Opening the archives: on access to information and resources

archives research Ross Gibson The Summer Exercises

Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing

For those whose Twitter, Instagram and Facebook streams are usually populated with book-related content, you may have been surprised to see an inordinate amount of cake on your screens today. That would be because today is National Cooking for Copyright day, a campaign run by Freedom of Access to Information and Resources (FAIR).

1500 libraries across Australia have banded together to advocate for copyright law reform, highlighting the little known fact that ‘unpublished’ works remain copyrighted forever. Published works remain copyrighted for 70 years after the death of the author (which, according to Roland Barthes, would actually be 70 years after the writing of the text), however material such as correspondence, sketches, diaries, manuscripts and, of course, recipes are perpetually locked into the current copyright regime. This means that they cannot be widely accessed, utilised, or digitalised. It means that many records documenting our social history slip out of the annals and into a dusty oblivion. Earlier this week, the Executive Director of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Sue McKerracher told Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas that in the National Library alone there are approximately 2 million unpublished works.

The Apple Cake

For the #cookingforcopyright campaign we made the Apple Cake, a recipe from Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Sherrie's book of recipes and knitting patterns written between 1835-1891.

The conversation around copyright got us thinking about the creative possibilities of archives, both in the physical and digital forms. As Susan Howe writes in her book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, “in research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles… in quotations, thought-fragments, rhymes, syllables, anagrams, graphemes, endangered phonemes, in soils and cross-outs.” In other words, life occurs as a series of fragments, the world is the sum of many small parts, and many of these small parts can be found in archives. This speaks, of course, to the copyright laws currently heating up in the spotlight and the oven. To be a little theoretical about it, the laws preference whole and finished works (“published”) over the bits, chunks and scraps (“unpublished”) that may in fact more accurately reflect the quality of history, the world and our lives at large.

As much as I want to clamber into my theory-mobile and race off to the mind’s horizon, I will bring it back to the core of the issue: this is about access to information and resources, and encouraging the rediscovery of the details of history. It is from archives (and unpublished material) that we get innovative works such as The Summer Exercises by author and scholar Ross Gibson.

The Summer Exercises wrestles with a few publications for the title of My Favourite Book, and I think the others may be ready to tap out. Using the photographs managed by the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney, Gibson reconstructs the reality of 1940s Sydney from 175 images and original, interwoven poetic prose. It is an example of richly imagined, repurposed material that takes on a new life after being thoughtfully exhumed from the archives.

To further contribute to the FAIR conversation, we will be bringing Ross Gibson to Perth to facilitate a special workshop on his unique craft. This event, entitled The Poetry of Archives, will be held as part of UWA Publishing Literary Program for the WINTERarts Festival. For more information, click here. 

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