How to deny scholars access to historical archives in the digital age



Over the last six months, the Chinese government has been systematically reducing access to historical archives by scholars.

There has been much speculation about the purpose of this effort. Some have speculated that it has to do with China’s strained relations with several of its neighbors, but most notably Japan, over possession of several groups of small islands in the South China Sea. Others have suggested that it is in response to the heightened tensions in regions of China itself where ethnic minorities, most notably the Islamic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, have begun engaging in low-level insurgencies or intermittent terror campaigns. Still others have concluded that the effort is not directly linked to any single current circumstance but, instead, that it reflects the Chinese government’s determination to maintain some control over how its own history is told, at least to its own people.

For scholars outside of China or in disciplines that don’t require such access to such archives, the reasons why access to the historical archives is being reduced are, however, of less interest than how the Chinese government is effecting this policy.

The government is claiming that to be of the broadest possible use to scholars, the materials in the archives require digitization. This explanation has the advantage of not only making superficial sense, but of reframing the reduction in access as an eventual expansion of access to the materials.

Why, then, is there a consensus that much of the material may never be made available to scholars—or made available only when the Chinese government decides to relinquish is current, re-exerted control over the archives?

First, the normal process when digitizing historical materials is to digitize a relatively small section at a time, precisely so that scholarly works in progress are disrupted as little as possible. In contrast, the Chinese have simultaneously closed off access to large portions of the archives housed in various locations. Even if the now unavailable materials are actually being digitized, given the time involved in such a process, there is no telling when the materials might again be available, even by reasonable standards.

Second, and again in order to minimize the impact on scholarly works in progress, the digitization of archived materials is usually done according to a schedule that is announced well in advance. In contrast, the reductions in access to the Chinese archives were simply announced by the government as restrictions that were immediately in effect.

Lastly, before materials in an archive are digitized, they are always indexed, if only to allow those doing and overseeing the process to insure that no materials are lost or misplaced. In contrast to this basic practice, because much of the material in the Chinese archives has not been officially indexed (indeed, some of the current, ongoing scholarly efforts involved providing indexes of the materials), there will be no way to tell if the government has, in fact, removed materials from the archives and thereby only selectively and self-servingly preserved the historical record.

Because our own historical archives have generally been indexed very thoroughly up to this point, it would seem that such a thorough misappropriation of historical materials would be extremely difficult to accomplish.

But it would be much less difficult to accomplish for materials related to more current events, for materials just now entering into archives. And given the efforts, in particular by Far-Right groups, to control what history is being taught–for instance, Mitch Daniels’ efforts to insure that Howard Zinn’s books were not used in Indiana schools and the legislation currently under consideration in Michigan that would ban and financially penalize the teaching of labor history–it does not seem as far-fetched as it might have seemed previously that some of our political leaders and their financial backers would seek to have historical research serve their ideology by controlling access to primary materials at their source. (Indeed, Zinn’s books were so problematic for Mitch Daniels precisely because they were written largely in response to a less formalized effort to marginalize many aspects of our national history.)

As more and more material is available to scholars primarily or perhaps only in digitized form, this is the core paradox. Imagine two funnels connected at their narrow ends. At the one wide end is the massive volume of material available to be digitized. At the other wide end is the ever broader number and range of people who will have access to materials because of their digitization. But where the two narrow ends are being joined, there is control over what is digitized and when—and the potential for tremendous abuses of that power.

Moreover, the exercise of that power has rather rapidly been shifting from our massive federal bureaucracy to massive corporations such as Google. I am fairly certain that this shift makes the possibilities for abuse even worse because, short of a completely authoritarian regime, such as still exists in China, populations can exert more direct control over who is governing them than over who is leading multinational corporations.

Indeed, as more scholarly journals and even monographs and books are made available through collections maintained by fewer and fewer, ever larger corporations, this issue clearly is not restricted to scholars relying on historical archives, but it could, instead, extend to scholars in every discipline.