No Permission Required: Exploring and Using Our Digital Collections

b-w primerPolicy changes frequently will fall under the un-glamorous category. But we are hoping that our newest one will fall under the hooray-for-AAS tally marking.

When books have included images from our collection, we’ve been providing photographic reproductions and permission to use them in the form of a licensing agreement; I’ve signed a few (read: thousand) of these agreements since starting the position in late 2004. Just a generation ago, the Society would showcase a double page spread of its primer as an interior illustration recreated as an 8×10 glossy print (left) and now we can display the same item in its ENTIRETY in GIGI (below).

GIGI screenshotIn addition to providing as-needed photography of collection material, we’ve also been filling our image archive, GIGI, with digital surrogates and links within the catalog. We’ve been providing open access to these digital collections, as well as to our online exhibitions and illustrated inventories. These resources feature some of our most-often reproduced images, including the portrait of John Winthrop, the woodcut of Richard Mather, the Boston Massacre scene by Paul Revere, Militia Muster by David Claypoole Johnston, and the Philosophic Cock by John Akin. Although finding them has been easy enough, use of these items has been somewhat complicated by the permissions agreement. Until last week, the agreement and fee for use of AAS collection materials was in recognition of the Society’s ownership of the documents (which included the cost of acquiring, preserving, and making it available), rather than in any copyright claim. But we have at last done away with licensing images and the (five-page) licensing agreement.

The original policy and agreement were devised to be gatekeepers of the collection material rather than provoke a villainous archival turf war. Not helping this has been that the rules on the books have been unclear and difficult to interpret. But we’ve come a long way. Now in the twenty-first century, copyright issues still raise a lot of questions. While companies are calling for stricter protection of intellectual properties, AAS is joining the numerous cultural institutions using open access and creative commons; with few exceptions, all of our print materials fall under the pre-1923 public domain. Access to digitized collection material has always been for research and scholarship and as we continue to add material we can fill out the digital collections and provide scholars even more items to use.

In his opening address, AAS founder Isaiah Thomas said the Society would not be “confined to local purposes – not intended for the particular advantage of any one state or section of the union, or for the benefit of a few individuals – one whose members may be found in every part of our western climate and its adjacent islands, and who are citizens of all parts of this quarter of the world.”[1] We like to think he would be proud of this development to continue to allow his collection to be used and disseminated – not limited to those locally in Worcester.

mysteries photograph
“Seeking to penetrate the mysteries of photography.” Stereocard collection. Box 321.

This permissions process, coupled with ordering of new photography, causes my phone extension to receive the most frantic calls (usually by those not living locally). It is no secret that book and article authors securing image permission can be panic-inducing. I’ve been told it is burdensome on all resources – time, money, and patience, and it can delay book production. We will continue to create new photography on-demand and there is still a fee to be paid for making reproductions (alas, not everything has been digitized yet!), but we are proud to provide this access and use of AAS resources. Our attempts at simplifying the process try to address as many different types of requests as we have received. The new obtaining digital images page describes the new policy a bit, and the newly redone form page allows you to submit a request for material not already digitized. And you can always email questions or orders to! There are image rights. And there are image very rights. We hope to now be part of the latter!

[1] Thomas, Isaiah. “Abstract of the President’s Communication on the Nature and Objects of the Institution, and on the Means for carrying into Effect the Designs of the Society.” Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society. Oct. 1814. Volume 1, page 28.

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Jackie Penny

Imaging Rights Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

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