Photo from “The Artful Accidents of Google Books, Kenneth Goldsmith, The New Yorker, December 4, 2013

5 Questions to Ask Before You Use a Digital Archive*

Michelle Moravec

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a series of prompts designed to provoke reflection on the various relationships structured by research in digital archival environments. Adapted from my longer article Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives in Australian Feminist Studies

How can a researcher determine whether individuals who appear in a digital archival environment have consented to this and what controls should they look for to mitigate this increased exposure?

1. have you checked for accession information? — who donated these materials and determined conditions of access? The mere presence of materials in an archive cannot be taken as consent by all involved individuals that they wish to have their histories preserved in this particular way. If these individuals are still living consider whether it is appropriate to contact them directly before using materials that involve them directly. It is not uncommon for activists in social movements I study to tell me that they only realized they were included in historical materials placed online when they googled their name. Which brings me to search engines ….

2. have you investigated search index settings? The digitization of materials to be placed online is often done explicitly to increase access to them, a laudable goal, but one that may at the very least raise concerns for some individuals or in a worse case scenario expose marginalized groups to a risk of harm or retaliation. If the website on which those materials are placed is search engine optimized, a google search for an individual may place near the top of internet searches information from an individuals past that they may not wish to have highlighted. Many years ago, as a neophyte oral historian I had an activist tartly inform me that her interview would remain confidential because if anyone was going to tell her story it would be her and not someone else. This brings me to control of information ….

3. do you understand the take down policies? These are procedures that enable individuals to have materials taken offline. In my ideal world, the request of an individual alone would be sufficient to have materials removed from online (note I am NOT arguing that they should (necessarily) be removed from the archive, just taken offline), but that is not how it works in many cases. Some sites will only recognize copyright infringement as a valid cause for taking material down, while others will consider a wider range of justifications.

Although my initial anxieties about researching in digital archival environments centered on the consent of individuals, a relic no doubt of my training as an oral historian (Boyd and Larson 2014; Chenier 2015), my involvement in the community of scholars known as digital humanities alerted me to the issues of collaborative knowledge production (Bailey 2015).

Whose labour contributed to a digital archival environment and under what conditions?

4. Who are the contributors or staff? Who did the work to put this material on line? Find out by exploring the “about” section or “the team” listed, and give those people credit in your publications.

5. What are the labour practices? Under what conditions was the work done to put these materials online? Did it involve the unpaid labor of students used, via third party contracts that exploit people who are incarcerated, or under a digital piece work system such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk? This information is often the most difficult to find. Explore various sections that document the website itself. Look specifically for contributor agreements. If information about labour is not provided, contact the website to both request this information and to suggest that they make their labor practices more transparent by prominently placing them on their website. Above all acknowledge all labor in your publications.

*adapted from my longer article Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives in Australian Feminist Studies

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Michelle Moravec

Historian doing corpus linguistics, Feminist writing about politics of women's culture, historying digitally #writinginpublic http://michellemoravec.com