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In the American context, conventional interpretations of the word “censorship” often bring to mind images of stern and oppressive moralists challenging specific texts, policies, and actions directly. Over time, popular culture has tended to fixate on the direct, legislative dimensions of censorship, reducing the conversation surrounding the practice to a mild and generally permissible expression of anti-establishment sentiment and youthful rebellion, in which prospective censors are depicted as unduly judgmental and out-of-touch, while the impulse to censor is depicted as something alien and exceptional. While this interpretation of American censorship as direct confrontation may be reflective of an approach that is disproportionately visible, deeper questions of accessibility also remain highly relevant to the issue of censorship; in a society in which one’s relationship to power is largely defined by class and race, it is often less constructive to examine occasional restrictions on what may be read by any particular person, than it is to examine pervasive, normalized restrictions which contribute to the status quo.
In this regard, digital archiving poses a new set of challenges for archivists seeking to address mundane forms of censorship in the form of accessibility. As academic research has relied increasingly on the use of digital archives since the late 20th century, it has become increasingly necessary to examine precisely how archives have changed in the transition from traditional to digital databases. In her 2017 article, “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?” Peel Art Gallery archivist Samantha Thompson provides additional context on this point, disputing the prevailing notion that digital archives act as a kind of panacea countering issues implicit in traditional archiving, namely problems of deterioration, storage, and cost. More specifically, Thompson identifies a number of mechanical barriers to the imagined “perfect digital archive,” citing costly and time-consuming processes like cataloging metadata, depicting context accurately and appropriately, physically scanning an item with consideration for its size and specific preservation requirements, and maintaining the resultant digital materials securely. Rather than eliminating the need for professional oversight altogether, Thompson suggests that digitization has altered the relationship between archivists, materials, and the public, thereby requiring further intervention by archivists in a new professional context.
While Thompson’s point regarding the limits of digitization is convincing, it should be noted that she neglects to question a number of problematic pretenses upon which archiving in contemporary American society is based. It may be argued, for example, that a model of digital archiving contingent on profitability in the form of subscription fees may alienate members of society with a limited amount of disposable income, rendering certain sources functionally inaccessible. Furthermore, profitability may impact the nature of digitization, expediting digitization for pertinent materials which are expected to attract new subscribers. Related to the issue of a profit motive are notions of ownership and affiliation; if a particular institution (a college, museum, or gallery) affiliated with an archival collection alienates members of a particular social group, materials in that collection may be rendered similarly inaccessible to members of that group by association. Lastly, Thompson’s interpretation of copyright law as a means of maintaining accuracy and internal quality standards strikes me as an overly benevolent framing. While usage rights permit archivists to maintain accuracy in select instances, they also often serve to maintain restrictive barriers to the democratization of sources, stifling innocuous or otherwise valuable citations.
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