So, most of this week I was at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library in Columbus, OH, a city where, in case you were not aware, football is played and, so the rumors go, students attended classes at a large public university. That would explain all the inexplicable construction everywhere. Anyhoo, since I would be spending most of my time looking at cool comicky stuff, I thought–or rather I presumed that I would simply introduce y’all to something really fucking cool, because, well, that’s why you go to archives: to find cool stuff. Except, as it turns out, I won’t be doing that. Now, mind you, I did find lots of really cool stuff, and I did take photos of said cool stuff so that, when I’m sitting back home in my ascot and smoking jacket gazing into the well of a generous brandy dreaming of smarty things to berate you with, I might recall accurately just what it was I saw. You might be wondering why I won’t be doing this, so here is the relevant text from the camera use form I filled out:
“I will not, without permission, publish or share the photographs in print, post them on the Internet, provide access through social media, nor exhibit them.” Also relevant to the discussion that follows are the provisos “I will request publication-quality images from the library at its standard fees for any publication reuse” and “[i]f requested, I will provide copies of all my photographs and citations to the library [!], and I assign any intellectual property rights that I may possess in them to the repository [!!!].”
As you can imagine, given what I have said with regard to copyright on previous occasions, that last one struck me as, to be frank, entirely out of line. It also makes no sense, if the restrictions with regard to use hold (and, I hasten to add, legally they would never make it through a civil proceeding) then demanding all IP is a complete slap in the face. I don’t know how else to say it. We, meaning scholars (i.e. not me, I suppose), already work in a landscape where we are expected to sign over our copyright to academic literature that, I again hasten to add, WE have done the work on, simply so that university presses and, gallingly, in some cases for profit presses can abuse our output in whatever way they choose. This is done, because academics need to publish within that stupid pre-tenure window, and so will consent to any and all demands on their output just so their work might appear in a journal or anthology within a reasonable amount of time. Now, what more or less amount to reference notes (i.e. images that are not good enough to be published anyway) are demanded as the sole purview of the institution where those “notes” were taken. Of course, because they are images and not text, all reason gets thrown out the window.
The form is rife with clauses that would never hold up, so I can only presume the intent is to pressure patrons into engaging in behavior that is not particularly in their interests. The indemnity clause is particularly strange: so, you expect to have control over my work but no responsibility for it? What would that even amount to? A kind of legal limbo? I could whine about this till I’m blue in the face, but it’s not really anything specific to the Billy Ireland Library, so I don’t want to call them out. After all, the staff there were more than gracious and accommodating to my needs, and the experience working with them and talking about cool stuff (within the reading room’s rather limited confines) was thoroughly enjoyable. And, ultimately, I did sign the form, though, if pressed, I likely would not abide by some of it, because a relationship with an existing collection is more important than always standing on principle. I have said as much to the staff, so it’s not like I’m coming out of left field. However, the sheer number of restrictions special libraries, collections, and archives impose upon their patrons puts immense downward pressure on access, even in those cases where more access by the public, even so-called non-researchers, is desired.
Preservation vs. Access
The reason why restrictions always put downward pressure on access has to do with how the demands of preservation (i.e. maintaining materials) and access (i.e. people actually making use of materials so preserved) are, at their core, antithetical. Here I understand preservation broadly as both the specific (e.g. repairing paper, rebinding a text block, etc.) as well as the institutional (requiring certain handling practices, limiting access to materials to only those whose scholarly bona fides can be documented, etc.) practices whereby the damage that attends to any handling of an object might be minimized. Now, I cannot imagine anyone objecting to a conservator building a book box for a particularly fragile text or stabilizing a book in need of minor repairs, because these practices, except when taken to certain perplexing extremes, don’t really interfere all that much with access. Institutional practices communicate a great deal to potential and actual patrons as to how those in charge view them. For instance, it’s something of an open question whether forcing patrons to use white gloves to handle old materials is better than simply having them clean their hands. In some cases, it’s possible that gloves would reduce dexterity and, in fact, increase the likelihood of causing tears and what not. However, the whole white glove thing often has nothing to do with limiting damage and everything to do with instilling in the patron a sense of awe or reverence that may or may not be warranted by the object itself.
You might think that we are still not in the territory of concern, and yet one of the most common reactions people have to special collections is that they are somehow not allowed to go in and look at things, even when they are perfectly free to. In the case of some institutions, this is, unfortunately, by design, and the people who run them genuinely want no one to walk through the doors beyond those who have been deemed worthy. The vast majority, I would argue, fall into a nebulous zone where the full weight of the institution’s demands on patrons are not perfectly understood. Any one policy may, on its face, seem reasonable, and, having to live with a special collections librarian, I try to be a reasonably acquiescent patron, even when I think the policies are unwarranted. Moreover, in practice, collections tend to be far more lenient than their written policies would make it seem, and I think this is most of the problem. When going to an archive/library/collection for the first time, generally all you have to go on are their documented policies. I know that I, for instance, chose going to OSU over, say, the Yenching library, partially because of cost but also partially because of the closed-door-i-ness of Harvard in general. When the first thing you encounter is a laundry list of policies and restrictions, it takes a certain degree of determination to persevere to contacting the people who work there and getting some sense that they’re more than willing to work with you. Even if the intent is “everyone is allowed, so long as they follow the rules,” such things can easily be read (and often are) as “only serious researchers need apply.”
The chilling effect this has on patronage is difficult to quantify, because it’s hard to count people who are turned off even before you have a chance to convince them, unless you are seriously looking for those people. All I know is that I spent 4 days, 8 hours each day, in that very cold room looking at old Japanese stuff, and the number of additional patrons who came in during that time can be counted on one hand (i.e. 4). Granted, they had just completed a major move, but I got the sense from conversations with the reading room staff that what I experienced is a typical state of affairs. At one point, I was having a difficult time trying to get a photo from a book because its binding was so stiff, despite having been published in 1995. It made me wonder whether I was the first person to touch this thing since whoever stamped it. This would be especially depressing given how this was a reprint volume, something specifically designed to circulate materials more widely and something that, in a Japanese library, would likely simply be sitting in the general stacks. Its relative rarity in this country keeps it sequestered to a locked, climate controlled room, something neither warranted, in my opinion, nor especially conducive to being, you know, actually used. At the end of the day, it’s not my collection to run, but if it weren’t for Susan Liberator and the student employees of the reading room, I would be very wary of going back, meaning I’d likely try to find any other way to get my research done.
How I spent my working vacation
Despite finding a ton of stuff, one of my great disappointments was not finding even the most simple bibliographic information for a comic I love and have written about, yet which continues to elude me. You do not know despair until you have looked at every single page of 500+ issues of a comic magazine only not to find what you were looking for. I drank very heavily that night, and thankfully the friends I was staying with were more than willing to indulge my tirades about nitrate film over bottles of tripel.
On my last day, I was rather bemused to stumble upon this blog post asking the perfectly reasonable question, “who runs the Cartoon Library?” Before I read the post, the answer was quite obvious, the aforementioned Susan, yet to my surprise, her name appeared nowhere in the post. I mention this, because, while I may be a nobody, I found it rather odd that I should have been there for the entirety of four days (in at 9 and out at 5) without once having been introduced to or even glancingly looked at by one of the curators (aside from Susan). Generally, they seemed to take oddly little interest in who was there and how things were being used. I have no way of knowing if this interest is made apparent in other, less visible ways, but I do know that if I had been working in the collection where my spouse is employed (and had made my coming known WEEKS in advance), by the end I would have met every single person there, assuming they were all on site. Even if the researcher in question is, like myself, a relative nobody, this kind of glad handing is important, because it sets the tone for what kind of collection you want to run and engenders a sense of good will that even a nobody might accidentally communicate to a somebody.
I would assume that if one’s intent were to run a collection in which accessibility and not mere access were the norm, then outreach would be part of everyone’s job and not simply the one on whom it’s been pawned off. Unfortunately, in special collections this is an all too common occurrence.
N.B. some knowledge in this post portrayed as my own was contributed by the best outreach and instruction librarian I know.
Next week: Shingeki no kyojin
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