We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled History Blog…

In July 2015, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram published a supplement to its daily newspaper, focusing on the Wellington Cheese Festival. You may imagine my surprise when I immediately recognized that two of the three large color photographs on its front cover were taken from my blog. One image I shot myself; the other was taken of my home by a friend who is a professional photographer. There was no attribution anywhere in the insert, indicating where the photographs came from. Needless to say, nobody had asked permission to use them.

I called the Chronicle and after quite a long time, was finally connected with the person who created the cover. The only explanation she could offer was that the images were “on the Internet” and so she—a professional graphic designer working for a company that could be subject to legal action—thought that they were free for the taking to anyone interested in using them. It had not occurred to her that taking work someone else produced, then putting it on the cover of a publication that her employer sold for profit, was at all problematic.

I have been writing 19th-Century Wellington for nearly five years and have spent thousands of hours, and many dollars, on research. But I believe strongly in the exchange of information and ideas, so from the first this blog has been free and publicly available. And with the exception of the unpleasant experience with the Chronicle, it worked well. But possibly because 2018 is Wellington’s bicentennial year, that is now changing. Many more people are apparently interested in the village’s history. This is wonderful, and I am glad of it. But an unexpected consequence of that interest is that suddenly, content from this blog is appearing all over social media. And it is almost always unattributed.

I have obtained permission to use all of the images found on this blog that I did not shoot myself. I formally asked both the Herrick Memorial Library and the Southern Lorain County Historical Society for the use of images from their collections to illustrate these posts. I then formally asked for permission to use a few of the same images for publication in my recent book. As a thank you for their ongoing support, I donated copies of the book to both institutions. And whenever possible within the posts, I encourage readers to visit both organizations and see the images or objects in person. In those rare instances when I have found a photograph on another website that I cannot find anywhere else, I have contacted the owner of that page and asked for permission to use the image with full credit, pointing back to his or her work.

Historical research is not easy or straightforward. The narratives you read in these posts are carefully crafted to make the final story as clear and concise as possible. But I do not find this information wrapped up in neat packages. It is painstakingly pieced together from multiple sources. A standard subject takes weeks of work, from having the idea to hitting the “post” button. Many take months. A few have taken more than a year. I am currently working on a post about Frederick Douglass visiting Wellington 150 years ago this month. The story itself will not be very long or involve a great deal of primary document research, but to prepare I read two full-length biographies of Douglass, as historical context. That, by itself, took a month. I once looked into a topic that hinged on the date that two people were married. I spent six weeks trying to substantiate the correct date, including a visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Six weeks. All so I could accurately assert, “They were married in Wellington in 1828.”

Research is sometimes compared to piecing together a puzzle. It would be more accurate to say it is like piecing together a puzzle when you have no idea what the final image is supposed to be, nor do you know how big or small the overall puzzle is, nor whether all the pieces from the left side were burned up in a fire and so do not exist to complete the picture. Or perhaps they are just in a forgotten box in your neighbor’s basement, if only you knew to ask. Maybe the puzzle will be finished in a few days, or maybe you will work on it for more than eighteen months (as I did with one three-part essay, even traveling out of state to visit archives and museums) and still not feel that you are close to completion.

I have done this for the joy of the work. I have received no compensation. Not for the dozen public lectures I have given since I began the blog. Not for the myriad personal email inquiries I have received from folks, asking for help with their own family history research. I have photographed local houses for people in other states, given tours of town to visitors, met strangers at the library on weekends to give advice on family heirlooms, facilitated donations of objects to the library and museum. I received nothing in return, except the thanks of the people I helped, and until now that was more than enough.

But it is upsetting to see my writing and photographs I have taken pop up daily, without any acknowledgement or attribution, on social media pages. And to then be criticized, to be characterized as egotistical or conceited, for “wanting credit” for years of my own work.

I do not believe that most people who copy content from the Internet and post it to social media do so maliciously, as an act of theft. I don’t think many people have ever had occasion to give these particular issues much thought. So it felt important to lay out, in a way I never before considered necessary, just how much time, effort and financial investment all of this involves. Please do not assume that anything you see on the Internet is free for the taking. Please acknowledge the sources of your information. And if you see someone else posting content that you know is not of their creation, politely encourage them to identify where it originated.

Thank you for reading.

10 thoughts on “We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled History Blog…

  1. Matt

    Thank you for this post. As a fellow local historian, this topic recently became an issue for me and other colleagues in the field. I will be sharing it.

    Reply
  2. Stacy Wilkinson Hughes

    You have done such amazing work, and yes it is work that deserves all the credit. And those that characterize a request as egotistical are not familiar in any way with the ethics of internet content – which they should school themselves on before making judgements. Being ignorant of that which is commonplace in referencing sources is not an excuse, just ignorance. Congrats on all you have done and what you have yet to do!

    Reply
  3. Marcia

    Thank you for writing as this gives many researchers a lot to think about that may not have occurred to them.

    Reply
  4. Mariah

    For a person to be in the business of quoting people and books and the such, you would think they would know that it is illegal to not cite your sources. It’s like they took the credit for taking that photo for themselves! Even if you don’t know where it came from, you are supposed to put unknown photographer or author. Or even to cite the source of where you found it. Plagiarism. Hardly anything is free in regards to finding a photo online or any sort of information. Someone, somewhere took it and they deserve to be noticed too!
    By the way, I love your blog! I enjoy reading about the history of the place I’ve called home for about a year and a half. Love the history and I love the photos you have acquired or taken.

    Reply
    1. Armchair Historian Post author

      Thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts. I have no problem with people sharing posts on social media, just so long as they point their followers back to the original source. RE: the photographs…images held by museums and archives are usually not protected by any sort of copyright restrictions. The collecting institution owns the physical object but it is not the creator/photographer; in many cases it does not even know the photographer. (I spent four years working in a special collections library and managing permission to publish requests was part of my job.) Asking the museum or archive for permission to publish the image in those cases is an act of professional courtesy, and an acknowledgement of the resources that the organization has expended preserving the original object.

      Reply
  5. Laura Fratus

    I doubt that most people who copy content on the internet have ever read up on copyright law, but if they did, they have probably been as confused by section 107 of the Copyright Act as I have been. It seems very clear there that copying “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Sorting out the difference between fair use and unfair use is not really that obvious. What IS obvious, however, is that giving credit to content creators and links to sources is easy, and it’s the least we can co when we’ve benefitted from someone else’s work.

    Reply
    1. Armchair Historian Post author

      Yes, Laura, I agree. To argue that one has time to: 1) visit a website; 2) copy an image; 3) copy text for a caption; 4) post all that content to FB–but adding a link to the source would be somehow too time consuming on top of all that? That argument holds no water with me.

      Reply

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