Tear Down This (Pay)Wall!

Equality, Equity, Liberation for Archivists


  • Giordana Mecagni Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections




This paper critically examines the practice of placing archival collections behind paywalls, starting with a microfilming decision that led to portions of collections stewarded by the author’s archives being offered for sale as part of large for-profit subject-based collections. The author uses economic and values-based arguments to illustrate how commodifying the archives by putting collections behind paywalls can be harmful for university libraries, archives, and the communities whose histories are hidden from them. The author then questions the existence of paywalled resources based on our professional associations’ codes of ethics.  The author offers a tool from the field of service-learning that might be used to evaluate how archives can interact ethically with communities, and uses a radical empathy lens to illustrate how various digital initiatives have wrestled with the ethics of paywalled resources and the marginalized communities they originate from. Finally, the author describes efforts to critically examine and disrupt current practices using a radical empathy framing, and offers practical solutions for archival institutions to take the first step toward a liberatory digital archive available to all.

Pre-print first published online 04/14/2021

Author Biography

Giordana Mecagni, Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections

Giordana Mecagni is Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Northeastern University.   Prior to that she held various positions at Associated Grant Makers in Boston, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe/Harvard, and at Harvard Medical School’s Center for the History of Medicine.  She holds a BA in Sociology and Women’s Studies from the University of New Hampshire, and an MLIS with an archives concentration from Simmons University.  Giordana lives in East Boston, is interested in urban agriculture and urban planning, and plays the Underwood 5 in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.