blog: The Issue of Access

The idea of access, in relation to archives, can be seen as the end product of all of the hard work that goes into collecting, restoring and preserving our cultural past. More importantly however, access is vital for the value creation of cultural goods. Although it is the careful consideration that is applied in the preservation stages that enable audiences to view and make use of heritage material, it is access that acts as the driving force behind much of archival practice. I think William Uricchio touched on this nicely in his keynote speech when he said, “that without access, nothing really matters.”

The theme of Sustainable Futures for Digital Archives brought to light many of the challenges facing the archive of the future. The demand for access through digital platforms is on the rise and the expectations of tech-savvy user groups calls for analogue audiovisual collections to make the necessary transition to the digital realm. The parallel track on day one of eCommons provided an interesting look at the ins and outs of digitisation from a practical perspective, demonstrating the importance of projects such as Images for the Future for the future of access.

In a presentation by Jata Haan, the impact of digital files on access by professionals was explained. In the days before Images for the Future the possibilities of access was limited to DVDs, tapes, and film loans. In the days after, users are presented with a host of in which material can be acquired. The availability of high resolution files, digital stills and embedded files allows for far more delivery options than before. Jata noted that the whole process of digitisation increases access in the collections of institutions and that digital supply drives demand, further legitimising a digital future.

The overriding issue that seemed to permeate a large part of the conference was that of copyright. Specifically in this context, copyright acts as a barrier between archives, wanting to make material available to the public, and users, wishing to gain access. Hans Westerhof noted that copyright has not yet adapted to the digital age. Problems stemming from unknown creators, multiple copyright holders and refusal of permission can impede the mass digitisation of collections, subsequently affecting access.

In terms of overall access, and its importance for the future of digital archiving, institutions must be able to recognise the expectations of the users and act accordingly. The pressure of raising significant revenue from projects such as Images for the Future is out of sorts with the “open” nature that the public seek. The key in this instance, before any economic motives are explored, is to create an engaging and meaningful experience for an expanding audience that justifies further investment.

by Eoin O’Donohoe

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