What happened to Sit-In? : Digital Archival Erasure and Struggles for Open Access

The syllabus for Documenting 1960s America was set.  The reading were neatly organized in folders for each unit, links had been updated, and film viewings were scheduled. The weeks ticked by as we developed our theoretical foundations on which to build our analysis of documentary expression and then moved into our unit on the Civil Rights Movement. Then, the emails began flowing in that the link didn’t work. 

I had assigned NBC White Paper: Sit-In (1960).  Broadcast in December 1960, the episode was built around interviews with black student leaders and local politicians alongside footage from protests in Nashville in order to reveal the emerging sit-in movement across the South. The hour-long news program was also a part of the TV network's efforts to use documentary to show that networks could produce rigorous, quality reporting. Such an approach by the networks has garnered scholarly attention from media scholars such as Sasha Torres and Aniko Bodroghkozy, whose scholarship I pair with Sit-In in my course. Now here I was, with class in two days, inundated with a fury of emails from students who couldn’t access the film they were reading about. 

Upon further inspection, it became clear that NBC Universal Archives had removed the film from their digital collections online. It was gone!  I, of course, had broken the golden rule of the internet: when in doubt, download. Fortunately, a few short clips were also available on the Library of Congress website and the class went better than expected. The event revealed how digital archival material can come online as quickly as it can go offline. 

The erasure of Sit-In served as stark reminder of how dependent I was on corporate archives for my research and teaching. The major networks hold hundreds of thousands of hours of footage that bear witness to forms of oppression and resistance during the liberation struggles. As they did in the 1960s, the networks still control when and where to circulate their media, choosing to provide access one day and remove the next. When access is given, it often comes at a steep price.  The networks can delete or redact at will today as they did in the 1960s when they often chose not to circulate images that would isolate white audiences. As a result,  they remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era.

The networks are not alone. They are a part of an ecosystem of for-profit archives such as Google, Kanopy, and Proquest that are digital gatekeepers to significant archival holdings. These companies are engaged in media distribution also choosing what and what not to circulate daily, and part of a genealogy of imperial and colonial archives wielded in the service of the state and capitalism. Unlike NBC Archives though (to my knowledge), these companies are proactively acquiring materials to add to their services. These collections increasingly include alternative and radical media that is stored on these corporate servers and often requires expensive subscriptions for access. What irony that these memories of the past are increasingly reserved for an educated elite accessible only through for-profit corporations.

Therefore, I want to use this post to contribute to a growing call to action led by our colleagues in libraries who are at the forefront of the Open Access movement. We must resist being complicit in the corporatization of digital cultural collections. The academy  has helped create the market for archives. Therefore, higher education institutions, as the main database subscribers, wield incredible power, when in coalition, to demand certain kinds of access; they can shift this market by funding non-profit archives like Internet Archive for example. I do not think this will change NBC Archives distribution policies anytime soon, but I am hopeful that we can imagine and support a landscape of digital collections that are committed to open access.  



Thank you for a great piece! I was on a conference call with a colleague today who shared the same story: he regularly used an article in his teaching, and then one semester it was gone. Not erased, but removed from access because the library could no longer afford the ongoing, constant, costly, and ever-increasing subscription cost for the database that included the article. This is a common story. The workarounds for a single class are also the common solution. However, this points to the great and ongoing loss for all of the members of our communities who do not have access, for whom these materials are erased or have never existed. For our students who graduate, who cannot return to the materials that inspired them and that fuel their work. The call to open access supports us all, and the big us within and beyond our classes. For folks not sure how to get started, Humanities Commons is a great option to share your own research with the world. If you aren't sure if you have the right to share your own work, your librarians are available to help in the process, as are other members of our communities. Sharing our own work is one small part of ensuring materials are preserved and accessible for all of us. 

Thanks for this great piece and call to action!

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