Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Demise of Our Cultural Rights (and Cultural Heritage?)

“Our scattershot cultural policy has failed to balance the public interest with the marketplace,” writes Bill Ivey in his Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Ivey, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, carefully follows the growing corporate ownership of our documentary heritage, creative arts, and art of lasting value (like classical music) and the fading cultural and other institutions that collect and care for them. Adding to the growing literature about intellectual property, most of it quite pessimistic, Ivey also spends considerable energy considering the cultural heritage, a topic that will be of interest to archivists.

Early on, Ivey notes that “early archives” were often “labors of love created by devoted fans of history and art” but now “it’s business” (p. 35). Much of the author’s attention is devoted to what corporations have done to our documentary heritage, and Ivey generally doesn’t pull any punches. Writing about music archives in the recording industry, Ivey believes that these archives are maintained by “low-level employees” unaware of the importance of what they have in their custody (p. 41). Expanding his perspective beyond this part of our cultural heritage, Ivey writes, “Most of America’s twentieth-century culture was produced by for-profit arts industries, and much of our cultural heritage has been no better treated than assets such as buildings and furniture” (p. 45) The non-profit organizations administering these archives also have struggled: “our under funded public and private archives have struggled to keep up with expanding collections, expensive technologies, and an increasingly burdensome intellectual property environment” (p. 45). Ivey notes that these archival programs have had particular difficulty dealing with the “intangible heritage,” the sounds, images, tapes, and films that are a critical part of our documentary heritage, and all parts of the heritage most often targeted by for-profits in terms of their controlling intellectual property.

One of the more interesting points Ivey makes is that the media industries are against the notion of preservation, according to him, because they fear a public backlash: “By revealing how much has been lost, how much has never been released, and, following decades of mergers and relocations, just how little record, film, and television companies know about what they do or do not own, the truth would produce public outrage” (p. 48). The source of this problem or approach is because the “preservation strategy” is “based on current market value. The result is at best a leaky sieve. Some treasures are saved, but others are mislaid, poorly stored, or locked up in service to profit” (p. 55). What makes this worse is that the nonprofit repositories have adopted the same approach: “Nonprofits are too often careless with historical assets, risk averse, and too often drawn to projects that have no real importance beyond an impact on the bottom line” (p. 217). As Ivey argues, this just is not going to work (at least if we concerned about the public good).

The warning in this book is that as the costs of getting access to and using the documents of our cultural heritage increase, we will see more of a “cultural divide.” “This cultural divide results in part from the scope of our current technological revolution,” Ivey argues, “but it has been exacerbated by business practices that shape both the production and the distribution of art products and by the introduction of high-end software programs that greatly expand the horizons of those affluent consumers who can buy in at the highest level” (p. 278). We now have a “growing, high-priced permission culture,” and to illustrate this point, Ivey puts in the costs involved in reproducing images in his book (and some of these costs are surprisingly high). Ivey does not write a gloomy assessment, but proposes a long list of actions that must or should be taken. Some strike me as idealistic, but his call for action and resistance is something archivists ought to read and reflect on. While professional associations, such as the Society of American Archivists, have been pretty good in issuing statements about some of these matters and even presenting testimony in Congressional hearings when needed, the real difficult task ahead is how individual archivists and archival programs are going to deal with the practical consequences of this commercialization of our heritage. And here there are no simple answers.