Reusing Archival Materials—Microfilmed, Digitized, or Original



20 January 2014

Copyright, licensing, and how-to-credit issues have been hot topics recently. Any time we use material held by archives, it’s wise to be proactive: Ask the repository about its policy for the reuse or publication of its materials. Some grant permission liberally. Others have keen restrictions. Most sizable repositories now have an online presence, where they publish their terms of use and re-use, along with an inquisitive but entirely justified permission form for us to submit.

The policy statement of the New York State Museum, for example, opens with this caution:

“Research images are provided only for the purpose of personal or professional study. Unless otherwise stated in writing by the New York State Museum, no reproductions in any form may be made from research images. If the New York State Museum grants permission for reproduction the following conditions apply . . .”1

The Museum then lays out terms for reusing its materials in printed works, films and videos, exhibitions, and web-based publications.

With microfilmed records, we can protect ourselves—and the public assessibility of these records—by thoughtfully examining the film we are using. This holds true even with all that material we consider to be “public records.”

As a case at point, let’s take naturalization records for the City of Toledo, Ohio, easily accessible through the Family History Library as FHL microfilm 1,991,417.

  • Researcher A might zoom straight to the ward and precinct of interest, grab a scan of Henry Lehr’s 1896 naturalization, and post it on the web with a credit line reading “FHL 1,991,417.” (But, of course, none of this blog's readers would ever be a Researcher A, right?)
  • Researcher B, takes the time to study the introductory material filmed with the register. There he finds a “Note to Researchers” explaining that the register has been removed from the Lucas County courthouse and is now part of Bowling Green State University’s public-records preservation program. The reuse of the records is now governed by the university’s policy, which is filmed at the start of the register: “Any publication or other public use of materials reproduced from the holdings of the Center must credit the Center for Archival Collections.” (Emphasis added.)

Does all this make a difference in citing our sources? Yes. When we encounter requirements of this type amid our research, we should record them in our working Source List Entry, so we will not overlook compliance when we publish or distribute our research. At publication time, we'll also want to credit the material to the appropriate archives, as well as to the creator of the records.

For other strategies and cautions in using “public" records, see EVIDENCE EXPLAINED, Chapter 8, “Local & State Records: Courts & Governance.”



       1. "Rights and Reproduction Conditions," New York State Library ( : accessed 19 January 2014).