Online Documentation and Archives

This article considers the possibilities of archives and documentation, with a specific focus on their online dissemination and circulation. Particular emphasis will be placed on archive and documentation access and reuse by the greatest number of users possible. In the history of archiving, this was not always the most popular approach. Some archivists continue to advocate for the idea of protecting the integrity of an archive by limiting physical access to it.




Online Documentation and Archives

April 9, 2020

By Isabelle L’Heureux, Digital cultural development officer, Conseil québécois des arts médiatiques (CQAM), Regroupement des arts interdisciplinaires du Québec (RAIQ), and Le Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ).

This article is based on two workshops—“La diffusion de la documentation en ligne et l’archive (Dissemination of Online Documentation and Archives)” (2019) and “Performance Documentation: Exploring Digital Curation and Archiving” (2018)—given by Hélène Brousseau, librarian at Artexte. These workshops were commissioned by ARCA for members of the Association des groups en arts visuels francophones (AGAVF) and members of an ad hoc group of performance art presenters, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategy Fund.

This article considers the possibilities of archives and documentation, with a specific focus on their online dissemination and circulation. Particular emphasis will be placed on archive and documentation access and reuse by the greatest number of users possible. In the history of archiving, this was not always the most popular approach. Some archivists continue to advocate for the idea of protecting the integrity of an archive by limiting physical access to it. Today, given the fact that the vast majority of documents created are natively digital, the access-versus-preservation dilemma, which once had some relevance, is usually no longer an issue. Whether a webpage is consulted three times or 300,000 times, its physical integrity and legibility will remain unchanged. We are thus faced with a particularly favourable opportunity to further open and even circulate artist-run centres’ archives and documents.


Why document and archive?

As defined in the Canadian Encyclopedia, “archives constitute that coherent body of recorded information created or received by a government, corporate body or organization in the course of its business, or by an individual in his or her activities, which is selected for its enduring value and then maintained, preferably in continuous authorized custody, as a record of that business or activity.” The term documentation, for its part, is more comprehensive, as it includes documents that are not necessarily produced or received by a person or organization—e.g., publications about a person or organization (articles, magazines, books, journals, encyclopedias, etc.) produced by a third party.

As mentioned in the introduction, increasingly our archives and other documents are digitally integrated, whether they are natively digital, digitized for purposes of access and preservation, or simply listed in a numerical index. These groups of documents may be preserved by the individuals and organizations that produce them, or by national-level organizations devoted to this type of work, such as Artexte (for the Canadian contemporary art milieu), or Library and Archives Canada. The value of preserving archives lies primarily in their testimonial value. For this value to be experienced fully, archives must be visible/viewed and usable/used. Furthermore, they afford creative groups and individuals a record of their practices and achievements, can be used by artists and organizations as a means of referencing past events, and are indispensable to researchers as primary sources.

For artist-run centres, an archive is not only a portal into an organization’s memory, but also into the history of a particular cultural movement in Canada. The preservation of these traces thus contributes to validating and creating new knowledge about contemporary art. It forms a documentary base, which helps us to confirm the historical and ongoing importance of ARCs to the structure of our independent arts community. Finally, archives promote informed perspectives on this structure, which in turn may facilitate regular re-assessment of it and help us deal with the constantly evolving issues of artistic creation in different social, technical, and political contexts.


What do we archive? What do we document?

In our contemporary art community, archiving and documentation originate with the various entities operating within our particular ecosystem: artists, artist-run centres, funders, public-sector organizations, universities, researchers, publishers, and the media.

Documentation of art practices, art works, or events may take a wide variety of forms: texts, drawings, scripts, images, videos, photographs, audio recordings, posters, brochures, interviews with artists or others, reviews, press coverage, etc.


Archiving the Web

Artist-run centres that wish to keep a record of their website may easily do so with Webrecorder, a tool that creates interactive copies of webpages. This open-source program is a project of Rhizome, a New York–based organization devoted to digital art. A webinar on the use of, produced by Artexte, can be viewed here.


Legal issues of online dissemination


As part of their documentation and dissemination activities, artist-run centres must take into account Canadian copyright legislation. Artists have the right to document their work, to give or not give consent for documentation of their work, and to make copies of such documentation. For their part, ARCs are responsible for obtaining the artist’s consent for all forms of documentation. Further, if the documentation is to be used in new ways not outlined in the original contract, the artist’s consent is required. Documentation of an artist’s work remains the artist’s property. In 2012, however, Canadian copyright law was amended to give ownership of copyright to the photographer rather than the client who hired them. This means that unless an ARC has a specific contract with the photographer or videographer documenting an exhibition, the ARC’s licence to use these images will be limited. Therefore, there must be consistency between the contract with the artist and the contract with the photographer hired to document the artist’s work. Thus, if the artist is to retain copyright over the documentation of their work, this clause must also be negotiated with the photographer. The same logic applies to text-based documentation. Use of an author’s material must be negotiated with the author before it can be published online by the artist or the ARC.

Contracts and agreements

Contracts between creators and disseminators can include clauses on the documentation of art works. Such clauses should specify whether copyright is exclusive or not, and transferable or not, and should indicate the term of the contract and the authorized usage. The declaration of copyright also makes it explicit who owns the documentation. This helps to clarify whether or not obtaining a licence for future use will be necessary.

Free licences

In some cases, creators (in the fields of research, art, or cultural work) may choose to attach free licences, such as Creative Commons, to their publicly accessible content. Such licences specify the categories of use allowed for each category of content, and facilitate the sharing and broader circulation of such content in compliance with copyright law. It should be noted that free does not mean without cost. Access to licenced content can be granted in exchange for payment. One common example is publications that are available online for free (or at cost) under Creative Commons (usually in PDF or HTML format), but with a print version also sold in bookstores. Application of such licences to ARC content (calls for proposals, event documentation, essays, etc.) should involve prior discussion between the various collaborators (writers, artists, photographers)—and this information should also be integrated into the collaborators’ respective contracts. Felicity Tayler’s essay “Copyright as a Practice of Daily Life for Artists and Artist-Run Publishers” describes this process clearly.


Online circulation

When legal issues are properly considered, the spectrum of possibility for online dissemination is quite broad. Options include making documents available on an artist-run centre’s website, on social media platforms, on a digital repository such as e-artexte, or via platforms such as Wikimedia Commons and Internet Archive. Initiatives like Matricules (Studio XX), Décades (Optica—whose archival fonds are also stored at Concordia University), and Activating the Archive (grunt gallery) are just a few examples of how ARCs have spotlighted their organizations’ archives and documents.

If you are interested in exploring such possibilities for your organization, we recommend starting by assessing what kinds of documents you have and selecting which ones you’d like to make available. The following questions will help guide you through this process:

  • What are your organization’s needs? Perhaps you wish to make an under-represented history more visible, mark an anniversary, share your organization’s ideas, etc.
  • What means does the organization possess to carry out these things? Going online will involve labour on the part of organization personnel, and may require soliciting help (legal, technical, etc.) from external experts. You must also assess costs related to Web hosting or to other online services or storage.
  • How will your documentation be published? Will it be indexed and/or categorized on a website, or described using suitable metadata? Will the available documents be searchable by users? Will online access be promoted on your website, or via social media or local media?
  • Who might want to access your organization’s information?


Open access, digital repositories, and circulation

 For the research sector, the open-access movement offers interesting perspectives on the issue of knowledge circulation. Open access aims to make the results of publicly funded research available online free of charge and accessible to all, with due respect for copyright. The concept can be applied, in similar ways, to ARCs and the world of contemporary art. This was the impetus behind the e-artexte digital repository. E-artexte depositors are artists and organizations that wish to archive their documentation and make it accessible while maintaining ownership of the associated copyrights. To specify which uses are permitted, depositors are encouraged to attach Creative Commons licences to their documents. For e-artexte, this kind of open-access deposit has many advantages. Visibility and accessibility are enhanced, as documents are indexed via a catalogue and further contextualized within a specialized repository designed for contemporary art. Description of materials using standardized metadata is conducive to research and discovery. Finally, a team of specialized librarians ensures that deposited documents are preserved and maintained in compliance with digital archiving standards—also a significant asset.

The idea behind open access is to promote wider circulation of knowledge and perspectives by making content more accessible and by facilitating diverse modes of use: reading, downloading, quoting, sharing, transforming, and reusing. Reducing barriers to access, whether these be geographic, legal, or technological (or sanitary!), can also have a positive impact on the cultural sector’s international outreach—a relevant factor to bear in mind when transferring archives and documentation online, whether onto one’s own website or to a digital repository.

Disseminating an artist-run centre’s archives and documentation feeds into a broader cycle of creativity and reflection, and may stimulate multitudes of possible connections and directions. This idea can be illustrated with a fictional scenario: An ARC’s collection of exhibition brochures is examined as part of a researcher’s PhD thesis, which, in turn, is accessible via a university’s institutional repository and eventually published by a book publisher. The published book is then used as a source to support an article about the centre on Wikipedia, which enhances the centre’s online profile in regard to search engines, etc. Though perhaps cursory, this illustration invites us to imagine how our archives and documentation may travel and evolve when they are visible, accessible, and circulating freely on the Internet. If everything remains filed away in some lost folder at the bottom of a locally stored digital tree on an aging office computer, such new connections and discoveries will remain out of reach.


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