The Ethics of Digitisation

I’ve been thinking about digitisation projects recently.

Digitisation (scanning physical texts and objects so they can be accessed online) and digital preservation (ensuring “born digital” documents can be stored and accessed into the future) are two big areas in the GLAMR sector at the moment, and they match my interest in the overlap between technology and libraries.

Trove is the most famous digitisation project in Australia: a central access point for hundreds of digital collections across the country.

Collections Victoria is a similar portal, but this time focussing on Victorian collections.

The Digital Access to Collections project is a national initiative to establish a toolkit and a national framework for digitising collections. It’s run by GLAM Peak, the peak representative bodies of the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sectors in Australia.

I don’t have much experience with digitisation, so I’ve been idly thinking of projects I might run to correct that.

One thought I had was to digitise my personal collection of zines. I did some Googling tonight, looking to see if anyone had written up similar projects that could provide me with some technical instructions.

What I found was much better than that. I found discussions about the ethics of digitising zines.


Why We’re Not Digitizing Zines

First: Why We’re Not Digitizing Zines by Kelly Wooten, from 2009.

Wooten is the curator of the zine collections at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Duke University Libraries.

She states four reasons the Bingham Center chose not to digitise their zine collections:

  • Permission: it is often difficult to impossible to track down the creators of zines to ask their permission to digitise their creations.
  • Copyright: zines are subject to copyright like any other creative work. Reproducing them, even for research purposes, may fall outside fair use provisions.
  • Privacy: zines are often intensely personal in subject matter, and their creators may not have anticipated their intimate thoughts being shared with a vast audience.
  • Print culture: zines are created to by physical objects, and their physicality is part of what makes them so special. As Wooten writes: “The experience of handling zines in person, turning each page to reveal intimate secrets, funny comics, and poetry, can’t be duplicated on-line.”

Wooten’s point about privacy is especially interesting to me. Zine-making is something of a subculture. Zine makers make zines to share with other zine enthusiasts who share an understanding of the history and culture of zines, and will treat the maker’s content with a certain amount of respect.

It’s an example of what I call contextual privacy: where people are happy to share information in one context, but not in another. We may be happy to share health details with our doctor, for example, but not with our employer. Or we may be happy to share holiday selfies of us in our swimwear with our friends on Facebook, but would be appalled and angry if the Daily Mail reprinted those pictures.


digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Tara Robertson’s blog post digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should discusses the privacy implications of Reveal Media digitising issues of the late feminist porn magazine On Our Backs.

Although not strictly a zine, the contextual privacy issues are similar. Many of the models may have been happy to pose for an underground magazine with a primarily lesbian readership back in the pre-world wide web days of the late 80s and early 90s, but that does not mean that they would happy for their images to be available now, decades later, to the internet-at-large.

Robertson argues that there is a real danger of harm to the models here, and that at a minimum Reveal Media have an ethical obligation to provide a clear takedown process.

In making her argument, Robertson quotes from the final document I want to link to: the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics Zine.

Because of course there’s a zine about the ethics of zine librarianship. 🙂


Zine Librarians Code of Ethics Zine.

Everything in this document is 100% gold, if you’re a library nerd like me. The printable PDF is a bit hard to read on-screen. Fortunately, there’s a web-readable version too.

The authors make the same point about contextual privacy that I did:

2. Zine usage has a particular context or contexts associated with it.

In our experience, reproducing or sharing zines involves not just copyright law and practices, but also zinesters’ inherent right to decide how their work is distributed and how widely, and how it is contextualized. In sum, it is about community, about respect, and about the simple act of being a considerate person and information professional.

Zines are not mass-distributed books. They are often self-published and self-distributed, printed in very small runs, and intended for a small audience. Zinesters may feel differently about having their work openly available on the internet or in print, made available to a much wider audience.

Some zinesters also feel that context is important. This can mean the format – that it was meant to be on paper, and held in the hands – or it can mean that the zine “works” best when it is read as a whole product, rather than having one or a few pages excerpted or reprinted. These are among the considerations that the zine librarian/archivist should observe when deciding how or whether to reproduce an item for use.

There’s many more great ideas in this zine, including an order-of-preference list of ways to obtain zines, creating an inclusive and respectful space for the zines to be read in, and notes on cataloguing.

The rest of the website is worth reading too.



I set out to find some technical guidance on digitising zines. What I found was a much richer discussion that suggests the best approach may to be not digitise my zines after all.

Which I haven’t done. So: project successful!

Now I just need to find a way to add this to my resume…



About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
This entry was posted in ideas worth stealing, library nerding and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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