This post was written by Arlene Schmuland, Head of Archives & Special Collections at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Recently, while our research room was completely closed to access by researchers, we received a couple of requests for access to some audio recordings of oral histories and ethnographic field recordings. Some had already been digitized, some were audiocassettes which we could digitize in-house. Providing digital surrogates was doable. However, we didn’t feel comfortable loading up the files to the open web for a variety of reasons, including a lack of releases from the individuals being recorded. Normally with on-site access, after signing access agreements which explained the permissions issues, the researcher would be allowed to listen to, but not duplicate, the recordings. Because the researcher would be within view of the archivist on reference duty, access was relatively secure. Not 100% guaranteed to prevent copying or misuse, but about as secure as could be achieved.
However, with the closure of the research room, we needed to explore online access alternatives. We’ve had a variety of distance delivery practices in past. We do not have an institutional repository with controlled access to materials at this time. Our normal practice with delivering digital files in response to duplication requests has been to post them to a dedicated URL on our website for a limited period of time and allow researchers to download the files. Occasionally we would burn the files to cd and mail them to the researcher, if the file was large and the researcher had limited bandwidth or no internet access.
However, those methods are ones we use for duplication requests for which we charge, and these were access requests. As the researchers wouldn’t know until they listened to the recordings if they wished to pay for copies to keep, it seemed unreasonable to charge them for access. Especially when it was an institutional decision to close on-site access to recordings. In the case of these particular recordings, because of the permissions issues, waiving the fees and sending files to the researcher was not an ideal choice. And while the dedicated URL solution would provide some security for the files, the large size of audio files, even the mpegs we generally deliver for access purposes, can be a problem in many areas in Alaska with limited internet connectivity.
What to do?
The solution turned out to be one of our existing outreach tools. A few years ago, we started a departmental podcast using Soundcloud. Due to continuing budget cuts that resulted in a loss of 1/3 of our staffing last year, we have had to make the sad decision to switch from regular to sporadic releases of our podcast. Since we wanted to retain our existing podcasts online and have the option to release new episodes, we’ve maintained our Soundcloud subscription (which is currently being paid for by a donor: ~$144/year).
Thankfully for our reference access needs, Soundcloud also offers an option to host a file with a privacy setting that allows access only to those in possession of the URL. Permissions settings for each track also allow us to choose whether or not the file can be downloaded or available offline through the mobile app. We had our researchers sign the necessary access forms just as they would for onsite access to these materials. We use our university DocuSign account for that process. Then I loaded up the files, added some descriptive metadata so the researcher would know which files were which once they were on the site and looking at the track, and emailed the links to the researcher. We’ve generally been telling researchers we’ll leave the links active for them for about a month, after which we delete the files from our Soundcloud account. We will amend the time frame if the researcher needs more time to listen to the files.
This solution, like our research room supervision, can never be 100% secure from duplication. Realistically, it may not need to be for most of our collection materials, even those with problematic permissions status. But it does allow us to continue to differentiate between access and duplication of materials, allows researchers to listen to recordings before making the decision to pay for duplicate copies, and quite honestly, I wish I’d thought of this a while back because of the volume of our researcher requests that come from a distance. Thankfully right now most of our researchers are aware that we’re trying new and different things to keep collections accessible to them and are willing to tolerate us experimenting with delivery methods in support of that access. This one works pretty well for us.