Notes on the American Archivist’s 2011 issues

Today is my last day of work until after Christmas. I hit a nice stopping point on my current project yesterday, and so today, rather than get started on the next bit and then leave it for a week, I opted to pass this nice, quiet Wednesday by catching up on some professional reading materials, namely the last couple of issues of the SAA publications American Archivist and Archival Outlook.

The items that most caught my eye in the Spring/Summer issue of American Archivist were Christopher Prom’s article on using Google Analytics with your archives web site (I do love stats!) and the two items on pertaining to Kate Theimer (author of the ArchivesNext blog), including her article on “Archives 2.0” and the review of her book Web 2.0 Tools and Strategies for Archives and Local History. (It’s funny: I did a review of that book myself here on this blog [June 18, 2011] , shortly before I realized it had been reviewed in American Archivist.)


I found two items from the Fall/winter 2011 issue particularly interesting as well, and I have a little more to say about these:

Jean Dryden’s article “Copyfraud or Legitimate Concerns? Controlling Further Uses of Online Archival Holdings” had some interesting findings. The study showed that archives sometimes use watermarks or “terms of use” statements in an attempt to maintain control over how people use the the archival materials they have posted online. Sure, we all know that’s true. But the article pointed out that in some cases, repositories incorrectly place their “terms of use” requirements under the heading of “copyright” when really there may be no actual “copyright” issue involved. When this happens, it is a case of “copyfraud,” or “asserting false claims of copyright.”

I had never heard that term before — copyfraud — but I’m certain I have seen examples of it.

One example: it always bugs me when I see a photo that is clearly public domain slapped with a “copyright” symbol. Just because you scanned it, doesn’t mean you own the copyright or that it even has a copyright. (Archivists often prefer to digitize images that are public domain because they don’t present copyright concerns.)

Now, I’m not a copyright lawyer by any means, so I don’t know…perhaps there are some “copyrights” to be had with respect to the digital version of the photo. For instance, if I snapped a (no-flash) photograph of a friend standing in front of an historic painting, I obviously don’t own the rights to the painting, but I own the rights to the snapshot I just created.

I often wonder how much some archival respositories really understand about the limits they can place on use of their materials — mainly the ones that have those iron-clad statements demanding “prior written permission” for basically all types of use.

What about fair use for educational purposes or non-commercial purposes? What if I want to write a little historical sketch on this blog and include a brief quote from a primary source that has been slapped with one of those strict terms of use statements? I don’t make any money off this; I cite my sources; I at least try to keep things relatively educational. In my opinion, that’s fair use.

Another item of consideration is the whole published/unpublished thing. I’m not just talking about whether I plan to publish my thing that cites your thing. I’m talking about whether the original thing in question was ever published to start with. The whole “pre-1923 is safe” thing is specific to published works. If we’re talking about something that was never published, there are some different rules, hinging on the death date of the author. (Check out this sweet “Is it protected by copyright?” slider created by the ALA if you need help figuring out whether something is copyrighted.)

So what do you do if you want to cite an unpublished manuscript written by someone who died in 1850, but it has one of those weird, super-restrictive use statements attached to it? Since the author died more than 70 years ago and the work is unpublished, it is supposed to be public domain, and theoretically you should not need permission to use it. But I think we have all seen repositories with use statements quite to the contrary, even though the material is super-old and unpublished. So, which is it? Which is right? I honestly don’t know for certain — I reiterate: I’m no lawyer.

But as someone who is generally gun-ho for sharing information, knowledge, and history, in the case of something that appears (based on copyright) to be “public domain,” I don’t think I would worry too much about using said source and even including a few quotes (all with proper attribution, of course). Because as far as I can tell, such restrictive use statements–on material that to all (other) outward appearances is public domain–seem to over-step the boundaries of what the institution can really demand or expect–let alone enforce. Unless there is some fancy language that can be added to the Deed of Gift that supercedes regular copyright laws (in which case, by all means, please show me your signed deed of gift along with your uber-restrictive use statement).

But getting back to Dryden’s article… Let me be clear: as I understand it, an institution is only guilty of “copyfraud” per se if they claim a “copyright” that they do not actually hold. If similar claims are made under the heading of “Terms of Use”, it’s not “copyfraud” but may still (as Dryden said) “be compromising their core mission of making their holdings available for use.”


The other really interesting article in the Fall/winter 2011 issue was Boyer, Cheetham, and Johnson’s case study “Using GIS to Manage Philadelphia’s Archival Photographs.”

They discussed a project is that the City Archives of Philadelphia has established a GIS-mapped Photo Archive at Essentially, the site lets users search photographs depicting more than 150 years’ of Philadelphia’s history…but thanks to GIS, which geo-tags each photo with its location, users can search not only by keywords or time periods (or several other criteria) but also by location (street, intersection, neighborhood, etc.).

To put it simply, this project is completely awesome.

What they’ve done is similar to what one might accomplish using HistoryPin; or by geo-tagging images in Flickr and then using a site like iMapFlickr or GeoSlideShow (something I dabbled in a bit, making this map of the photos of the 1913 Flood district in Dayton, Ohio).

However, the project is just more robust, with the best of both worlds: a searchable database chock-full of useful metadata, along with photos, and mapping. And since their system is apparently “home-grown”, they were able to make it just the way they wanted it, from the get-go. It makes me think of what could happen if CONTENTdm (with its powerful database workings and potential for granularity) and Flickr (with its geo-tagging) got together and had a baby but without any messy work-arounds. You can even view an historic photo and then click a button right on the same page to show you the GoogleMaps StreetView of the same scene.

Check out this picture of Independence Hall as an example. Pretty awesome, right?

Obviously, Philadelphia is pretty cool. But as an archivist and local history reference librarian in Dayton, Ohio….I spend a lot more time thinking about historic photographs of–you guessed it–Dayton. So of course my mind goes straight to : How cool would it be to have something like this for Dayton?  Moreover, wouldn’t it be awesome if all the institutions in the area could collaborate on something like this? Sure, it might just be a pipe dream, but it’s still fun to dream about. It would be lovely if I could search one big database to see if there are any pictures of such-and-such-a-place. (Then again, even the Philly project doesn’t claim to include all the photos of each location, of course. But hey, if I’m dreaming…I’m dreaming big.)

Honestly, we don’t usually have too much trouble helping people find photos of relatively well-known buildings in town, even if they no longer exist. I’m talking about the “big” buildings that are (or were) right downtown (or in a lot of cases, the mansions of prominent Daytonians that were there before that).

But people often — not, like, herds every day, but more than you’d think — come to the library looking for historic photos of more “ordinary” buildings, also: usually, their homes. And we have to shake our heads sadly and say, “No, we just don’t pictures of things like that, unless your house is ‘famous’,” like if the guy who owns the Bossler Mansion showed up — yeah, we probably have some historic photos of that.

But anyway, I always think to myself about the photographs in the Montgomery County Auditor’s database. I wonder how or if those photos are preserved or kept beyond their usefulness in the database itself. How often are they updated? Do they keep the old ones? Are there any prints or negatives that go along with them, or were they born-digital? 

It’s the kind of thing that gets created for a particular, immediate purpose and would get “outdated” and replaced periodically for its primary purpose…….but the older the photos get, the more “historical” they seem to become. Okay, sure, we don’t have photos of every house from 1900. But in 100 years, the photos-of-every-house-from-the-year-2000 will probably be pretty darn interesting to these house-history researchers, and it would be so lovely if we could say, “Well, we don’t have any at the library, but they have a huge archive of photographs from the Auditor’s Office, dating back to the early 2000s.” 

Honestly, I should really contact someone at the Montgomery County Records Center & Archives and ask about this, because it’s been chewing on me for a while.


Anyhow… I just wanted to muse and share about some neat things I read in the American Archivist today. Hope you enjoyed the discussion.

If anyone has any legal-ese perspectives on the whole “copyright / copyfraud / what if it should be public domain but has weird terms of use restrictions placed on it?” thing, I’d be interested to hear it.

Same with the Montgomery County Auditor’s photographs. Because if those are saved along with all the other records at the MC Records Center, that’s going to be a total gold mine once the photos are old enough to make people “ooh” and “ahh” over them.

2 responses to “Notes on the American Archivist’s 2011 issues

  1. Very cool article. We had the issue, way before I started, that people would actually reproduce our material and place it in other institutions. So, to curb this, we state that due to Copyright Laws, we can only copy 10 pages from each book and reproducing the book is prohibited. It helps with donations. There is actually a quote from the Law on all of our copy requests.

    In addition, we have an “author” who likes to publish a photographic book. He borrows images and spends hours photoshoping them so he can claim copyright over the image. He took a photograph from the Library of Congress and “re-created” a hand to make it look better and is trying to claim copyright over that. I counseled him that he should not disclose this information because he did not get permission from the LofC for use of this image in his book and they have policies that prohibit alteration of images.

    Good Times!

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