Friday, August 15, 2008

"Sanitizing" history

There's been a fascinating, and unusually lengthy, discussion going on at the SAA's Archives & Archivists listserv. The original question was

I was wondering if anyone has had the task of digitizing a yearbook from another "era" and dealing with images that would be considered controversial in today's environment. Our intention would be to preserve the images in-house, but the yearbooks that were made available to the Web would be missing them. Any insights/advice would be appreciated

Most of the immediate response was horror at the idea of censoring anything, but a few people brought up an important point: there is a difference between making images available to researchers and publishing them on the internet. Perhaps more importantly, there is a difference between publishing them in an obscure journal or coffee table book and publishing them on the internet. Simply put, if you have some kind of offensive sexist or racist material on your website, the craziest loons on the intertubes can use them in ways that might reflect back on your institution. It's not unreasonable to be concerned about that. Deciding not put something on the net isn't the same thing as hiding its existence; it's still available to anyone who really wants to see it.

Of course, there's always the possibility of being overly sensitive; some commentators even questioned the very idea that old yearbooks could contain anything that offensive.* I would tend to err on the side of publishing anything and everything, myself. But I've seen some pretty ugly historical images that I wouldn't want showing up on a white supremacy website with a link back to my institution and I'd be willing to keep lower, rather than a higher, profile in order to prevent that.

Meanwhile, the thread has spun itself into a discussion of postmodernism, rationality, and - wait for it - Nazi ideology.

*There's been no discussion of why these particular images are controversial, so I don't know what's in them, either.


Heather said...

I'm really curious as to the nature of the "offensive" content. Have you heard any more about what it might be? I feel like I should be able to make up my mind about this issue based only on the principle of the thing, but it's hard without knowing what level of potential offense we're talking about here.

Scott Hanley said...

No one's shared any specifics, although there was speculation about how offensive college students of a previous era could seem today. In a way, it's really been more interesting to see how the issue gets addressed in the abstract, but I also wouldn't mind seeing if people changed their minds when faced with a specific instance.