Dissertation: Defended

I am happy to report that yesterday I defended my dissertation! It was an incredible experience and I am relieved/proud/happy/tired/overwhelmed/excited all at the same time.

In the interest of posting something to this blog every month (which I try to do), and in order to give everyone a chance to get a bit of a window into my work, here is the title and abstract of the dissertation.

Dissertation Defense

The Changing Landscape of Digital Access: Public-Private Partnerships in US State and Territorial Archives

This dissertation examines the network of public archives and private sector organizations engaged in the work of digitizing historical records.  It focuses on the recent expansion of public-private partnerships involving US state and territorial archives and their effects on citizens’ access to digitized materials. It seeks to understand the ways in which government archives engage with the private sector around digitization of records documenting birth, death, land ownership, and other events central to life in a democratic society.

I employ a theoretical framework combining ideas from archival studies, government information, public finance, and economics. I argue that archival materials are public goods as understood by economists and public policy scholars, and assert that this designation merits a new perspective on government archives. The dissertation project employs a mixed-methods research design, combining a survey, interviews, and document analysis to follow the trajectory of these partnerships, from the motivations of each group of organizations through contract negotiation, records selection, digitization work, challenges, and the implications for access to digitized government records.

My results demonstrate widespread engagement between state and territorial archives and private sector organizations. More than 75% of survey respondents reported that their organization engaged in public-private partnerships. These partnerships largely focus on genealogical records which contain information about individuals. This makes sense from a business standpoint but threatens to undermine the public goods designation which protects government archives from market forces. I identify the negotiation period as a time when archivists have learned to leverage their unique holdings in order to advocate for their institutional interests. Through information sharing among government archives, they work to obtain the best contract terms on behalf of their holdings and users. I also highlight the impact of public records and freedom of information laws on the interactions between public archives and private firms.

This dissertation documents an information environment in transition. The number of partnerships has increased in recent years but research has not kept pace. This project is the first comprehensive study of public-private partnerships involving state and territorial archives in the US, and serves as a basis for future work.