyond just crediting the institution that they came from. According to the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) libraries and archives are authorized to provide photocopies or reproductions of material, but not for any purpose other than “private study, scholarship, or research”. Some archivists I talked to this week thought that as long as I got permission from the archive, then I could post to my website since it is strictly for educational purposes. Other archivists suggested that I just cite the documents on my website.

After receiving several different answers to my question, I finally was able to speak with the head archivist at Arizona State University libraries. He told me that since my material was being posted on a public website, it no longer falls within the “private study, scholarship, or research” limitations (if I was using an educational platform like Blackboard, where information was restricted, then it would be okay). When I asked about obtaining copyright permissions for a particular collection of letters written during 1904-1905, he informed me that he didn’t even own the copyright permissions for this collection. So this brings me to another complicated issue.

According to the ASU Archives and Special Collections website, “The Department reserves the right to extend or withhold permission for publication of its intellectual property when copyright for the selected images has been retained by ASU.” I was informed that the particular collection of letters that I was interested in digitizing had a copyright owner (each letter holds its own copyright), but that owner is currently unknown. According to the head archivist, when the archive aquired many of these collections several decades ago, nobody worried about copyright issues – certainly not to the extent that they do today when an eager grad students starts snapping photos of everything in sight with their digital pocket camera. That has left archivists today with a messy array of answers concerning copyright issues.

Sources like this provide students with a nearly "hands-on" experience to history. (document courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society Archive).

As complicated as the issue seems, actually spending a few minutes talking to the archivists at ASU provided me with solid plan of what I plan to do about the copyright issue. I will write down each document and photograph that I plan to use on my website and give this to the head archivist at ASU. He will then let me know if he can grant me legal permission to use the source on my site. If he cannot (in the case of the letters I want to use), I will post a portion of the document rather than a letter in its entirety (this is how websites like Google can post “previews” of books online without getting sued). Of course, it is highly unlikely that I will face legal issues if I were to post the full document online, but I’m trying to provide both an educational and professional website. I believe I can provide both if I stick to the copyright guidelines as much as possible.

As a side note, since I am away from my CHI workspace where I am building my Omeka website, I’ve been using Omeka’s web hosting service omeka.net to experiment with the organization of my own website. I’ve been able to upload documents online and choose whether they can be viewed by the public or not, which has been extremely helpful while I figure out all these permission issues.

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 students from the actual artifacts of history, digital archives can provide a close substitute. Hopefully the legalities won’t get in the way.