Hello, my name is Barbara Aikens. I want to contribute to the broader discussion of digitization risks by sharing our approach and experiences over the last six years of our highly successful large scale digitization initiative. During this period we built an infrastructure to support the digitization workflow, a truly innovative online presentation and contextual interface, and digitized over 111 archival collections measuring 1005 linear feet and represented by a little over 1.5 million digital images. The initiative has been generously funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, with additional support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The past six years have been transformative for the Archives, and I hope our project has provided inspiration for other similar large scale digitization projects within the archival community. And, like the rest of you, we continue to learn, adapt, and take risks. YasuoKuniyoshi with model, Alfred Puhn photographs.
First, a little background on the Archives. Our mission is to illuminate the scholarship of the history of art in America through collecting, preserving, and making available for study the documentation of our country’s rich artistic legacy. Over 5,000 individual manuscript and archival collections measuring circa 15,000 linear feet. 2,000 oral history interviews – many of which date back to the 1950s. Over 1000 collections that were loaned to us for microfilming. Active exhibition program based on our collections and a permanent gallery space in the Smithsonian’s Donald H. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, as well as a published Journal.
Our website makes available collection-level descriptions for all of our collections, EAD finding aids, oral history transcripts, online exhibitions, our Journal,a blog, and significant amounts of digital content – including the results of our highly successful large scale digitization initiative.
Our holdings consist of the personal papers of artists and designers, art critics, collectors, scholars and curators, and arts administrators; as well as the records of art galleries and dealers and arts organizations. They offer users a unique and deeply personal experience by allowing them to make universal connections with some of our most well-known cultural icons. Alexander Calder Laughing outside of Paris studioJackson Pollock as a young boy feeding the chickens on the family farm in WyomingSculptor UnaHanbury sculpting Georgia O Keefe in New Mexico Loving moment between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Artists are the members of our society that often push the boundaries of acceptable behavior which is also reflected in their papers. As our former director John Smith wrote in an issue of our Journal devoted to bohemia, “The Archives of American Art holds rich evidence of the impulse of artists to form both emotional and physical communities outside of mainstream society.” These collections often contain materials that may document extreme behaviors, such as this image of Alexander Calder where he appears to be literally passed out drunk.
Or, this photo of Southern California architectural historian Esther McCoy passionately (and sans clothes) embracing nature, probably in the 1940s or 1950s. . Actually, these are really fairly sedate images to provide us with a general context for discussing the realities of digitizing collections of artists’ papers that, in addition to risking copyright infringement,often document open sexuality, risque behavior, and even deviancy, or that may contain very sensitive information.
At the Archives, our current online digital content consists of Over 10,000 selected representative highlights from collections accessed via an Image Gallery. And over 111 archival collections fully digitized and presented online as grayscale thumbnail and full-size reference sized images. Digitized collections are presented online via a “virtual reading room” experience that relies on the structured metadata found in the EAD finding aid elements as the sole descriptive metadata for the digital files, as well as an efficient contextualonline navigational and access tool. Because the system is built around the EAD finding aid, our digitization workflow is very much integrated into the processing workflow.
We’ve all heard about many risks associated with digitizing archival collections, and most appear to focus on fears associated with copyright infringement. But I’ve learned that are other areas of possible risk as well, including privacy and appropriateness – and some of these areas are just as gray as copyright but will need to be considered at some point if the institution plans to increase its risk level and implement large scale digitization.
Admittedly, over the last six years we have been willing to assume a very high threshold of risk tolerance, and actually adopted many of the WIP (Well-Intentioned Practices)recommendations Merrileereferenced earlier. Essentially we avoid only the riskiest materials and do not seek permissions. We assume that almost everything falls under the broad concept of fair use. Up until we started digitizing collections in 2005, we actively microfilmed our collections. I have to reference our former microfilming operation because, in many ways, we adapted its workflows for our digitization program. And, it was certainly a major contributor to the way in which we approached and thought about large scale digitization. For us, large scale digitization simply represented a modern replacement for microfilming, and this speaks to the risks that archivists have always taken. I want to stress that we’ve had only ONE complaint during our six years of posting both digitized collections and selected highlights from our collections. Rather than complain, most of the feedback has been very positive from our users, including individuals who discover their own documents or family documents online. It’s clear that the benefits far outweigh any perceived risks.
Making the decision and taking the risk to scan an entire collection or to implement large scale digitization does not necessarily mean that every single item within an archival collection should be scanned. It’s okay to skip the really risky items and we looselytranslate “entire collection” to mean “the bulk” of a collection. Materials that have little research value, are sensitive or private, have seriously questionable copyright issues, or are simply inappropriate in an online environment as relative to your particular institution do not have to be scanned. However, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.At AAA we try to make these decisions on the folder or series level, not on the item level for our large scale initiative. And, it is most often the processing archivists that make these decisions using their archival appraisal skill set guided by written guidelines. Traditionally, processing archivists make on-going appraisal decisions while they process and have always weeded duplicate and non-archival materials from collections, and identified and isolated sensitive materials. This role or function does not change in an online environment and these intuitive appraisal decisions made by the processing archivists can also be applied to large scale, collection-level digitization projects.
And, no, this does not translate into censorship. We’re not throwing the materials away after all and they are still fully available in our reading room and discoverable in the online finding aid, alongside digitized content.
So, how are we handling some other risky areas? Our papers are full of photographs of works of art, and the actual artwork most likely has closely guarded copyright and reproduction rights, and licensing issues. It is our policy not to scan un-annotated images of works of art. However, works of art are also fully or partially depicted in many of our photographs of artists, exhibitions, and galleries. These images may have been donated by the artist or may have come to us via gallery records. Generally, we risk digitizing these images. For example, this particular image of Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, surrounded by her artwork is found in the Andre Emmerich gallery records. We do not have Frankenthaler’s papers and did not seek her permission to post this image online. However, the image is part of the gallery records donated to us, along with the rights to those records, and we are assuming that the photo was taken as part of the gallery’s business. Also, note that the photograph is in B&W, and the artwork is not depicted in color. So, while our rights to post this image may be questionable to some, we chose to risk it and many other similar images.
Another example where we take risks are newsclippings and scrapbooks with news clippings. For other published materials, we often scan only the cover, title page, and relevant pages. It’s enough to let the researcher know that we have it and it’s accessible in our reading room. It is also our policy not to post medical records, tax records, and other private or sensitive records online. Although, admittedly, I have actually found a tax return or two dating from the 1930s and 1940s on our website.
Many American artists and their estates are represented by the Visual Artists and Galleries Association, known as VAGA . VAGA manages the copyright license for works of art created by these artists. However, many of these same artists have also donated their papers to AAA via signed deeds of gifts, wherein they transferred their rights in their papers to AAA. A couple of years ago, VAGA found digitized photographs on our website from our collection of Kuniyoshi papers – photographs taken by Kuniyoshi but which did not depict works of art. Most are of family, friends, and events. VAGA informed us that we violated their exclusive license to manage Kuniyoshi’s copyright of artwork by posting photographs taken by the artist. Their premise was that their rights extended to any creative work by the artist. Following this logic, almost any item created by an artist represented by VAGA would be suspect, so we held our ground. We argued that 1) we own the papers and the rights to all of the papers, including the photographs, 2) the photographs are not of Kuniyoshi’s artwork, and 3) Kuniyoshi is not a photographer, so these images are not works of art. However, we then discovered that our earliest donations of Kuniyoshi’s papers in fact did not have a legal deed. Later additions, which did not include the photographs in question did have legal deeds. SI Legal Counsel advised us NOT to remove the photographs altogether but to restrict the images to thumbnails only based on the fact that we did not have a signed deed for these particular photographs. Legal Counsel also wrote a follow up letter to VAGA outlining our rights to similar materials in similar collections for which we do have deeds. We’ve not heard a peep since. Afterall, we always joke – who would want to sue the Smithsonian?!
I mentioned earlier that it is our general policy not to post nude pictures online, and most definitely never images of nude children. Obviously,we do make exceptions but we hope that they are directly related to art history in some fashion! This is related to another point I’d like to make. Risk assessment is also tied to comfort levels and it is possible to have several “comfort levels” in your institution. As an archivist who has been exposed to the documentation of artists’ lives for nearly 20 years, my personal comfort level is rather high, and things that some folks find offensive, I may not even think about. But, you must also take into account the comfort level of your senior management,parent institution, and Board of Trustees. And to further complicate the issue, we are a quasi-federal institution sometimes under the scrutiny of Congress (often it seems like based on a whim only), and it certainly would be easier for us to come in on the very conservative side, but we feel strongly that we have an obligation to reflect the majority of the contents of our collections as they are. And, we can still do that on a large scale without posting highly offensive materials, such as pornography – which we do seem to have in unusually large quantities! Imagine that you are the parent of a twelve year old who found his/her nudie pictures on the Smithsonian’s website, and you decide to complain to your congressman or woman – don’t think we wouldn’t hear about it! It is, however, sometimes hard to predict what might actually be the outcome of such a fuss, particularly if it went public. The controversy over the recent “Hide and Seek” gay portraiture exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery resulted in an unexpected outcome. There were more protests over the decision to remove the controversial piece than there were over including the piece in the show.
So we actually have more than a handful of either partial or fullynude images on our website which we feel are not too risque, like this fun image, probably from the 1970s, of artists’ models getting ready to relax and party, after what might have been a long gruelingday of posing.
And party they do!
And we also have images online that some may find a little more offensive, such as these, one of which is an image and text from Sex, a NYC underground sex weekly newspaper. But there are definitely even more lewd and lascivious materials found within our collections that I would not considerposting online, regardless of how much they informed the user of the creator’s life.
Such as this letter from circa 1933-1934 letter online which presents a serious privacy issue, combined with highly lascivious content.
And this is another example of something that I would never post online. Itdescribes such deviant behavior that it is even hard for me to read. And, this is just one page of a typed journal that covers nearly 10 years of similar behavior. Sadly, the creator was murdered in Puerto Rico while conducting these acts. So, while the information is certainly critical to understanding his life, it is so graphically deviant that it should never be available online in my opinion.
On the lighter side, however, there are a handful of “racy” letters in the Beatrice Woods papers. Some of you may be familiar with Wood – often referred to as the Mama of Dada who had a love affair with Marcel Duchamp. From her letters we can surmise that he was not her only lover over the years. Perhaps this is why she lived to be 105 years old! We are digitizing this 25 linear foot collection right now and will present these letters online.
Another of Beatrice’s lovers perhaps? Because artists often live their lives contrary to the “rules” of traditional society, their papers most definitely contain large amounts of material that is not always “family friendly”, and may not be ready for educational prime time out there on the web. However, as I mentioned we’ve only had 1 complaint in six years, and it was not about content. This further supports our willingness to risk putting it online – at least for now.
And because I just couldn’t end the presentation withthe previous slide, I want to show you that our collections are not ALWAYS about the dark and deviant side of artists’ lives. Here is a very sweet illustrated letter from artist Moses Soyer to his grandson. The Archives of American Art has taken just about every risk that can be taken in our approach to digitizing our collections. I don’t want you to think that we have done so blindly, because we are fully aware of the risks. And, besides, there really weren’t any models for us to follow six years ago when we started digitizing and posting entire collections online. The only real model we had was our own earlier approach to microfilming collections. While some of these risks have definitely made us uncomfortable, we have made a conscious decision to move forward.It remains to be seen how our risky policies will play out as we move into digitizing ever more contemporary collections and all in full color. However, we do not plan to let “what ifs” get in our way. In conclusion, large scale digitization may not be as risky as one might think as evidenced by our program – and archivists should take advantage of their existing archival appraisal skills to help them decide which risks are worth taking. I propose that if we think about digitization from a truly archival perspective and simply as another form of access, the idea of large scale digitization might seem rather safe. And finally, I want to recognize our entire project team who have helped build our successful large scale digitization program and have shared our vision – particularly our Information Resources Manager Karen Weiss who has perhaps risked the most to lead us down this slippery slope. Thank You.
Risqué Business: Risks & Realities of Digitizing Artists’ Papers
The Archives of American Artcollects, preserves and makesavailable primary sourcematerial documenting thehistory of the visual arts in theUnited States
What are the risks?• Copyright infringement – published, unpublished, licensed.• Privacy Issues – medical records, social security records, banking records, tax records, 2nd or 3rd person concerns.• Appropriateness, Moral & Ethical Issues - nudity, lewd, lascivious, pornographic.
AAA Approach– Selection based on research value and use– Archival approach, not item approach– Do not seek copyright holder’s permission – not reasonable or feasible– Assume that almost everything falls under a broad concept of “fair use”– Display thumbnails as initial point of access– Avoid only the riskiest materials– Rely on existing archival appraisal skill set– No item-level cataloging for fully digitized collections
What we won’t risk – sort of...• Photographs stamped with a statement indicating the photograph can not be reproduced without permission.• Tax records (usually)• Social Security numbers and records• Medical records (usually)• Personnel and payroll records• Lewd, lascivious, and pornographic materials• Nude photographs – especially those not of donor• Nude photographs of children• Published books/catalogs• Photographs of works of art
...“oh curse thisdamned abortion –I can’t [can’t] begood & they say I’vegot to. EileenI am shaved & Ikeep wanting yourhand on me there -
Moses Soyer letter to grandson Daniel Soyer, circa 1964.Barbara AikensArchives of American Art,Smithsonian Institutionaikensb@si.eduSAA Annual Conference, 2011.