Martin L. Levitt: “Ethical Issues in Constructing a Eugenics Web Site”

Earlier in the semester Levitt mentioned the Image Archives of the American Eugenics Movement as an illustration of the complexities of publishing archival material on the web. I was a little ambivalent after that discussion. Yes, without a note of the context of the material, it’s possible for it to be misused or misunderstood; but if access is available to everyone on an equal basis, then that means neo-Nazis get to use materials, too. Defending access maps onto discussions of defending free speech. Other data points indicated that Levitt was not a Luddite, but I wasn’t sure why the web should be singled out as a complicated medium. Yes, it’s more easily and widely accessible than a physical depository, and things float around context-free…but context can also accrete in the online environment. I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia in a scholarly paper, but it is still a day-to-day go-to site for consulting the hive mind.

Just like it says on the tin, this article deals with the construction of that web site. Some of the ethical issues seem clear-cut, such as the decision to maintain confidentiality despite there being a very strong legal argument that confidentiality had never existed in the first place. (A student interviewer is not a medical professional, so privilege does not attach; but a student interviewer in a lab coat might look an awful lot like a doctor.) Other issues are resolved in a manner that more or less mirrors pulpspace solutions. I have a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from a box of books a friend didn’t want to cart off to medical school. That edition has an introduction that basically says the book is bunk written and used by reprehensible people. The Eugenics Archive crafted essays that serve a similar purpose.

Last night in class we were treated to some anecdotes about a previous Librarian at the APS. When he was introduced to newspapers on CD-ROM in the 80s, he was initially skeptical. Why bother to look at that version when the physical object was available? Ten seconds after hearing about keyword searching, he understood the utility and took it a step farther: the introduction of new tools transformed the digital version a completely different animal.

In my pleasure reading, I strive to remain format-neutral, treating differences between e-books and paper books as matters of aesthetics: sometimes I want a trade paperback, sometimes I want hardcover, sometimes I want to read off a screen at my desk, sometimes I want to read a mass market paperback in the tub, recently I’ve started reading on my phone the el, etc., so initially some part of me rebelled that the statement was a bit extreme. (And in some cases it might be: a .gif of a scanned page is largely interchangeable with the original. But that’s an oh-god-why-would-you-do-that corner case.) A keyword search is pretty modest functionality, and pretty ubiquitous. Yes, it’s possible to do a keyword search using meatspace tools: scan the pages, note the location of the word, repeat as necessary. Even if you’re only freeing up bandwidth—doing a keyword search in seconds rather than weeks—that’s bandwidth that can be used for something else, refining intellectual arguments or going off on completely new tangents because of the luxury of time.

Last year, I used the 19th century British newspaper database to do research for a term paper. How I loved that thing. (And how weird it felt. I’m perfectly comfortable poking around on the web, so it didn’t so much feel like a tool as, well, Tuesday. But when I was an undergrad, such tools weren’t ubiquitous, the web wasn’t as populated and certainly wasn’t considered a good place to find sources for your social science papers, e-mail was elm or pine, Mosaic was an optional thing to futz around with, and we walked uphill both ways.) I was able to scan numerous papers spanning decades in less time than it took to skim two years worth of The Gold Coast Nation in Special Collections. And yes, they were two completely different research experiences.

To bring that digression back to the subject of the Eugenics Archive…the site is not a digitization of archival material. It is an online resource that makes use of digitized material. This holds true for the legacy HTML, which is what Levitt referenced in his article at the beginning of the decade, as well as the new version. The new version incorporates Flash, which makes me shudder in a way that I choose to believe demonstrates good taste as surely as it dates me. The new version also adds social networking features and a blog, further emphasizing the goal of commentary upon the subject matter and making it easier to add certain types of fresh content…notably original content, as opposed to existing material drawn from the APS, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives or other repository. This continuing accretion of information in cyberspace mirrors the accretion of material in physical archives. In short, the Eugenics Archive is an entity in its own right, a secondary source. As such, all of the ethical concerns Levitt originally voiced make perfect sense. This isn’t a case of simply reproducing material to make it available. This is the creation of an intellectual work, using a variety of sources, with a specific (and clearly stated) agenda.

I still like the idea of scanning everything and slapping it up on the web, organized in more or less the same way as the physical collection. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s a way to make access easy. (My sympathies are firmly with Web Tech Guy: my professional experience is geared, engineering-style, to just finding a solution, and the scan everything approach appeals to my packrat nature in the same manner as Jenkinson’s lofty statements of purpose.) I concede it’s incredibly impractical, just from a resource allocation perspective; much as it’s not feasible to keep everything, it’s not feasible to get it all into cyberspace. (At least, not till the Singularity hits; and really, won’t we all have better things to do when that happens?) The materials in archives and collections aren’t everything, but a consciously-constructed body of information. The materials they post online are a further step removed from the raw data, even more consciously selected and perhaps more obviously tailored for a specific purpose.