Accessibility and Existence: Toward an Ethical Consumption of Literature

Somewhere, deep within my archaeologically encultured brain, I firmly believe that archaeological theory is important. We hardly ever discuss it in CRM, but we often enjoy discussing methods and theory shapes those methods. At least, that’s what we’ve been told in our theory courses. It’s been decades since I took that type of course. What developments have been made since that course? Could any of those new ideas be applicable to my work? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but I sometimes have the inclination to try to update what I was formally taught. How do I go about doing this? That’s the problem. Although I might have the inclination, I don’t necessarily have a lot of time, especially when I already have a large “to-read” stack of pdfs and books to go through.

Bill Caraher recently posted a draft copy of a review that looked at recent works on archaeological theory. I read this with the idea that I could choose the one that sounded the most interesting and start there. The one that sounded the most interesting to me is Archaeology in the Making: Conversations in a Discipline, edited by William Rathje, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore, and published by Routledge.

Routledge. If you have easy access to an institutional library, this imprint might not mean much to you beyond the many useful titles that you have access to. For those of us who typically have to purchase our reading material, the name itself makes our blood run cold. Or maybe hot with seething hatred, depending on one’s disposition. There can be a lot of variation between archaeologists, after all.

I didn’t even need to check the price to know that I wouldn’t be able to afford it. When I did bother to check it, the price is well in excess of my daily wage. Gross, even, not just net. For the ebook. From Amazon, whom I don’t even like to do business with because they undervalue labor. There are a patchwork of ways that I can use read the book, though. I might be able to find individual chapters on Academia.edu. Or hobble together a useable copy between Google Books and Amazon’s preview. If I’m lucky, I can get some sort of community access to the local University’s library.


When I was in grad school, I attended a conference and saw a paper relevant to a project I was working on. The authors didn’t want to give out a copy of the paper because they were working on an updated version of the paper to be published, but they couldn’t tell me where or when it would be published. I later mentioned this to my advisor who said something along the lines of “Well, if it’s not published then it doesn’t exist.”

Whenever I stumble upon issues of accessibility for literature, whether CRM grey lit or pay-walled academic lit, I think about what he said. If we can’t access data and ideas, do they functionally cease to exist? At what point do we just ignore the unavailable and focus on the lower-hanging fruit that are less expensive books and open access articles?

If the books or articles aren’t available for a reasonable cost, or easily accessible in other ways, perhaps we should think about which publisher we’re working with. There can’t be much impact, if the source is prohibitively expensive. But in my angrier moments, I think we should go further and just draw a line in the sand and ignore anything that crosses a certain threshold of availability. Don’t read those volumes. Don’t learn or propagate those ideas. Definitely don’t provide free advertisement in the form of reviews. Let them remain inaccessibly alone and isolated.

That’s a quick run down the short path to poor scholarship, though. Avoiding ideas can stunt our own work as well as the published work that we can’t easily acquire. We aren’t just scholars and researchers, though, we are both producers and consumers of ideas and their media. We can’t ignore our responsibilities of the marketplace anymore than we would with other types of products. Just as we would be with other types of products, we need to be conscious of the effects our choices of these products have, both as producers and consumers.

I wish I could say that I do this as a matter of course. I try to be an informed and ethical consumer when I shop for other stuff. Honestly though, I’m mostly aware of these issues with archaeological publications when those publications are out of my reach. Most of the time, I just want to read those materials. When I can’t, that’s when I get all concerned. Perhaps you’re better than me at remaining aware of the accessibility issues. Perhaps not. Either way, here’s what I’d like you to do. Whenever you’re about to read an article or book, ask yourself how easy it is for others to access that work. Ask yourself who might be excluded from accessing that work. I’ll try to do the same.

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