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.



Seeing as it is the last day of September, I feel I am overdue for an update on here about what I’ve been up to. This summer was very busy! I attended three conferences, collected a majority of the data for my dissertation, and wrote as much as I could. I am very nearly done with my data collection and am currently working on analysis while also making progress on other areas of the dissertation.

The fall semester is in full swing here in Ann Arbor and I am currently serving as the Graduate Student Instructor in SI629: Access Systems for Archival Materials. Here is a course decription. Other than this, I am writing as much as possible! The picture below should give you a good sense of where I’m at as I write this post.

Seated portrait of a man with a beard writing a document.

This is not a photograph of me. But look at that chair. And that beard.

With accommodations as luxurious as this, it’s no wonder I’ve been a writing fool…and now before I make any more nonsense jokes about anonymous historical figures posing for pictures composing text at small desks, I will mercifully end this post and return to my dissertation.


Getting Started on Dissertation Work

Around Ann Arbor, the semester is ending and classes are coming to an end. For me, however, a new project is just beginning: I recently completed my dissertation proposal and moved into the final stage of my career as a doctoral student: ABD (all but dissertation). My dissertation, titled “The Changing Landscape of Digital Access: Public-Private Partnerships and Cultural Heritage Institutions” for now, examines the emergent set of relationships between public archives and libraries and private companies around digitization projects for archival records. I’m interested in how these partnerships take shape, how they are negotiated and managed, what records they focus on, and how these types of arrangements affect public access to these digitized materials.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a series of interviews with employees at private sector companies (non-profit and for-profit) who are involved in negotiations and contract work with archives and libraries. These have been extremely fruitful conversations and I am looking forward to diving into analyzing the transcripts next term. Additionally, I’ve visited the business school and law libraries here on the University of Michigan campus to identify additional resources that may be useful in my research. I enjoy these opportunities to meet librarians across the university and discuss my research with them. The outside perspective has helped me find new databases and academic research tools that I will certainly use as I continue to move forward on this project.

On that note, I should get back to work! Writing is a process, and I hope to use this blog as a sounding board for ideas and a place to reflect on my research process as I progress through the dissertation.