Archivists on the Issues: The Values First Approach

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Emily Gibson, a processing archivist at Hoover Institution Library & Archives on the campus of Stanford University. She has also worked as an archivist in the U.K. at Roehampton University, and in Miami Florida at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the University of Miami, and the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. 

Whenever I see Elsevier in the headlines I think back to a symposium I attended a few years ago on the publishing house’s namesake, Elzevir. Presentations by book historians from St. Andrews and Oxford, among other well-known British universities, were given in a combination of English, Latin and French. I had hoped to brush up on my knowledge of the history of the book, but what I took away from the experience was how esoteric the study of the history of the book is.

Fast forward to December 2018 and Elsevier was in the headlines as universities across Europe ended their contracts with the notorious science publishing house. I gathered that the two Elseviers had more in common than their name – that the history of the subscription model of distributing primary source research may end up a sub-branch of the study of the history of the book.

In September of 2019, the European Commission and the European Research Council initiated a project to put in place systems that would make all publicly funded research freely accessible at the point of publication by 2020, called “Plan S.” The “S” stands for “science” and includes the humanities as well as hard sciences. It’s slogan is, “Making full and immediate open access a reality,” and their goal is to eliminate the publication paywalls associated with subscription-based publishing models in order to promote “universality,” which is a fundamental scientific principle that declares that “only results that can be discussed, challenged, and, where appropriate, tested and reproduced by others qualify as scientific.”

Driven by this initiative, around 300 European universities and institutions were ending their contracts with Elsevier. Germany’s Max Planck Society said upon ending their contract that, “The system of scholarly publishing today is a relic of the print era […] We want to activate a real paradigm shift in order to finally utilise the opportunities of the digital age.”

In the United States a similar shift is taking place. In April 2018, Florida State University announced that it would be ending its comprehensive subscription to Elsevier journals. And in March 2019, the University of California announced that they too were ending their contract. The University of California publishes nearly 10% of US research papers and 18% of them are in Elsevier journals. Both universities cited excessive subscription fees as the reason for ending their contracts.

“Within scholarly communications, Elsevier has perhaps the single worst reputation,” according to an article published by the Guardian in June of 2018. “With profit margins around 37%, larger than Apple and big oil companies, Elsevier dominate the publishing landscape by selling research back to the same institutes that carried out the work.”

It’s all hands on deck at the archive where I work, where a “Digital First” initiative is slowly transforming the landscape. Space, equipment, staff, workflows and the terminology we use to talk about them are evolving to meet the needs of a community of users seeking the paradigm shift the Max Planck Society articulated so well: a system of radically expanded access to primary source documents that utilizes the opportunities of the digital age. Scrawled somewhere in the middle of a page of notes that I took during a meeting on “Systems Infrastructure/Conceptual Design,” are the words “access is our ultimate goal.” As I wrote them, I remember thinking, “Hasn’t access always been our goal?”

To answer my question, I consulted the Theodore Calvin Pease Award-winning article by Judith Panitch, “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” Pantich explains that the term “archives,” as it was used from the 10th through the 15th century, described the titles or charters upon which rested the entire legal, political, and economic legitimacy of the monarchy and nobility, and that these documents were maintained in secrecy. “State archives were understood to constitute the personal documentation of the sovereign and to remain at his personal disposition,” Pantich explained.

In the United States, the National Archives formulated a “forceful enunciation of a theory of access to records” in the 1960s, according to Trudy Huskamp Peterson. In “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984,” Peterson explains that the theory had two major premises: researchers have a right to know what records exist, and researchers have a right to know which extant records are available for research use and which are restricted for some period of time. According to Peterson, “These premises culminated in the assertion that records are available on terms of equal access for all users […] and a philosophic commitment to the free exchange of information and ideas as the underpinning of society.”

As a method of distributing knowledge, American archives have been practicing a doctrine of equal access that resembles Plan S for many decades. A co-leader of the task force to implement Plan S described its goal as “making publicly funded research a global public good that can be utilized by anyone.” Today, the SAA’s statement on access and use described in its “Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics” reflects the values formulated in the 1960s and also asks us to be cognizant of the goal of access and use – to provide a public good: “Even individuals who do not directly use archival materials benefit indirectly from research, public programs, and other forms of archival use, including the symbolic value of knowing that such records exist and can be accessed when needed.”

In an online world of post-truth, alternative facts, disinformation and personalized click-bait, archival values are more important than ever. I often hear colleagues say that we’re behind the game, that the technology we employ to create access to our collections is not as good as the technology employed by other sectors, but I would argue that we’re ahead of the game, that values like equal access ensure that our work contributes to the public good as we grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, so that primary source information can continue to be discussed, challenged, and tested no matter how esoteric the subject matter.

Resources Consulted:

Akst, Jef. “Open-Access Program Plan S Relaxes Rules.” The Scientist, May 31, 2019.

Buranyi, Stephen. “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” The Guardian, Jun 27, 2017.

Kwon, Diana. “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls.” The Scientist, Dec 19, 2019.–the-ambitious-initiative-to-end-the-reign-of-paywalls-65231

Lippard, Kelsey Lovewell. “Open Archives.” UARK Libraries, Oct 26, 2017.

Panitch, Judith. “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” The American Archivist 59, no. 1 (1996): 30-47.

Peterson, Trudy. “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984.” The American Archivist 49, no. 2 (1986): 125-33.

Schlitz, Marc. “Why Plan S: Open Access is Foundational to the Scientific Enterprise.” Coalition S, Sept 4, 2018.

Taylor, Ashley P. “Max Planck Society Ends Elsevier Subscription.” The Scientist, Dec 20, 2018.


Leave a Reply (Note: The Issues & Advocacy Roundtable is committed to providing a welcoming environment for everyone who participates in its online spaces. All comments must honor the SAA Code of Conduct:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s