24. It came from the… archive?

A cartoon 100% owned by yours truly but free to distribute wherever you, dear reader, choose

A cartoon 100% owned by yours truly but free to distribute wherever you, dear reader, choose

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

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. I didn’t realize until it was pointed out to me that I had received a response from John Overholt, a curator from the Houghton library at Harvard, on the twee-tor, so I thought it might be worth appending a reply here, since Twitter is not exactly conducive to extensive explication of one’s meaning. You can follow the thingy here: https://twitter.com/libralthinking/status/387224837686452225

    Of particular interest to me is his repetition of the statement on the Harvard special collections website, “Harvard College Library special collections are open to all adult researchers regardless of academic affiliation.” From what I gather from his tweet, he seems to believe that this statement reads as rather inclusionary, whereas I linked to that page precisely because I thought the statement read as obviously exclusionary. Clearly there is a disconnect between our two perspectives, so lemme put on my “close reading” cap and break it down.

    I see this statement as both explicitly and implicitly excluding potential patrons. In the explicit category are such rather broad demographics as non-adults and patrons without any institutional affiliation at all. To demonstrate why that first group is, to my mind, unreasonably exclusionary, consider how middle school students participating in National History Day are required to do research working with original documents. Let’s say a student participating in NHD is looking around the websites for various institutions in the greater Boston area and thinks to herself, “I bet I could find really amazing materials at Harvard,” only to find the statement above. Now, it’s entirely possible that the people at the Houghton or Yenching or any of the other subunits would be more than willing to let her do research there, but in order to even discover this fact she would have to assume that the institutions practice contradicts a written policy.

    As for the second explicit group, I realize there is a possibility that “regardless of academic affiliation” could read as saying “even those with no affiliation whatsoever,” but if that is the case, why mention it at all? Why not simply say, “any researcher” [full stop] or, if the intent really is to exclude secondary school students, “any adult researcher?” I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to read that as “you need to have some affiliation, but it need not be Harvard.” I certainly read it that way, though one might argue that I am unreasonable.

    The implicitly excluded category hinges upon the word “researcher.” I would assume that undergraduates are welcome to use materials, but I can almost guarantee you they see themselves as an excluded class, for two reasons. The first is something that attends to any special research unit such as an archive or rare book room, an aura, if you will, of inaccessibility. I suppose the only way you can get past that is by doing active, aggressive outreach. Second, they likely don’t think of themselves as researchers, even though I assume that word was chosen to be more inclusive. In my own teaching experience, especially at a public university, if you don’t hold their hands and more or less force them to use library resources they always had access to, they won’t. When pressed, they generally assume that those things are made available for faculty or “serious” outside researchers, whatever that means. What is clear is that they don’t think it means themselves.

    The choice between OSU and the Yenching that I reference in my post, demonstrates why I think statements about “who can use” do more harm than good, even when the intent is to say, “no, really, you too can come in!” If you look at the Billy Ireland website (cartoons.osu.edu), you will notice there is no statement at all about who can use, just a list of their policies and guidelines. To me, at least, it seems the better practice is not to say anything at all. Moreover, in my particular case, the decision to choose OSU was based on the older policy at Harvard Special Collections, namely that you had to register first generally with Spec. Col. and then with the specific library where you wished to work. The old site it no longer available, but I recall explicit statements about demonstrating your need to use materials there as well as your professional status. This seems to have changed, given the current stated policy, but I had no reason to believe it had, until I looked up the Spec. Col. website for my post yesterday.

    The point of all this, then, is understanding how policy statements read not just to the people writing them but to a wide variety of potential patrons.

  2. Nick, let me say first of all that it’s extremely valuable for me to have this perspective on how our public-facing information and policies read to visitors to the site. I hope you’ll take me at my word when i say that we genuinely want to present a welcoming face to people who might want to come and use our collections, and it’s very easy to think that what you’re saying is completely obvious and transparent, when to someone for whom this is their first encounter with your library and its policies, it’s not obvious or transparent at all. I hope we can take this feedback and work toward greater clarity.

    For the record, let me parse through that introductory statement, as you have, so it’s clearer what I understand us to mean by it. You’re right that you and I quoted that statement for exactly opposite reasons, which is what makes it so interesting.

    “I see this statement as both explicitly and implicitly excluding potential patrons.” You’re absolutely right in one respect: Houghton is not open to users who aren’t college age or older. That’s a decision based on limited resources of reading room space and staff time, and I think it’s not an unreasonable one, given that the primary resources we have digitized are available to anyone anywhere.

    “I realize there is a possibility that “regardless of academic affiliation” could read as saying “even those with no affiliation whatsoever,”” That’s exactly what we mean, I I don’t think it’s a particularly tortured reading of the text to understand it that way, but you’re also right that we could make that point more explicit. The reason “regardless of academic affiliation” was added was to contrast our policies with those of many other Harvard libraries, where Harvard affiliation is required for access.

    I’m a little bit torn about your next point about the word “researcher”. You are absolutely right that special collections can be inherently intimidating, and I don’t want to erect additional barriers to their use–I’d like to see more and more varied use of our collections and I feel that we do make concerted efforts to reach out to undergraduates at Harvard to let them know that they are very welcome to come use the collections. At the same time, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to make clear that the primary purpose of the collections is for research, broadly defined. Aside from a couple weeks a year when we’re changing them over, Houghton’s exhibition space is constantly full of exciting, wondrous stuff from our collections for people who are primarily interested in getting to see examples of what have without a particular research agenda. Houghton is also host to scores of undergraduate classes (and not just Harvard classes) every year, so that students can have a firsthand experience with primary sources that relate to what they’re studying.

    Finally, let me clarify that the registration process definitely is not intended for vetting, it’s very simply to create an account in the system that we use to create and manage requests for materials so that we can get them from the record in our online catalog to the pagers in the stacks to the reading room in front of a patron as quickly and easily as possible.

    Once again, I’m really grateful to get this feedback, and I’ll work to see if we can’t construct our informational pages to lessen the possibility that we’re giving potential users the wrong impression about how eager we are to have them visit and make use of our collections.

    1. In hindsight, I realize that this comes off a bit as “Harvard bad,” but the choice of the Yenching vs. OSU dichotomy had more to do with my personal interests (i.e. late 19th/early 20th century Japanese print culture) than with a grudge against your institution. Also, cost is a not insubstantial factor for me, seeing as I have no research allowance, and so literally every penny I spend is taken away from our family budget. OSU is closer and I can lodge there for free, so that has to be factored in.

      I understand that collections make choices about who can use materials and how, and I also know that I am perhaps in the minority when I say that I personally would not want to do work at a collection where the middle school student in my example above not only would not be permitted but not given equal consideration to someone such as myself or a tenured professor with a long list of publications. I believe strongly in the mandate of public institutions, so, for instance, it greatly pleases me that the Billy Ireland allows any shmoe to come in off the street, request an incredibly rare and valuable comic, and read it, so long as they follow the library’s handling policies. They don’t have to be doing research; they may just want to read it. I personally prefer that way of doing things, and I try to support those institutions who do so.

  3. Ray Bottorff Jr · · Reply

    Most of my research has been of the “non-comic” kind as I was getting my Masters, and my efforts to access and copy information at institutions, as well as my subsequent hiring by the National Archives in DC has been a bit of an eye opener.

    The National Archives have laws that force complete public access and copying abilities by patrons, who are, also the tax payers funding the location (with the exception of documents too brittle or fragile or still covered by secrecy restrictions).

    Most other institutions do not have such laws, nor the purse strings they come with. And so much of the restrictions when it comes to using and copying the records has little to do with preservation, but everything to do about funding, about money (and often, protecting the copyright the institution has over their intellectual property, so hence the limitations on use).

    Now this is usually fine if you are studying a subject where imagery of the item being researched is not important (as it is with most documents). But institutions that handle comics really do need to reconsider the restrictions their rules place upon researchers, for what they have is rather unique in the archival world, and needs to reflect the differences. A new paradigm of usage needs to be created, and rely less on the boilerplate language from other archives.

    1. Well, the case law with regard to images/visual media has also put far greater restrictions on what constitutes fair use with images. For instance, using a photograph is considered reproduction of the entire work, so successful arguments have been made in civil court that even what seems prima facie to be fair use unduly harms the commercial potential of said image. However, if your making an argument about a photograph, it makes little sense to use only a part of it, so you end up in this weird bind.

      What I find most worrisome is the Rowling/Harry Potter Lexicon case from a few years back. Previously, text had been somewhat off limits when it comes to questions of fair use. Now that no longer seems to be the case.

  4. […] dear reader, that this particular mode of public address is not without real drawbacks.  If this post on my trip to OSU likely won me no friends, even though by my standards the criticism was rather tame (and about a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: