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(photo) Researcher examining artifacts under a microscope.
Examining artifacts under a microscope. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Access to and use of collections is an essential aspect of doing both archeology and collections management, as well as conducting interpretation and heritage-oriented activities. Repository staff must have easy access to collections to implement basic management activities discussed in previous sections, as well as to use them for research, interpretation, and developing exhibits and public programs. Archeologists and other scholars, interpreters, educators, culturally affiliated groups, and members of the public need access to collections for:

Although 36 CFR 79 mandates access to federal collections for their use and many state, tribal, and local curation policies have similar mandates, there are few policies or standardized procedures on how much and what kinds of access are appropriate for archeological collections. There are different issues that pertain to access and use of different kinds of collections, types of material remains, and types of associated records, as well as to different types of repositories. These issues mainly involve striking a balance between preservation and use.

The benefits of increased access and use include reaching a wider audience, advancing science, promoting research and interpretation, and sharing public resources. The disadvantages include the need for increased security, careful consideration of the conservation risks to the objects and records, and possible infringements on intellectual property rights if copyright and privacy considerations are not properly handled. As well, there is often a need for more funding and staffing to handle access and use activities.

Policies and procedures

Integrated with its entire collections management program, a repository should have access and use policies and procedures for all its collections of material remains and associated records. As such, the policies and procedures should correspond directly with a repository's mission statement, scope of collections, and its various collections management policies, including risk management.

It is important that archeologists, as researchers, interpreters, and creators of collections, understand the issues around access and use both to facilitate their various needs and to optimize good working relationships with repository staff. For example, it is often excellent practice to sponsor a gathering during an archeological investigation to present the project goals and show some of the results to the local community affected by the project. Since this kind of event usually happens well before the resulting collections are deposited in a repository, archeologists must be fully aware of security, conservation, and long-term preservation issues that may impact the material remains they use and show.

Once a collection is under the long-term care of a repository, its access and use policy and procedures generally consider the following issues:


(photo) Technician inventorying an incoming exhibit.
Inventorying an incoming exhibit. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Repositories generally engage in a loan program in order to either temporarily make available or temporarily use significant objects, documents, and information for public programs, usually exhibits, research, teaching, and cultural heritage activities. A loan exchange between repositories and other institutions helps increase access to diverse materials by more people than is otherwise possible.

There are two basic types of loans, incoming and outgoing. A repository may be engaged in just one or both types of loans, depending on its mission, staff, facilities, and types of collections. For example, institutions that do not have any exhibition space may be actively engaged in an outgoing loan program to increase public and scholarly exposure to its holdings. Other repositories with small or specialized collections may only be involved in incoming loans for the purpose of exhibits or specialized research.

In general, repositories accept loans from other repositories or from individuals, but only loan out objects and documents to other institutions due to risk management and insurance issues. For an archeologist interested in requesting a loan for research, this means that the request must be done through the scholar's institution. Native American tribes may request a loan of an object(s) for religious or other purposes through its tribal governmental structure.

All loans should only involve objects or documents that have been accessioned and catalogued. All loans should be made for a specific period of time. In the past, many "permanent" or "indefinite" loans were made, which gave repositories items to exhibit, research, and house, but did not transfer ownership and title. Unfortunately, original ownership information has been lost for many of these old, "permanent" loans so some repositories face dilemmas about what to do with items for which they cannot show title. They may be legally limited in taking action on these items in regard to some aspects of deaccessioning and conservation. However, they may be obligated to deal with objects that fall under NAGPRA so that some appropriate action is taken by some organization. The effort and funding needed to care for items that lack title may also be detrimental to some repositories.

The Loan Process

There are several steps in the loan process, depending on the objects and/or documents and the type of loan involved. These steps generally include:

Every repository engaged in outgoing loans should have a loan policy and procedures in place to cover the loan approval process, as well as the subsequent steps. To initiate loan procedures, a borrowing institution submits a "loan request" form to the lending repository. This request should be made as far ahead as possible of the requested loan date in order to allow time to accomplish the subsequent steps involved. Most loan requests include information on:

Depending on the repository, its director, board of trustees, or "collections/ loan committee" is given the power to approve a loan request. The decision maker(s) evaluate a number of questions, including:

  1. What is the current condition of the object(s) and/or documents requested? Will it be able to travel, as well as be handled and/or exhibited? What conservation work must be done prior to the loan?
  2. Are there any donor or legal restrictions on the object? These may involve an item's condition, donor restrictions, copyright or other intellectual property rights restrictions, Native American or religious restrictions, etc.
  3. Are there any other commitments for the item(s)? Are they slated to go to another institution? Have they been on exhibit recently?
  4. Does the borrowing institution have the proper facilities and staff to care for the object? This includes security, fire suppression, climate controls, etc.
  5. Does the reason/purpose of the loan fit with the mission statement and goals of the borrowing institution?

Once a loan request has been approved, the collections manager is usually involved in the preparation of the item(s) for loan, such as giving the item(s) to a conservator for stabilization, packing and shipping the item(s), and handling all the necessary paperwork involved. The collections manager also receives the item(s) at the end of the loan, prepares the final evaluation of the item(s), and manages the loan file.

Finally, a loan may involve a number of expenses that are usually paid for by the borrowing institution, including:

The fees involved in a loan may vary widely depending on several factors. These include the fragility and value of the item(s), what conservation work is done, and the location of the borrowing institution and the distance the items must travel. The contract or agreement worked out prior to a loan should detail the expenses to be covered by the borrowing institution.

Public access

Other than a loan program, there are several other ways a repository can make its collections accessible to the public. These are through exhibition, which now includes both the traditional museum exhibit, as well as through television programming, video, and exhibits on the Internet. Another means is by using various objects and documents in public and educational programs. Also, some repositories are beginning to provide access to particular ethnographic and/or archeological objects for culturally-significant activities by small groups of people, such as religious or sacred rites. All of these issues are discussed below.

As well, direct access to objects and documents in storage is not usually given to the general public, but is restricted to those with legitimate research, interpretive, cultural, or educational interests. However, as new repositories are built or renovated, there is a movement to make the preparation and/or storage of some materials visible to the visiting public, such as at the Arkansas Archeological Survey and at Fort Vancouver (Bush 1996).

(photo) Conserved mural section from Lowry Pueblo on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Conserved mural section from Lowry Pueblo on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.


Exhibits are one of the most common ways that the public interacts with and learns from objects and documents in a repository. They are important because the physical presence of a variety of items convey different, and, often, more types of information than interpretations of them in books or articles. Some of the strengths of exhibits involve the use of different senses by the visitor and the intimate interaction between the visitor and the exhibit.

As we noted before, however, not every repository with archeological collections engages in exhibits. They may not have the space, staff, or mission to host displays. Not all archeological material is appropriate for display, as well. Bags of potsherds and debitage usually do not make a very interesting exhibit, unless it is specifically about archeological fieldwork.

Exhibits about archeological materials or themes come in all shapes and sizes. They generally vary depending on staff expertise, space, collections, and the information that a repository wants to convey. Types of exhibits include:

Long-term exhibits: Sometimes called "permanent" exhibits, they may last from five to over twenty years in duration. Objects and documents are usually all owned by the repository. Items may be rotated in and out of the exhibit, but the basic layout and subject themes stay the same.

Temporary: One-time exhibits that may last from a few months to about two years. Temporary exhibits are usually focused on a specific theme. Often, some or even all of the items on display are borrowed from other institutions.

Revolving: These involve substituting sections of an exhibit with other sections (sometimes all of the display items are substituted). The new parts usually involve similar themes as the old parts. They allow repositories to showcase more items and ideas while limiting risks to the items. They also keep the exhibit dynamic to encourage repeat visitors.

Traveling: These exhibits visit more than one venue. They may contain items from one or more institutions. Traveling exhibits may vary in the items exhibited from venue to venue, or they may be fixed. Objects and documents in a traveling exhibit must be in very good condition to withstand the stresses of travel.

Regardless of type, all exhibits involve interpretation. This may be interpretation of an object or document, interpretation of the culture that made particular objects and/or documents, or interpretation of the exhibit itself. The information that an archeological collection materials may convey is potentially wide-ranging. In general, the materials may be viewed as artifacts or documents, signs and symbols, or meaning. Most exhibits contain a combination of these theoretical and interpretive stances (Pearce 1996).

Showcasing archeological materials as artifacts or documents is probably the most common form. Archeological materials are displayed as the physical results of craft techniques, subsistence strategies, technological change, etc. Sometimes these exhibits incorporate or present the profession of archeology itself. This may be accomplished by showing the application of and/or results of professional and scientific activities, such as dating techniques, excavation, classification, and analysis.

Exhibits may also be designed to emphasize the symbolic or "meaningful" aspects of archeological materials. They may showcase particular items, such as weaponry, jewelry, or specialized paraphernalia, as "messages" that carry social or religious distinctions. Or they may be used to reveal how political or economic power has been manipulated or emphasized. Items that are interpreted as physical embodiments of ideology often have been presented in an emotive manner based on aesthetics, so that the items are showcased as "art" (Pearce 1996).

Public Programming and Education

(photo) Two teenagers wash artifacts in Alexandria Archeology Summer Camp's laboratory.
Alexandria Archeology Summer Camp - washing artifacts. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Public programming and education is another important means of providing the public with knowledge about past cultures through access to archeological collections. For years, public programming was largely ignored by archeologists who were primarily focused on scholarly work and university teaching. Recent initiatives by a wide variety of archeological professionals now promote public education through on-site interpretation and hands-on activities, especially with local community groups, as well as workshops, school group programs, and lecture and film series. State archeology weeks and months comprise a huge effort at archeological public education in the U.S. with over forty states currently participating.

What types of public programming and education activities a repository sponsors depends on its size, staff, mission, and whether it is public or private. Publicly funded repositories with education as part of their mission (as opposed to the care and management of collections only) have a greater responsibility for public education. An increasing number of archeologists view such public education initiatives as a justification and necessary outgrowth of the public money that is spent on archeology.

All repositories should have policy and procedures governing their educational and public programs, especially in regard to the use and handling of objects and documents from the collections. Often, certain aspects of public programs run counter to proper collections management procedures. Some considerations that help define appropriate public education policy and procedures are:

  1. What type of objects and/or documents may be used?
    Public programs may involve more handling and hands-on activities than is good for important or fragile items. For hands-on activities, then, a repository might want to limit use to items that are redundant or relatively unimportant and are in very good condition in order to withstand repeated use. Items selected for these types of programs may come from a repository's study collections. Or, a separate educational collection may be established from interesting items that were donated with inadequate descriptive and provenience information to give them research value.

  2. Where will the programs take place?
    Public programs may occur at a variety of locations, such as at a repository, archeological site, school, or other public space. When a program is planned at a repository, the appropriate meeting place must be decided. Some repositories have established a separate educational space for such programs in order to prevent security and safety risks to objects and documents in their exhibit or collections spaces.

    When a program takes place outside of a repository, policy should dictate what, if any, objects and documents may travel to these programs, the procedures for taking items in and out of the repository, and who has responsibility for object safety and security during the programs. Even if the only materials used are redundant items from an educational collection, they are still valuable components of the repository's overall resources.

Cultural Heritage Activities and Considerations

Access to and use of certain objects, documents, or collections may be influenced or governed by cultural considerations. Many items in repository collections may have sacred or religious meaning to present-day culture groups. Other items might have significant value for purposes of cultural heritage and group identity. Many culture groups, especially indigenous peoples, have concerns about how their cultural heritage material is accessed and used, both by others and members of their own community.

(photo) Well-organized kachina and cradleboard storage.
Well-organized kachina and cradleboard storage. Photo courtesy of the Art Conservation Center @ Univ. of Denver (formerly RMCC), Denver, CO.

There is currently widespread debate about indigenous rights to culture. There is often a wide difference between indigenous views of culture, rights, and ownership, and the views manifested in western laws and practices. Some indigenous groups feel that their rights to cultural heritage should be unlimited and should cover some intangible properties as well. These differences in viewpoints and the values placed on cultural heritage may mean that some culture groups have valid concerns about the access, use, representation, and documentation of items and information of cultural heritage value in a repository, museum exhibit, or scholarly setting. Repositories, realizing their responsibility to work with culture groups who value archeological collections as part of their heritage, now try to store, exhibit, and use these materials in culturally appropriate ways to the extent allowed by law.

NAGPRA has had a significant influence on access and use of Native American objects across the U.S. (see Section III). The law itself mandates the inventory of human remains and specific types of objects, study of objects or human remains to determine cultural or lineal affiliation, and consultation with tribes to determine disposition of human remains and specific objects. Such processes involve different types of access to and use of these collections and specific items in the collections, which may be determined by repository policy or on a case-by-case basis.

Native American tribes may also request consideration of differential access to or use of objects and records that remain in repositories, although this may be difficult to achieve in public repositories where, by law, access must be provided to all. Certain items may have cultural restrictions on who can see or handle them (e.g., no menstruating women; no uninitiated men; no children). Others may have cultural restrictions on where specific objects are placed or stored (e.g., not in the same cabinet with other, culturally differentiated objects; in a space that allows them to "breathe"). Cultural considerations may also involve allowing culturally affiliated group members to perform rituals with or use objects in a collection. These rituals may involve access, handling, and use that is not normally allowed in the repository due to potential risks from handling or pests. A good example of this is allowing the placement of foodstuffs with an object or subjecting an object to smoke.

Culturally affiliated groups are increasingly involved in and concerned with the recovery of and then the long-term management, use, and disposition of archeological objects and records, whether documents, photographs, tape recordings, video, or collected data. Consequently, whenever possible, it is important that archeologists involve appropriate, culturally affiliated groups in a project from its inception. This should not only involve active interaction, but be based on informed consent and a signed permission form for any photographs, tape recordings, or videos made. Once a collection is created, the managing or owning repository should continue active involvement with the group(s), as discussed above.

Researcher access

(photo) Pottery vessels arranged by type and stored on sturdy steel shelving.
Whole vessel storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Scientific, historical, and art historical research on archeological collections, both material remains and associated records, benefits the public and scholars alike. research provides new information to support existing theories and interpretations or to stimulate new ideas about past cultures, their material culture, and their environment. Since collections are the lasting legacy of an archeological project, they are vital to sustaining research and interpretation into the future. The importance and value of collections is highlighted as their use for thesis, Ph.D., and other scholarly research increases (Nelson and Shears 1996).

Collections research involves several key steps, including locating appropriate items and/or collections to accomplish a research goal, conducting the research in cooperation with one or more repositories, as well as other partners, and understanding the intellectual property rights related to collections research. These are discussed below.

Locating Collections

Key to using existing collections is being able to locate them. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for researchers to, first, determine the specific repository where certain collections are held, and, second, discover what and where specific objects, records, or collections are located in a repository. These problems have been exacerbated in several ways over the years. One is that collections from one archeological site, project, or area have not been curated at the same repository. Another is that there have been virtually no means to locate collections by project, principal investigator, permit, or theme at a state, regional, or national level.

Finding widespread "parts" of a collection or items from different collections that are needed to research a particular archeological theory or method often involves knowing the history of specific fieldwork done at a specific site or by specific archeologist(s), principal investigator(s), or under specific contracts. First, background research using the associated records of possible projects or principal investigators may help this search. Unfortunately, however, these records have not always been fully cross-referenced to the related object collections. In fact, archival cataloging standards do not mandate this information, although archives do have fields to collect it. As well, museum object cataloging standards do not mandate a link to the records. Furthermore, standardized descriptive terms related to cultures and cultural activities are not always used, either within a repository's collections or between repositories. Certain objects and records may also be difficult to find or use if they are under donor restrictions or have been separated from their original collection. The latter may be the case for objects placed in type or study collections or documents that contain sensitive information or are under other legal restrictions.

Improvements are being made to increase the likelihood of finding collections for research and other purposes. There are some published guides to collections, especially archival collections, in both print and on the Internet. National bibliographic utilities, such as the Research Library Information Network or the Online Computer Library Center available on the Internet through most local university libraries, may provide important leads to the associated records of an archeological project. The gray literature of archeological reports may provide useful information on where resulting collections are managed and what they contain.

There are also efforts to standardize descriptive terms for archeological sites and collections, such as the International Guidelines for Museum Object Information through the International Council of Museums (ICOM). These terms will improve access and use of collections in the future. As well, the efforts of the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records are aimed at increasing accessibility to archival collections at national and international levels.

Computerized databases are also helping to ease the process of locating collections since they allow for the search and retrieval of information in a variety of ways. Repositories are also beginning to provide searchable databases of their collections contents on the Internet (issues concerning online collections are discussed further in Section X.) While such databases are a major step in the right direction, they might not always organize and describe the collections using terms that a specific researcher might want to use.

Ultimately, finding collections for detailed analysis and research may involve considerable legwork. And, despite the considerable improvements in the methods available to find collections, it still may depend on discovering and using a network of knowledgeable contacts and colleagues.

Collections Research

(photo) Laboratory work - drawing artifacts.
Laboratory work - drawing artifacts. Photo courtesy of Alexandria archeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Using collections for research involves communication and cooperation between the researcher and the repository during both planning for and conducting the work. This is advisable to bridge any possible gaps between what the researcher wants to do and what the repository can allow. A relationship generally begins when a request is made to conduct research, along with submission of a project proposal and the researcher's qualifications to conduct that work. The access and use policies of most repositories include criteria by which the proposed work and the researcher are evaluated.

Another relationship that is often important, and sometimes required, during the planning and execution of collections research is consultation with an Indian tribe or culturally affiliated group. In some cases, this involves consent of the culturally affiliated group to use the collection. In other cases, it involves taking advantage of different expertise to achieve a particular research goal.

Collections research usually falls into two categories: on-site and off-site. Off-site use by researchers involves loaning objects out to the researcher's parent institution and following the procedures outlined in the previous sub-section on loans. For research on archival materials, off-site use involves the repository providing a limited number of copies of finding aids, documents, photos, microfilm, or the like and sending them to the researcher, often for a fee. Off-site use is often desired by researchers because it allows them to do their work at their own pace and utilize their own resources and equipment. Off-site use may not be preferable for a repository, however, because the requested items are open to security, preservation, and handling risks, possible copyright infringements, and are not available to other researchers. Archives do not allow off-site use of original documents. The decision to allow off-site use of items also depends on their fragility, type, and the quantity of items requested.

On-site use by researchers is done at the repository itself and the terms and procedures are defined by an access and use policy. Generally, the researcher or research group must first make an appointment to see specific materials. Upon arrival, the researcher(s) must register. Then a staff member is assigned to the research project while the collection is used, unless the repository has another monitoring technique. Many repositories do not let researchers handle the items themselves, and many have a separate area or room, away from collections storage, for this activity. These steps help decrease the risks to the items being researched, but may make the visit more time consuming and difficult for the researcher, as well as repository staff. Again, the type of work done depends on the researcher, repository policies and procedures, and the nature of the object(s) being used.

At the end of either on-site or off-site collections research, often within a designated period of time, the researcher may be asked to provide the repository with report on the findings. Copies of any resulting publications are also requested. This not only formally consummates the relationship between the repository and the researcher, but the repository gains important information about its holdings that makes the knowledge management process an iterative one.

Destructive analysis

Scientific analysis and research is regularly applied to archeological material remains. Some of these methods involve the destruction or alteration of all or part of an item. Common procedures now include Carbon 14 dating, thin sectioning, metallography, neutron activation and other chemical analyses, and DNA testing. Determining the types and quantity of destructive analysis to be done on an object or collection should be a collaborative effort involving the original project manager, the researcher, repository staff, associated contracting managers, and, in appropriate cases, representatives of culturally-affiliated communities or organizations.

As noted in a previous section, the archeologist investigating and excavating a site should be aware of and take into account destructive analysis issues when implementing sampling strategies and preparing collections for long-term management and care. These include destructive analysis that the archeologist plans to do personally and any analysis that future researchers might perform. Unfortunately, archeologists cannot anticipate the scientific procedures that may be available in the future. Planning and foresight by the archeologist and repository staff, however, should include curating an adequate sample size for future research and identifying specific objects as appropriate for destructive analysis.

Every researcher has a responsibility to archeological collections when engaging in destructive analysis techniques. Most repositories have policies on destructive analysis and a researcher needs to be aware of these. Most repositories require the submission of a detailed request or justification, which include information such as:

Researchers should also be prepared to provide the catalog numbers of alternative objects or samples that they could use if denied access to their first choice(s). Or they should be prepared to use a smaller sample size.

The repository (and/or owner of the object/collection) has the ultimate authority over the use of collections, including destructive analysis. The policies and procedures that most repositories have in place on this matter usually outline:

How a repository decides what types (if any) of destructive analysis it allows on its collections depends on a variety of factors. One is whether it is a public or private institution. Federal collections are subject to provisions under 36 CFR 79, which stipulate that "The federal agency official shall not allow uses that would alter, damage, or destroy an object in a collection unless…such use is necessary for scientific studies or public interpretation and the potential gain…outweighs the potential loss of the object." They also state that destructive scientific uses should be limited to "unprovenienced, nonunique, nonfragile objects, or to a sample of objects drawn from a larger collection of similar objects" (79.10(d)5). Some states also have laws or regulations that govern the use of destructive analysis on their collections. It is important that, when a repository drafts its policy on destructive analysis, the policy complies with all regulations related to collections they do not own but are under their care.

(photo) A University of Washington medical technician captures data from the Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the cranium of Kennewick Man.
A University of Washington medical technician captures data from the Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the cranium of Kennewick Man.

Another issue that repositories have to take into account when dealing with destructive analysis is the study of human remains. Destructive analysis of human remains, especially those covered under NAGPRA, has sparked considerable debate in recent years. Unfortunately, none of the federal laws and regulations specifically cover the use of destructive analysis on human remains. With the passage of NAGPRA, genetic tests have been used to help establish lineal descent or cultural affiliation. Many Native American tribes have differing opinions on the use of this type of analysis, however. It is important that consultation takes place between the the affiliated Native American tribe, repository, archeologist or researcher, and any resource manager that might be involved prior to the use of any destructive analysis techniques. This consultation is required under NAGPRA for any human remains that are excavated after 1990. Consultation is also an important aspect of establishing good relationships with tribes and respecting the human remains.

It is not always easy to find a point of agreement between concerned parties. The difference of opinions between groups on this issue is illustrated by the recent controversy surrounding the "Kennewick Man" skeletal remains. The Kennewick Man skeleton was found in 1996 in Washington, along the banks of the Columbia River. Initial examination of the skeleton indicated features of a Caucasoid, while radiocarbon analysis yielded a date of almost 9300 years ago. Another complication was the fact that Kennewick Man has a projectile point embedded in his hip, possibly of the Cascade tradition, dating to around 8000 years ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) took possession of the remains, and because of the projectile point and the date, determined that they were Native American and subject to NAGPRA. The USACE prepared to return the remains to a coalition of local tribes that planned immediate reburial.

A group of anthropologists sued the USACE seeking to block repatriation and force the need for further scientific testing to determine ancestry. They also argued that scientific analysis of the human remains was of major scientific importance, especially in answering questions about the peopling of the New World.

In response to court proceedings and controversy the USACE stopped plans for immediate repatriation and proceeded with plans for further analysis of the human skeletal remains and associated materials, including the possibility of destructive analysis. These plans angered many Native American tribes, who wanted no further testing done, especially if it involved destructive analysis. It also angered some scientists who believe not enough is being done to ensure that all of the important information from these materials is collected. In the end, government archeologists and curators and non-government experts carried out a series of examinations and tests in order to much more fully document the remains (see the Links page for Kennewick information.)

The Kennewick man controversy exemplifies the difficulties that face archeologists, repositories, government managers, culturally affiliated groups, and others concerning access and use of archeological collections, including what scientific analyses are appropriate in specific cases.

Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights are non-physical rights to a work that exist independently from physical custody or legal ownership of the item itself. Researchers and repositories need to be aware of who owns any intellectual property rights to an item before they use or reproduce it in their own work. Archeological objects rarely carry intellectual property rights, but their associated records generally do.

Intellectual property rights include copyright. The Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, grants exclusive rights to creators of a work (e.g., authors, artists, composers), once it is in a fixed form. These rights include reproducing a work, creating derivative works, distributing copies by sale or transfer of ownership, and displaying or performing the work. A work that is not under copyright protection is in the public domain, meaning it is not eligible for copyright protection or that its copyright has expired.

Several factors must be used to determine the copyright status of a work, including the type of work, who created it and under what circumstances, and when. In terms of the type of work, there is no copyright protection for most three-dimensional objects, except sculpture. Relevant to archeology, it does protect documents and manuscripts, graphic designs, drawings, photographs, motion pictures, video tapes, and computer software.

Copyright also protects all creators of works except for U.S. Government employees, who created the work as a responsibility of their job. These works, then, are in the public domain. Federal contractors are also not protected if the signed contract states that the product is a work-for-hire and all copyrights go to the contracting federal agency. If the contract does not have these stipulations, a federal agency may have to obtain permission and pay royalties to a contractor for certain uses of a work since the contractor holds the copyrights.

Finally, copyright protects works for a specific period of time, the duration of which is quite complex. The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress should be consulted for more specific information on the duration of a copyright, but a brief summary of common situations is provided here:

Probably now in the public domain:

If an unpublished work was created on or before Jan. 1, 1978, it is protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years. If the author's death date is not known, 120 years from the creation date.

If a work was published with a copyright symbol or was registered between 1964 and 1977, it received 28 years of protection plus an automatic renewal of 67 years for a total of 95 years.

If a work was created in a fixed form on Jan. 1, 1978 or after, it is protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years. If it has multiple authors, then the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. If it has corporate authorship, then 95 years from publication date or 120 years from creation date (whichever is shorter.)

There is an exception to copyright that is important for researchers. It is fair use, which is reasonable, limited use of an insignificant portion of a work that does not impinge on the rights of the copyright owner. Fair use is limited copying of a work for private study or research, teaching, commentary, or news reporting. It includes paraphrasing and reusing ideas and facts, but not reproducing large portions of significant text or whole photographs, maps, charts, figures, or the like.

When a researcher finds and wants to use complete works or significant portions of them for a publication or to create reproductions or derivative works, especially those with a market value, s/he must determine the copyright status and seek authorization from the copyright owner. This authorization or permission is often called a license. Copyrights may exist with the author/creator of the work, their sponsoring institution, the government, or the repository that houses the work, usually documented in the accession file. The repository or archive is not always the copyright owner. Sometimes a repository never obtained the copyright to appropriate works, such as the associated records of an archeological project, so the researcher must go to the original creator or to whomever the copyright was officially transferred, such as the creator's heirs. This also holds true for works in a collection for which a repository is the caretaker. If a work was created by a federal employee, such as the results of an archeological project, it is in the public domain and ineligible for copyright protection. Keep in mind, facts and data may always be used without a license.

Many non-federal repositories and museums do have copyright to works of interest to researchers. For example, many repositories limit or prohibit outside photography or reproduction of their materials. They own any images that are available and often charge a fee for their use, either for cost recovery or licensing purposed. Repositories may also have policies governing the ownership of derivative data that comes from analysis and research done on their holdings. A researcher should be aware of repository policies governing these rights as s/he prepares a project budget so that any fees for reproducing or using certain types of works are included. As well, a repository usually requires a statement on what the research will be used for at the beginning of the project, as well as a separate permission to publish before the researcher may reproduce, distribute, exhibit, or produce derivative works from his or her research.

Another possible legal constraint that might apply to researchers working on collections is privacy. This is generally governed by state laws that protect living individuals from intrusion by public disclosure of private information, audio or visual recording of conversations, or photographing, filming, or taping a person or his/her home. Research in a repository may yield audio or video tapes of conversations of history or oral tradition, transcripts, photos, especially nude images, digital files, and motion picture films of great value to the project. However, if the person(s) who is the focus of those materials is still alive, any materials that might impinge on his/her privacy may only be used if there are signed release forms or permission statements by all the original participants involved, or if the researcher obtains those permissions from the original participants involved.

As a final, important note, there is also ongoing debate surrounding intellectual property rights for the culture groups affiliated with repository collections. Many indigenous cultures in the U.S. have different opinions on what is or should be covered by intellectual property rights, particularly the protection of access to and use of specialized indigenous knowledge related to art, music, religion, biological resources, and traditional practices. This is especially problematic for culture groups that restrict their own group members access to certain information based on criteria such as social status, age, and sex. Notably, when this type of information is captured on film, paper, video, or tape recordings, it is protected by copyright. That copyright goes to the person who captured the information, not to the culture group who provided the information. Privacy may come into play, though, if the information expressed and recorded was provided by a currently living person without a signed release form or permission statement. Privacy does not apply to a whole culture.

Some culture groups in the U.S., therefore, believe that limits should be set on providing intangible cultural ideas to non-members of the culture, particularly those involving religion and the sacred. Researchers and repositories should try to respect those concerns, as they do donor restrictions, when conducting their work and making it accessible to scholars and the public. For publicly held collections with sensitive materials, it may be helpful to ask affiliated culture groups to provide a statement of concern about those materials to share with researchers rather than restricting access to those materials.


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