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Notes on Copyright, Restrictions, and Unprocessed Collections

In certain instances, materials may not be accessed, or may have stipulations on use and access. Reasons for limited access to materials generally fall into three categories:

Copyright: Copyright legislation in the United States protects authors of original works in any form, including literary, dramatic, pictorial, musical, etc. The copyright holder has the right to control the use, reproduction, and distribution of those works, as well as the ability to benefit from works monetarily and otherwise. Archives must abide by these laws, which can be complex. In other words even if the archives physically owns a particular document, the copyright of the document and stipulations on how it can be used may be managed by another individual or institution. While amendments to copyright law have been made to help archives and libraries better serve researchers, limitations still exist on what materials repositories can provide.

Archives may require donors to give both property and copyright to the archives upon donation. However, donors can only give an archives copyright to materials that they created, so many documents in collections remain under copyright. It is the responsibility of researchers to find the copyright holder in order to publish or cite from the materials.

Examples: Photocopying an entire copyright-protected book that a researcher can purchase or obtain through other avenues would be a violation of copyright law. Publishing an unpublished poem without consent from the author of the poem, or that author’s estate, would also violate copyright law. Placing a copyrighted photograph on a website without the consent of its copyright holder would be another violation example.

Restrictions: Restrictions come in many varieties, but they generally exist because an archives must serve the interests of some other group or entity and hence cannot allow researchers to access certain materials. Reasons for restrictions include:

The donor who originally gave materials to the archives set a time limit or certain stipulations on how those materials could be used, generally due to privacy concerns or sensitive materials.

Laws or other legislation exist which dictate how certain materials may be used.
Examples: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects the medical records of individuals. U.S. Census records are restricted for seventy-two years before they become available to researchers to protect personal information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student education records.

Materials may be considered classified if they endanger the security of a governmental body (such as the federal or state governments), or if they compromise the health of a profit-based company (such as the design plans for an automobile or the recipe of a commercial food product). Most restricted materials will be made available for researchers to view once the restriction stipulations are no longer deemed necessary or have expired after a certain amount of time has passed. Researchers may, in some cases, gain access to restricted materials if they file a petition or request permission from the appropriate entity.

Unprocessed collections: These collections contain materials that the archival staff has received—but has not yet examined, identified, and organized for researchers to use. The work that archivists do in preparing materials for research use is called “processing.” Here are some reasons materials require processing before use:

Archivists need to identify and describe materials so that they can create the finding aids, database records, and other tools that will help researchers locate materials to aid their research.

Poor storage methods may contribute to the rapid deterioration of materials, so archivists often remove rubber bands, metals, plastics, boxes, folders, and other items that are harming materials, replacing them with archival-standard enclosures (such as acid-free folders) that will support preservation needs.

Contaminants that pose certain health risks to humans, like mold or chemicals, may be present in materials that arrive at archives. Archivists are trained to identify these problems and treat the materials so that they are safe to use.

Overall, the work of processing makes materials safe for researchers to use, and helps protect and preserve those materials for long-term use at an archives. There are repositories that may allow researchers to use unprocessed materials, depending on the individual collection and the policies of the institution. If you know of an unprocessed collection you want to use, talk to the archival staff as far ahead of your visit as possible and inquire about use policies.