Erin Wahl: Archives in the Twentieth Century

In the fifth of a series of six posts to help writers make good use of archival materials, Erin Wahl discusses fees and copyright.

time for another conversation I hate having. This is the moment when we talk
about fees associated with archival materials. The truth of the matter, which
I’ve made mention of multiple times throughout these posts, is that archives
are all having funding problems. Now some are better off than others, but as is
the case with money you can always bet everyone wishes they had more. Of
course, some of the most famous archives get a lot more money in donations,
fees, etc. than the smaller ones. It’s one of the advantages of being a famous
archive. The rest of us are out here trying to figure out how to get the most
done with the money we have and how to get more money to fund all of the
millions of things we should be doing and want to be doing. So why do archives
charge fees for things? We really need the scratch to continue doing our work.
You’ll be pleased to hear that in most cases this donated money doesn’t go to
paying salaries. It definitely doesn’t where I work. We’re not using it to buy
pizza and beer every Friday. No one’s rolling around in their office on beds of
dollar bills. That money is going right back into the archives. Right back into
preserving more photos, manuscripts, maps, oral histories, etc. I have
explained it to people before as this: by paying these fees you’re essentially
donating money to us, preserving and securing the future of historical
materials, and getting something from it as well.

There are a handful of things archives may or may not charge fees for. Some
things are pretty standard. You’re going to have to pay for photocopies. You’re
going to have to pay for scans or prints of things. These things all take time
and materials to accomplish. There are a variety of rates out there for this
stuff, from the very cheap to the very expensive. There are people behind the
scenes factoring the variables: time, amount of staff, materials needed, rising
costs of said materials, etc. Some archives also charge for research. Let me
explain this one a bit. The days of archivists sitting in lonely dungeon rooms
with scrolls of parchment, meticulously cleaning and cataloguing are long gone.
The new archivist is a jack of all trades. You need to be in this profession.
On any given day archivists are processing collections, working on the reference
desk, answering reference questions via email or phone, and doing other various
tasks from physically demanding things such as moving boxes (Fun Fact:
archivist job descriptions require applicants to be able to lift 30-60 pounds) to things like sitting
at their computers and doing the less fun administrative work, or writing
manuals or other policy documents. We really have to do it all, and there are
only so many hours in a day. There was a period of time when archives would
have historians on staff who would look into the more in-depth research
questions. The heavy thud of funding cuts strikes again. Many archives now
adopt a reference policy which states that they’ll do a certain number of
minutes of research and after that they charge a research fee. This is also why
archives will often refer patrons to a list of local researchers who are
qualified to look into their inquiry. I understand that you live in Kansas
and can’t make it in to Arizona,
but my job doesn’t include intense, extended research because I have many other
things I need to do. Things no one but me can do.

Probably the fees writers are most concerned about are the fees associated with
permission to publish materials. These too vary from archive to archive both in
price and how they’re measured. Some archives charge by print run, some just
charge a flat rate depending on the medium, or type of business or individual
doing the publishing. Issues of copyright and permissions are difficult to
understand and there is a lot of room for misunderstanding here. The best thing
you can do as a writer who may want to use images or documents is to learn the
pricing and rules of publishing right off the bat. Tell the archivist you’re
interested in publishing some of the materials and ask them to walk you through
the process and fees. Then, as you’re taking those stellar notes we talked
about earlier, record the materials you might want to use. Rate them too, or
put them into columns of “Got to Have,” “Prefer to Have,” and “Lovely but I can
Live without it”, or whatever else makes sense. This way it will be easier to
make a decision when you realize you’ve got 50 images you love but can only
afford a handful. Another thing that’s helpful to know when you go, is whether
or not your publisher will pay for the images. Now this isn’t always possible
to know when you’re just starting a project, but those notes and any
photocopies or pictures you bring home with you can help you figure it out when
you’re ready.

If you think copyright can be a real pain to understand in relation to
publishing, just think what has happened now that the world has gone digital!
With the explosion of information from our technological savvy society,
archivists now have to learn to maneuver the worlds of Facebook, Twitter and
blogs, etc. A lot of archives directly address posting images of their
collections on social media sites in their rules and permission to publish
forms. Most places state that these copies, scans or digital photos are for
personal research use only, unless you intend to pay the fees and publish them.
Paying the scanning fee or purchasing a souvenir print doesn’t mean you own the
image. Different archives feel different ways about this. So before you post a
photo you took of the funny photo of the early 1900s pie eating contest, ask
the archivist about their policy. When it comes to copyright, always ask.

Trust me when I say: we know what you want to do. We know you have fallen in
love with that photograph of the dusty miners leaning on their tools as water
cascades through their sluices, or that photograph of a woman in a gorgeous
dress pushing a baby carriage through the muddy old streets (Hint: Both at the
University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Go fish!).
We know you’d love to have it for your book. I personally have about 10 writing
projects I’d like to use materials from my archive for, but I don’t have the
cash on me (or a draft—yet, or a publisher to take the manuscript). So believe
me when I say we understand your pain.

Next week I’ll be answering your questions about archives.
So if you have one, feel free to ask it! Use the comments section, right here.

Supplemental Watchings:
Things I can’t believe
Youtube hasn’t taken down
. Simultaneously brilliant and annoying.
Erin Renee Wahl has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University and an MA in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in various professional and creative venues. Most recently, poetry in Sterling Magazine and an article on historical recipe manuscripts forthcoming in Edible Baja Arizona. She lives and works as an archivist in Tucson, Arizona and visits her family in Alaska whenever possible. You can view her portfolio by visiting her very rudimentary website:

If you’d like to learn more about Writing from Research, Kate Partridge is teaching a class on this topic for 49 Writers on Saturday, October 19 & 26, 9 am to noon. Click here for more information.

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