Big, ambitious projects require energy and huge sets of data that isn’t easily accessible. No surprise there! But, why? Why is archival research a maddening, mind-numbing, stress-inducing and life-reducing process? At the crux of this heated debate are signed over oral histories and other vital materials, donated or part of projects that are now at universities or repositories affiliated with the American Folklife Center under the Library of Congress that are needed to complete the website This is my story: Detroit 1967. Unsurprisingly, the result of these benign tasks are a few gray hairs huddled at or near the temples because of frustrations with accessibility and limitations with knowledge yielding teeth-grinding attempts to work with public university(ies) and/or the Library of Congress and their third party affiliations. Hindering my workflow and efficiency are issues of public versus private, which are now the center of discussion for this post. Why is so-called public information privatized? Why is knowledge hoarded? Why is knowledge owned?
Problems of accessibility aren’t new in the academy, you are preaching to the choir. One of the hopes with digital innovation among other things was to digitize files and to circumvent the librarian or the archivist that stood in the way of the researcher. It happened, yes, but not in the droves that one would hope for. Please understand, quite a bit is digitized just not what I needed for my research—cue the stress-inducing and life-reducing negotiation process to get the information in its various mediums.
The irony of knowledge accessibility within the university, a public institution has proven to be a major problem with This is my story: Detroit 1967. Universities pride themselves as being bastions of knowledge. Knowledge that comes with a price tag that isn’t exactly monetary, per se, but relentless borderline nuisance, pest-like behavior for what should be a relatively simple task. You make a call or send an email, give the librarian the necessary information and voila you have what you need. From my experience it isn’t that straightforward. I’ve had to supply everything shy of my master plan to take over the world. Yes, I’m being facetious, but it is the truth. I’m annoyed, highly, but not deterred to make this project come to fruition. Here’s the problem, I need oral histories that are public, at least, some of them are, but some are protected by legal release. The legal release is a document that protects the interviewee and itemizes what and how the oral history is to be used and what for. Now, some legal releases and their terms are lenient, others are stern and have detailed restrictions. Hence, my feverish need to work with these entities to get these rich stories.
This may seem very foolish of me as I’ve done archival research in the past, but I’m going to put this out there to challenge the robust conversations on private versus public. If information is public its public. PERIOD. DOT. END OF STORY. There shouldn’t be any gray area or limitations. If there are conditions than it shouldn’t be public. That was easy! Conversely, private has its varying levels hence its complexities, but don’t allow its intricacies thwart your research or research mission.
This may across as a gripe and less of an overall assessment as to what’s wrong with the academy, as it pertains to information in their possession, but more so the lack of distinction between public and private, and their streamlining of this data. Lastly, once given access to the requested material it shouldn’t feel like walking into Fort Knox is any easier or seeking trade secrets from the CEO of Apple or Google is as effortless as ordering Sunday brunch than getting data from an institution or archive. Information from public universities should not require a vile of O positive blood, with a guide to ensure that you are where you are suppose to be with key card/key lock entry. I’m just saying! A massive change is needed and soon.