Time to Open Up! The Why and How of Opening Up Archival Finding Aids and the Unintended Consequences of Being Closed.

by: Merrilee Proffitt and Heather Briston

The core mission of most archival institutions includes the imperative to collect, preserve, and provide access to the collections in their care. One key method for enabling access is to describe each collection and its context in a finding aid. In an increasingly networked world, finding aids usually are accessible online to increase their visibility for discovery and meet basic institutional objectives. However, it’s no longer enough to make your descriptive data known only via a local site. Discovery potential expands greatly when finding aids are aggregated in regional, national, or subject-based discovery portals, such as the Online Archive of California, the UK Archives Hub, and OCLC’s ArchiveGrid. International archival consortia, aggregators, and cross-searching networks go a step further by hosting archival metadata across national boundaries. Similarly researchers who work in digital humanities, data science, and other disciplines may wish to use finding aids for experimental or scholarly purposes, creating new discovery pathways for others.

Unfortunately most archives don’t make these reuse opportunities easy, though the barriers may be unconsciously created. Terms of use and reuse generally are restrictive (i.e., a statement of copyright ownership) or ambiguous, if they are specified at all. Many archivists aren’t aware of the challenges this presents to aggregators and other potential reusers of finding aids. In any case, potential downstream consumers of this metadata must query each institution separately to request permission for reuse. This is a headache not only for the aggregator or researcher, but also for the repository, which may receive multiple queries over time. A grassroots initiative to address this issue has been germinating through informal discussions at SAA’s Annual Meetings, leading to the formation of an OCLC Research working group to develop best practices for clear terms of use and reuse for finding aid metadata.1 The group is also working on a proposal to embed terms of use and reuse within EAD encoded finding aids.2

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1. For more information on this group, please see the project page: https://www.oclc.org/research/themes/research-collections/finding-aid-metadata.html.
2. The EAD element pertains to the status of materials described by the finding aid. Ideally, the terms that pertain to the descriptive metadata could be expressed in both human language and in machine-readable form.

Suggested citation:Proffitt, Merrilee, and Heather Briston. 2016. “Time to Open Up! The Why and How of Opening Up Archival Finding Aids and the Unintended Consequences of Being Closed.” Archival Outlook March/April: 11.