Archives and the Digital World

The University of Alberta has a digital archive called ERA (Education and Research Archive) where any one working at the university can deposit electronic records. The items deposited include drafts of published papers, datasets, research materials, conference presentations, course materials, anything produced as part of the academic life of the institution is welcome. At the time of deposit, the contributor can determine what type of copyright restrictions are on the item as well as if it is accessible to the general public or restricted to the UAlberta community. It is an innovative system and the people who look after ERA are passionate about the archive and the example it sets for other institutions to move towards a purely digital archive — though it must be noted that ERA does not replace the University of Alberta Archive which continues to collect physical documents created by the university.
Until May 2011, I was not familiar with ERA and hadn’t given much thought to the implications of a digital archive on the items it held. Then, as mentioned in a pervious post, I got a summer job with the Canadian Circumpolar Institute (CCI) creating the metadata for a collection of slides and photographs for digitization and deposit into ERA. I am well versed in using archives, but I am a historian not an archivist and have nothing but respect for the work archivists do because it makes my work so much easier. That respect has only increased over the past seven months — deciding what subject/keywords best suit images is a greater challenge than it might seem. With the metadata completed, it came time to start scanning slides and uploading them to ERA, I encountered an interesting problem.
The slides and photographs in the collection I am dealing with depict everything from flying across the Canadian Arctic in every season to medical conditions to families at community dances to travelling by dog sled to trips to Russia and Iceland. The problem is many of the photographs show people and many of those people are identifiable – though not necessarily identified. These images come from predominately aboriginal communities and show almost exclusively aboriginal people – there are some of the family of the collection’s creator – which means there are issues of cultural sensitivity, post-colonial relations, and respect for local authority that need to be considered. This presents a stumbling block for adding the images to a purely digital archive because unlike a traditional archive where access is limited to people who consult the physical collection, anyone at anytime and from anywhere can consult this collection of images once they are on the ERA site.
There were no access restriction placed on the collection by the donor. They wanted people to be able to use what is a very interesting collection of images. The piece I did about this collection for The Otter speaks to the various groups who could get great value out of the collection. There has always been hesitance around the medical images because of doctor-patient confidentiality and from the beginning this portion of the collection was to be kept dark – you would need permission from CCI to consult the images – or restricted to UAlberta researchers through the same system that only allows students and faculty to use library journal subscriptions. This portion of the collection does contain images that were clearly reference images for writing academic papers and never meant to be shared with the public. But want about the images of daily life where faces are clearly visible and people who are still alive could be identified by friends and family? Are those images restricted to UAlberta researchers? Or are they made public so, like a collection in a traditional archive, the collection’s integrity is maintained and researchers – academic or local – can consult the images freely?
The historian in me hesitates at the prospect of leaving any part of the archive behind a wall, except for the medical portion which must be handled with care. To limit open access means limiting what a visual historian can learn about the transformation of the Canadian Arctic in the decades after the Second World War. More importantly, it means limited the ability of the communities whose recent past is depicted to access their visual heritage. There is interest in the North in the photographs taken by southern sojourners for the purpose of identifying friends and family members the community does not have pictures of. A collection like the one in question also details traditional life visually and through the annotations to each image. For example there is a set of slides from a dog sled trip to hunt seals in the Pangnirtung area that does into great detail about exactly how to ice sled runners using a mixture of oatmeal and blood and water while showing each step of that process in a slide. This collection is of value to so many that to restrict access because someone might look at it and see a photograph of them-self or a family member they don’t really like seems ridiculous (again, the medical images where this could be a legitimate issue will not be public).
The policies and guidelines for digitization of images with identifiable people are not set yet and are part of the trick process archives are currently undergoing as they try to move into the digital world. This move is essential for the survival of archives and growing the user base of archival collections but it is fraught with stumbling blocks like the one I am trying to navigate around making public images of identifiable people even if the people are not identified (and thus not Google-able). For now, the collection will slowly go up on the ERA site but until a consensus is reached only the images without identifiable people can be made public — unless the image has already been made public as is the case with this image through the published biography of Otto Schaefer. It is unclear if the 50 year rule so frequently encountered when dealing with federal and provincial archives would come into play in this situation because so many of the people in the images are not identified.
I’ve spent much of the past few weeks working on this issue, trying to locate a document somewhere that speaks to issues of privacy and archival images and digital archives, but nothing seems to exist. Is there a place I haven’t looked that is known only to archivists? Or is my gut right and such a document does not exist yet? If you were in my place, would you similarly conflicted over the desire to makes the collection as accessible as possible while simultaneously doing everything possible to protect the privacy of the unidentified people in the images?
Thoughts? Suggestions?

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment, Public History, Research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Archives and the Digital World

  1. Mat says:

    A few weeks have past since this post, but in that time I hope you have the chance to speek to an archivist (or, UofA has an incredibly strong Library Science program, they’d have the info you’re looking for), as the issue you’re grappling with is not an uncommon one. With regards to the publication of any medical related content, especially identifiable images of individuals who have not expressly given consent, you’d be opening yourself up to potential litigation (at least) by publishing them. Talk to some folks down at your slis faculty.

    Happy Holidays and Good Luck 🙂

    • Thanks Mat.
      Since posting I have been working closely with a few of the library science people as well as the privacy office to avoid any FOIPP violations. It is going to be a long process before all of the images are made public!

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