Copyright and Community-Driven Archives

When it comes to protecting intellectual property that is part of your or your community’s history, it helps to understand what legal rights apply to your materials. 

Community-based archives are a pathway for groups of people to exercise self-determination over the collection and interpretation of their histories. Historically marginalized communities draw on community-archival methods to preserve and share stories that are often missing from institutional archives and dominant historical narratives.

It is especially important to many of our partner history keepers through our Community-Driven Archives initiative to know what rights they and their community collaborators have over their stories and historical records. This requires an understanding of copyright and how it works.

What is copyright?

According to Anne Gilliland, Scholarly Communications Officer with UNC Libraries, copyright is your legal right to determine the permitted uses of your tangible expressions of creative work. What does that mean and what kinds of things amount to “tangible expressions of creative work”?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give you a sense of what kinds of things are legally under copyright:

    • Musical compositions
    • Films
    • Artwork/media
    • Oral histories
    • Photographs

One big takeaway is that copyright does not cover non-recorded stories and ideas.

Many of our collaborators are rightfully concerned about their control over future uses of their shared stories and materials. Many have heard about or know of an example of someone’s story making its way to Hollywood or on the radio or even featured on a city-sponsored project without the knowledge of that person or their descendants.

While acknowledging on one hand the gaps, omissions, and injustices of U.S. laws, our goal as a Community-Driven Archives Team is to help history keepers get familiar with a few best practices for making use of the legal protections that are available. We also want to help groups and institutions who work with oral histories and other people’s historical materials take the proper steps before making use of someone’s story or creative work.

Copyright Best Practices

Best Practice #1: Assume that every creative work is under copyright until you know that it is not.

the Old Well at UNC-Chapel Hill surrounded by Spring flowers
An example of an image in the public domain featuring UNC-Chapel Hill. Credit: Jack a lanier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most creative works are automatically under copyright unless the copyright holder (the creator or their designated heirs) explicitly gives away their copyright or the record goes into the public domain, which usually takes about a century.

Just because you found it online does not mean that you are free to share it. Most online materials are under copyright.

Look for ways to seek permission to share or reuse the item in question. Sometimes, a simple web search will clue you in on permission requirements; other times, you may need to take the time to track down heirs and make phone calls to descendants for consent. If you are working with an institutional archive, staff members can help you track down creators for permission. If you cannot find someone to provide consent, then you can investigate fair use, which is a framework to help you assess whether you can fairly justify the use of copyrighted materials without the permission of the creator or someone authorized to provide consent.

The item may also be free to use because it is in the public domain. This applies to many items, including those created by the federal government and those that date back to the early 20th century or earlier. To learn what groups of historical and cultural materials have passed into the public domain, you can check out this chart updated each year by Cornell University.

A black and white image of four white male-presenting people in front of the Old Well at UNC
This 19th-century photograph of the Old Well at UNC-Chapel Hill is another example of an image in the public domain, this time because it is over a century old. From the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill

Best Practice #2: For oral histories, interviewers should always ask their interviewees for their consent and their terms of reuse.

According to our lawyer-in-residence, Anne Gilliland, oral histories are considered a joint creation between the interviewer and the interviewee.

For interviewers:

Bernetiae leans over a group of seated African American women to assist them during a training
CDA Team member Bernetiae Reed leads an oral history training in San Antonio, TX, November 2017. Courtesy UNC CDAT

If you are a community archivist wanting to preserve and/or share oral histories you have collected, you should create a consent form where your interviewee gives you permission to record their story. This form should outline the allowed uses for the recorded interview. Consent forms also ask about additional restrictions, if any, that interviewees require for the sharing of their interview. If it applies, interviewees should also be informed about the institutional repository (i.e. archive, library, museum, etc.) to which their materials will be donated.

A license is a way of communicating the terms for allowed uses of creative works (such uses include: display, distribution, performance, reproduction, derivative works, and audio transmission). For example, a license can state that someone’s interview should be used only for educational and/or nonprofit purposes, or only if the original format is not altered (i.e. no derivative works can be adapted from the interview). Creative Commons licenses are popular and give creators standardized language for their terms of reuse.

For interviewees:

Unless the form you sign says so explicitly, signing a consent form does not mean that you are giving away your copyright. Creators maintain their copyright for at least the duration of their lifetime, unless they formally agree to end their copyright. If you are being interviewed, it is important that you feel comfortable with the terms of the interview. Take the time to read through the consent form to make sure you agree with the license laid out there. Read the section above for more information about creating a license.

Best Practice #3: Be upfront about your mission and goals with your audience and your collaborators.

Why are you making your works or materials available to members of the public? Make it clear to potential audiences. For example, if you want to share your creative works with public audiences for educational purposes, that tells you something about your mission. Perhaps your mission is to inspire people in Chapel Hill, NC to take action for environmental justice through sharing nature photographs from the 1970s and 80s with web users. Write up that mission and share it on your website. If you are concerned that people might use your photographs for purposes outside the scope of your mission, make sure your license for reuse is somewhere prominent and easy to find on your site.

If you are asking someone to sign a consent form that would allow you to share their digitized image, oral history, or creative work with public audiences, be upfront with them about the mission and goals of your project. This helps build trust. If your collaborator likes your project and appreciates your intended use of their materials, they will be less likely to require additional restrictions be placed on the material, which will make it easier for you and others to use and share it over time. Again, it is important to make sure you and your collaborator agree on the terms of use for their materials, and that the related license is easily accessible with the terms of use clearly presented to public audiences.

Best Practice #4: For sensitive materials, consider alternative ways of sharing them with selected audiences.

If you are concerned with how members of the public will share or use your materials, think about limiting your terms of use.

For digitized items (physical papers or photographs that are scanned and made into a digital file), consider creating a private space online to share them only with select members of your community. Or share them widely but upload a version of the file that is stamped with a watermark to prevent unintended uses. Signing a consent form to share your digitized materials with any history keeper or institutional partner does not mean you are giving away your copyright.

If you are sending items to a repository (e.g. institutional archive, library, museum, etc.), make sure you are also clear with that institution on your terms of use. Review all forms they ask you to sign to ensure that you retain your copyright and ask that your preferred license be included (a.k.a. your terms of use). Let the institution know if you intend for your materials to be a loan or a permanent gift. If it is a loan, indicate when and under which conditions materials should be returned to their owner.

If you are worried about any unintended uses of digitized materials shared with a repository, consider asking your institutional partner to keep your materials off the internet or to share them selectively, as outlined above.

Additional Resources

For more about community-based archives and considerations for project partnership on the Southern Sources blog:

What’s In an Archive? Deciding Where Your Historical Materials Will Live

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Storytelling through Community-Driven Archives

Our unique approach to archival workflows is one thing that sets community-driven archives approaches apart from mainstream archival methods. Traditionally, archivists stick to access and preservation and leave interpretation and storytelling to the researchers. But what happens when we listen to what our audiences want? We find ways to help them tell meaningful stories about their communities’ history.

Our Core Audiences and Understanding What Matters to Them

Within our community-driven archives (CDA) project, audience means a lot to us. This has been true since the beginning of our grant project, and it is getting clearer as we head towards wrapping it up and sharing what we have learned.

Our project strives to support and amplify historical projects by and for communities underrepresented in institutional archives. Our priority audience is community-based archive projects: groups of people who are interested in creating an archival project documenting their own community. We also work with individual history keepers: people, like family genealogists and community organizers, wanting to document and share histories currently missing from dominant archives and narratives due to legacies of injustice.

While brainstorming for what will go on our new project website (coming soon), our team looked at all the tools and resources that we have created with our project partners since the start of the grant. We asked ourselves, what kinds of resources are most useful to our core audiences?

Title page of Storytelling webinar with UNC logo
Learn about documentary storytelling in this CDA webinar with Theo Moore of Hiztorical Vision Productions.

We noticed that one of the most common resource requests that we receive from our community collaborators is for more tools about storytelling. In response, we have created new resources on topics like “the art of storytelling” and “how to create an exhibition.”

But what do we mean by storytelling and why should archives professionals care?

Making a Case for Storytelling in Community Archives Projects

Archives have historically prioritized the access and preservation of historical records over the interpretation of history, leaving the latter to researchers. For community archives projects, we believe it must be different.

Community archives projects address gaps in the dominant historical record and complicate mainstream historical narratives. Communities want their stories told on their own terms. Through building an archive, the collecting of history supports the (re)telling of it.

In many cases, the stories uncovered through community-based collections are not otherwise known. Due to legacies of racism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, histories by and for Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and LGBTIQ people have been hidden or silenced. As a result, beyond building their collection, many history keepers also want to broadcast the stories they’ve researched and curated through their archive. Many history keepers want to control how their community’s stories get told, rightfully questioning outside researchers’ and institutions’ motivations.

a museum exhibit with a backdrop of a church featuring men's and women's clothing on two mannequins near a table of historical artifacts
One section of the EKAAMP, one of our pilot partners, exhibition on the Eastern KY Social Club, 2018.

Our collaborators and partners share their communities’ stories through a variety of methods: exhibitions, public programs, websites, social media and blog posts, documentaries, short videos, and more.
We believe that archival professionals like ourselves working with community archives projects must consider the importance of storytelling. Through community collaboration, we have the opportunity to support both the safeguarding and sharing of stories.

Ideas for Archival Institutions

Since the beginning of our community-driven archives project, our work has extended to train and resource history keepers to share stories they uncover through developing a collection.

Oral histories easily lend themselves to exhibitions and other vehicles for sharing stories with visitors. Members of our team have trained local history keepers to conduct oral histories as a path to preserving memories. From there, we have worked with our community partners to incorporate oral history clips and collections materials into physical and digital exhibitions and short documentary videos that narrate important stories. One of our pilot partners, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition, created a web-based storytelling project that draws on video interviews and data visualizations to share its members’ contributions to rural healthcare in Appalachia.

Through our Archival Seedlings program, we help our ten resident Seedlings develop an archival collection and share their historical project with chosen audiences. For some Seedlings, the websites, videos, blog posts, and exhibits they create to highlight their collection are the only places their audiences can find those histories. While some Seedlings are working with traditional institutions and repositories to preserve and share their finished projects, others are choosing to keep their collections with history keepers in their own communities and to take on project promotion and outreach themselves.

A Black person seated in from of a sign in the background reading "Swift Memorial Jr. College Reunion"
Stella Gudger, Founder of the Swift Museum in Rogerville, TN, from Archival Seedling William Isom II’s interview with her.

One Seedlings participant, William Isom II, is compiling a collection of video interviews with alumni from the historically Black Swift Memorial Institute in Rogersville, TN into a video that will be on view in the museum located on Swift’s historic campus. In addition, one of our pilot partners, the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) has recently launched an exhibition sharing the oral histories and archival materials it collected through community-based research. These are great examples of how a collection can be “put to work” to share stories.

Storytelling Resources

Storytelling resources are available along with other related tools and trainings on our website.

For more about community-based archives on the Southern Sources blog:

What’s in an Archive? Deciding Where Your Historical Materials Will Live

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

What’s in an Archive? Deciding Where Your Historical Materials Will Live

Many home archivists and community-based researchers face a tough set of questions when deciding where their personal or organizational collections will live longer term. Not everyone is able to or wants to be responsible for the long-term care of archival materials, but many still wonder, “Who can I trust to be the steward of my important historical records?”

The answer is different for everyone, depending on what you are looking for in an archival steward. Stories from our Archival Seedlings program may offer insights and inform the questions you might want to ask to help guide your decision.

Since January, our Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT) has been working with a group of ten researchers and budding archivists connected to our four community partners. We are supporting each researcher to learn new skills in working with historical resources. The skills they learn range from conducting oral histories to creating digital archives, and each researcher is developing a project of their choosing. Together, these researchers and their projects are the focus of a new initiative, the Archival Seedlings program. Participants in the program are known as “Seedlings.”

One Seedling, D.L., based in San Antonio, TX, is starting an archival collection on the life of Prudence Curry, the first director of the George Washington Carver Branch Library in San Antonio, the city’s Black library during Jim Crow. D.L. currently serves as the manager of Carver Library. Though Curry was a pathbreaking African American leader, very little has been formally documented about her life. Most of the stories about Prudence Curry live on in the memories of people in her community.

D.L. wants to make sure that Curry’s legacy will live on beyond individual memories through building an archival collection to benefit her wider community. He wants this collection to strengthen the preservation of Black history in San Antonio.

Library room with book shelves and tables and chairs with seated patrons and staff at the front
Inside the George Washington Carver Branch Library, ca. 1930.

Luckily, D.L. is a member and researcher with the San Antonio African American Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), an independent community archive that has spent the past few years building up a staff and volunteer base in order to collect, preserve, and interpret San Antonio’s African American history. D.L. plans to send the beginnings of the Prudence Curry collection to SAAACAM, which he feels will be its perfect home.

Group of SAAACAM leaders with SHC staff members on their visit to San Antonio, TX.

But what if you don’t live somewhere with an independent community archive that is the perfect fit for your project?

Maybe you have decided that you want to preserve treasured historical materials for future generations, but also want to keep those collections in your community. How should you decide whom to reach out to?

This is a question that some Seedlings program participants have asked themselves. It is also an important question in community-driven archives work; a central tenet of our approach lies in acknowledging that, for history keepers, sending collections to an academic archive, museum, or institution like UNC is only one option among many.

Another Seedling, Sylvia, based in Greensboro, NC, is creating an archival collection centered on local African American history during the Civil Rights era sit-in movement of the 1960’s. Specifically, she is conducting oral history interviews with a group of her former classmates and teachers at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T State University who hold these stories in their memories.

Rather than donate her oral history collection to an institution that has been historically disconnected from her community, Sylvia has decided to pursue a partnership with a local Black-led community organization. She has decided that her collection will best live on under the care of an organization that has long been working directly for the betterment of her community.

When making a decision about where to preserve your cherished historic materials, considering asking yourself:

  • What are my long-term preservation goals?
  • How do they fit with the long-term interest and capacity of this potential partner?
  • How long will this potential partner be able to retain the materials?
  • How does this potential partner’s goals, values, and attitudes fit with my own and/or those of my community?
  • How will community members be able to access collections materials in the future through this potential partner?

Then, consider how the answers to these questions affect your decision about where and with whom to partner. Remember, it is your and your community’s choice to decide on the best steward for your historical records.

Check out the short videos on the Resources page of our website to learn more about working with institutional and community-based archives to meet your needs.

For more about community-based archives on the Southern Sources blog:

Partnering with The San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAAACAM)

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Transforming Knowledge, Transforming Libraries Reportback

On May 1, the University of California-Irvine Libraries hosted a unique conference on Community-Driven Archives (via Vimeo): Transforming Knowledge, Transforming Libraries. This virtual summit featured a group of professional leaders in the field. Most of them, like us with the SHC’s Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT), work with community groups as institutional collaborators within an academic archive.

What were some of our highlights?

Transforming Knowledge

Archivist Nancy Godoy presented on Arizona State University’s Community-Driven Archives Mellon Grant project (2017-20), which scaled up an initiative that she had led since 2012. The ASU Library’s project has focused primarily on collaborations with Latinx, LGBTQ, and BIPOC communities to support historically underrepresented groups of people in deepening their sense of ownership over their collective histories. It collaborates with participants to help them learn how to preserve and share their stories and archives with their community.

For the SHC’s Community-Driven Archives Team, one of the core tenets of our community-driven archives model is an ethos of community control. This requires us as archives professionals and institutional collaborators to release any need for control over how our community partners choose to organize and interpret their own histories. It means thinking about what our community partners need before considering institutional pressures and community outsiders’ research interests.

Under Godoy’s leadership, ASU’s Community-Driven Archives (CDA) initiative does this. For example, the CDA project has chosen to move all community-focused events off-campus, because, otherwise, “it wasn’t welcoming for the community.” Instead, Godoy and her colleagues host these bilingual Spanish-English events at local community centers, POC-owned bookstores, and public libraries. Participants in ASU’s community archives and preservation workshops come to work on their own collections or those of fellow community members, utilizing archival tools resourced through grant funds with ASU staff support.

A Powerpoint slide featuring photos of Black and Latinx community members reviewing archival materials
Nancy Godoy presenting on ASU’s Community-Driven Archives Project.

In Godoy’s words, her goal for this work is to create intergenerational spaces of healing for individuals, “driven by justice and a deep love for their themselves and their communities, to learn and transform archival knowledge as they dismantle the power structures that have dehumanized them.”

Transforming Libraries

Shift Design Director of Equity Initiatives, Bergis Jules, presented on the Architecting Sustainable Futures gathering that he helped to organize and host in New Orleans in 2018. This gathering convened a cross-section of people working with community archives: leaders of community-based archives, archives professionals, and current and potential funders. Together, they brainstormed ideas for sustainable funding models to support communities in collecting, preserving, and sharing their own histories with support from outside institutions.

Jules presented from the report on the gathering, focusing on the report’s recommendations for university library partners of community-based archives, including us with the CDAT at UNC.

Bergis Jules presenting on the Architecting Sustainable Futures report (pictured).

The recommendations are straightforward and give those of us working in university library archives much to consider:

  • Don’t be extractive, which asks universities to acknowledge the power and privilege they hold while in collaboration with community-based archives and to ensure that community partners benefit first and foremost from collaboration.
  • Practice equity, which requires that archives professionals honor the wisdom of community archivists and treat them as they would their peers in the field, with regard to working relationships and fair compensation.
  • Be transparent, which means providing clear information about goals, resources, timeline, and deliverables during joint project planning as well as grant applications and grant management.
  • Honor the wisdom of the community, which asks institutional partners to recognize that community history keepers may have their own ways of preserving their histories that have been working for them, and that we have much to learn through any partnership.

Similarly, Michelle Caswell, Assistant Professor of Archival Studies and Director of the Community Archives Lab at UCLA, spoke on her approach to teaching community archives as part of an MLIS program. Caswell shared an overview of her current course on community archives, which uses a justice-based archival framework that draws participants in as co-creators of “politically generative,” transformative spaces.

Caswell underscored the task facing those of us working within academic institutions in support of community archives: We have a responsibility to pass on traditional archival methods so that our students can learn existing practices and get a job, while simultaneously calling those practices into question and demanding innovation. Caswell calls this “Critical Archival Pedagogy.”

Powerpoint slide featuring a cyclical model for the three stages of Critical Archival Pedagogy: "Critique oppressive practices, Imagine liberatory practices, and Enact practices"
Michelle Caswell presenting on her model for Critical Archival Pedagogy.

We with the CDAT are incorporating these reflections into our ongoing work to strengthen relationships with our community partners, the diversity of users of SHC collections, and MLIS students hungry to learn more about justice-based approaches to archives. We also hope that our fellow libraries and archives professionals will join us in making the time to learn more about these lessons and taking them to heart.

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930

#CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

Why are Oral Histories Important for Community-Driven Archives?

According to the former Oral Historian and Project Documentarian for the Community-Driven Archives Team (CDAT), Bernetiae Reed,

“There is so much that you can’t capture with a book, but [rather] with an oral history.”

From the beginning, the Community-Driven Archives Team has prioritized oral history training and the collection of oral histories as a key part of our work. Why?

For one, we know that preserving written and print records alone limits whose histories get told and shared. Passing down written family records from generation to generation is often based on access to time and resources: the ability to create the record and the space and living conditions necessary to preserve it. Second, reliance on the written word is based on a dominant cultural value (read: white, Western), rather than one shared by all families, communities, and peoples.

In addition, for historians, archivists, researchers, historic interpreters, artists, and curators, oral histories literally have a voice of their own, which can helpfully guide our storytelling. When someone shares their story through an oral tradition, we hear their interpretation of their life in their own voice and words. Public Historian Michael Frisch talks about the collection of oral history interviews in terms of “shared authority,” the idea that archivists and historians collect stories in negotiation with those willing to share them. As oral history interviewers, we learn what community members want to share with us.

Alabama-based documentary filmmaker Theo Moore reminds us that the most important part of telling a story is first listening carefully to what others who lived it are saying. Oral histories can be a guidepost for storytelling, anchoring us in community voices rather than our own narrative. For many researchers and documentarians, collecting oral history interviews is a starting point for new research, given the gaps and silences in many archives when it comes to the histories of marginalized communities.

According to Bernetiae, oral histories help lend “an accurate voice” to a story. During her time as on staff at the Wilson Special Collections Library, Bernetiae edited oral histories for use in a number of exhibits, as well as for websites and digital storytelling. In March, the CDAT said a fond farewell (for now) to our friend and colleague, who left our grant team to continue to pursue her passions as an oral historian and documentarian of the US South.

Bernetiae Reed

During her time with the CDAT and the Southern Historical Collection (SHC), Bernetiae collected dozens of oral histories with our project partners in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. She remembers a road trip with women leaders of the Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC), a group of Vanderbilt University medical and nursing students and rural community leaders who self-organized in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to deliver needed medical care to Appalachia. Bernetiae sat in the backseat and filmed their reminiscences of their days traveling through the mountains to provide care.

Listen to Bernetiae talk about why oral histories have been so important to our Community-Driven Archives project:

Bernetiae leans over a group of seated African American women to assist them during a training
Bernetiae Reed leading an oral history training in San Antonio, TX, November 2017

She remembers the spiral staircase in the home of famed Greensboro, NC Civil Rights movement lawyer J. Kenneth Lee during her and SHC Curator Biff Hollingsworth’s interview with him, one of the few recorded interviews that he agreed to before he passed in 2018. Lee represented the majority of 1,700 court cases with defendants who participated in civil disobedience as part of the sit-in movement.

Bernetiae herself has played key role in documenting Black history in the US South and beyond. She grew up in Greensboro, where her mother was the founder of the Mattye Reed African Heritage Collection, named in her honor, at North Carolina A&T State University. Starting out researching her own genealogy, Bernetiae went on to publish a book about some of her ancestors and their ties to the family of enslaver and former US President, Thomas Jefferson.

Listen to Bernetiae talk about how she got her start as an oral historian and genealogist:

Bernetiae has donated collections from her family archives as well as her research to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and also here at the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library.

A smiling Bernetiae Reed as part of a crowd of primarily African Americans at the opening of the museum, among a series of related photos on the front page of the Washington Post newspaper
Bernetiae Reed (photo at bottom left, pictured center left) as part of the crowd at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, September 2016

We miss you, Bernetiae!

Check out Bernetiae’s webinar recording on conducting oral histories to learn about her perspective on best practices:

For more about oral histories on the Southern Sources blog:

Oral History Resources

The Community-Drive Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter @SoHistColl_1930
#CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC