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.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Most archivists understand that intellectual property has become a real battleground for them, where they engage in a war where it is sometimes difficult to ascertain just who the enemy is and what the objective may be. Lawrence Lessig, who has produced some of the most compelling examinations of the copyright battles, writes in his most recent work, “Copyright is, in my view at least, critically important to s healthy culture. Properly balanced, it is essential to inspiring certain forms of creativity. Without it, we would have a poorer culture. With it, at least properly balanced, we create the incentives to produce great new works that otherwise would not be produced” (Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy [New York: Penguin Press, 2008], p. xvi). Since archivists certainly desire for their materials to be used effectively by scholars and citizens alike to contribute to our understanding of the past and an enrichment of our culture, it is important for them to read and reflect on the insights of commentators such as Lessig.

Lessig describes, in sufficient detail and his easily readable style, the impact of the digital technologies on popular culture, noting how the main driver has come to be access, not necessarily free, but access enabling new forms of use in ways we could not imagine a generation or two ago. Lessig believes everything will be on the Web, enabling all kinds of new and innovative remixing, as well as generating new kinds of challenges regarding intellectual property. Everyone can have greater access to more information and material than ever before, while also potentially increasing control over how this stuff can be used. Some of Lessig’s commentary will be of interest to archivists, noting that digital technologies make it possible to preserve nearly everything, although he notes that the technical costs are “trivial” while the “legal costs . . . are increasingly prohibitive” (p. 262). Archivists always should read Lessig’s work on intellectual property, and try to imagine how to relate his ides to their own work.