It’s a brave person who volunteers their opinions to the lions, so if Tom Morgan can argue the case for the National Portrait Gallery before an audience of Wikimedians at the GLAM-WIKI Conference at the British Museum this last weekend [GLAM stands for ‘Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums’], then I reckon the least I can do in appreciation is respond in similarly (mildly) provocative manner.
As one of my previous jobs included rights clearance and dealing with publication requests for archives, I have some sympathy with the NPG’s position. The professional curation (both custody and access) of cultural heritage materials is a complex and expensive business. Having put in a lot of effort to looking after stuff in a responsible and professional manner, therefore, its extremely irritating (to say the least) when, as a member of staff, you discover that people are making use of these materials without much appreciation, or perhaps even without acknowledgment, of your efforts and their associated costs. Or, as Tom Morgan put it, “We have a culture of engagement and somebody’s just driven a great big truck through it”.
But I find it harder to empathize with why an organisation would want to invoke an imposed additional layer of intellectual property rights bureaucracy in an attempt to control use of materials where the original author’s copyright has already expired. Copyright (and here UK archivists face a more complex situation even than gallery curators, since most manuscript materials remain in copyright for far longer terms than artistic works) is frankly a right hassle to administer. I used to breathe a sigh of relief whenever a document requested for reproduction was clearly and demonstrably out of copyright. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen very often. A far more likely scenario involved a lengthy research process in an attempt to trace the current rights holder, often ending with the dreaded ‘orphan work’ issue (known to be in copyright, but the rights owner cannot be identified or contacted). From the point of view of working for a cultural heritage organisation, I cannot see that if copyright did not already exist that I would have wanted to invent it. Copyright was hindering, not helping, what I understood as my organisation’s mission to preserve (particularly with regard to born-digital records) and provide access to historical materials.
Attempting to control the use of digitised historical content by enforcing copyright and database rights in the copies and rights management mechanisms therefore seems to me to confuse the real issue. All the talk of copyright creates confusion by muddling up a need to recognise the organisation’s curatorial efforts with the intellectual property rights of creator(s). This is why the Europeana Public Domain Charter, which I heard about for the first time at GLAM-WIKI, is so important. It states that copyright protection is temporary, and that the digitisation of out-of-copyright content should not create new rights in it. Works that are in the Public Domain in analogue form should continue to be in the Public Domain once they have been digitised. Yet this does not, as far as I can see, necessarily have to imply that users are granted a free-for-all licence to take what they please from cultural heritage organisations without acknowledgement. There might even still be a requirement to pay some kind of financial recognition towards the costs involved in digitising fragile materials and in making them available online. But the emphasis shifts away from paying for a product (copies of the actual cultural heritage content – documents and objects) to acknowledging the costs of the process of providing online access to digital culture.
This shift in emphasis helps to open up an issue – access – in which the organisation and its users have a mutual reinforcing interest, unlike the position over content where the motivations of the organisation and its users tend to be conflicting. For I would dispute in fact Tom Morgan’s claim that users (Wikipedians in the context in which he was talking) and organisations agree upon the value of cultural heritage materials. In his Friday keynote, Cory Doctorow exhorted Wikipedians to value use above all else [incidentally, as an archivist, I think that statement is problematic anyway: if current use is primary, how do you ensure that what is preserved in the present for the future is not just what’s currently fashionable?]. Organisations, on the other hand, have a custodial mandate to preserve content, and hence will always seek to control the contexts of its use.
Unlike the disagreements over paying for content, therefore, which tend ultimately to reduce into organisation vs users, re-focusing upon the process of access invites consideration of the points of commonality between audience and organisation. Both can agree on the importance of access (Tom Morgan said “We’re not shy about access, we really mean it”; one Wikipedian reflected upon the benefits of working with GLAM organisations as “Access to expertise, information and resources that are normally difficult to get to”). This consensus seems a good starting point for a discussion about how organisation and community can work together to make access more efficient.
In a physical environment, the onus is on the organisation to provide this access infrastructure (gallery space or archive searchrooms, or whatever). But in the online world, the notion of the passive user or audience can be reconceptualised so that this responsibility for access can be shared. I use the word responsibility advisedly, for there are responsibilities as well as benefits on both sides of the organisational boundary. For the user and would-be collaborator, the responsibilities include – as Wikipedian The Land puts it – avoiding “treating it as a hit-and-run raid on image libraries”. To this end, it was interesting for me to learn at GLAM-WIKI about Wikipedia’s principles, the Five Pillars and that all 6 UK Creative Commons licences require attribution (which is obvious when you look at the licences page, but somehow I’d not cottoned onto it). For the GLAM, the benefits of opening up access to cultural heritage in a networked environment include wider distribution and re-use of the organisation’s holdings, possibly access to levels of technological expertise which might not otherwise be available to them, and, according to Cory Doctorow at least, the harnessing of public goodwill. But the responsibilities must include a commitment to greater transparency about the locus of costs in providing digital access to content, and a commitment to keeping these access costs to a minimum.
All of which brings me onto my final heresy, one about digitisation itself. At the Collections Trust Expert Panel on the Digital Content Supply Chain the week before GLAM-WIKI, Nick Poole gave us a nice little introduction to his supply chain concept; an access process model, in effect. He explained that digital preservation incorporates both input and output functions – money and resources go in, use and re-use should be the output objectives. So, as devil’s advocate, I questioned whether the problems that the cultural heritage sector faces in ensuring the sustainability of digitised content might in part be caused by setting the bar too high at the point of entry into the digital supply chain. In other words, why do sector professionals insist on creating high resolution, large file-size images which we consequently struggle to maintain because of a lack of storage capacity, and which in many cases are all too rarely requested for use? Here I agree with Tom Morgan at GLAM-WIKI: low resolution copies are adequate for the majority of online usages. So why do we insist on creating high resolution copies when only a tiny proportion of these will ever be required for publication or other high quality reproduction? This was rather an off-the-cuff remark, and as my colleagues on the Expert Panel pointed out, there are undoubtedly times when you wouldn’t want run the risk of having to repeat the digitisation process – the rigmarole of conserving and digitising the enormous tithe maps for Tracks in Time might be one example; I guess if you are commissioning specialist photography of a steam locomotive, say, or any large 3D museum piece, this might be another exception. But on reflection, I do think that the GLAM sector’s lemming-like adherence to gold standard digitisation norms derived from the NOF-Digitise technical standards (now nearly 10 years old) could take some critique. Not least perhaps because admitting that high resolution digitisation might not be such a holy grail when it comes to encouraging use and re-use of cultural heritage opens the field for community participation in digitised content creation, as part of the shared access paradigm. Rather than – or perhaps in complement to – investing in expensive professional digitisation, why not encourage users themselves take some of the strain, and endeavour to capitalise upon surely thousands of images already ‘out there’ of our public domain cultural heritage materials?
Other random highlights/thoughts resulting from GLAM-WIKI which I can’t fit into this narrative:
- An inspiring collaboration between the Dutch Nationaal Archief and Wikimedia Nederland
- A remark from Liam Wyatt (@wittylama) about local history not fitting well into the Wikipedia structure which made me ponder whether this is a gap that local archives would be well placed to exploit
- Countering the air of unfettered enthusiasm for all things wiki with a bit of considered scepticism about participation rates in the V&A Museum’s wikipedia collaborations, and wondering whether the return on investment for the organisation (and its partners – there seemed to be a great long list – Collections Trust, MLA, Culture24…) is really worthwhile.
- Neil Wilson’s presentation about the British Library’s data release of bibliographic metadata as CC0 (all copyrights waived), which included the remark that the Library’s metadata strategy tries to move away from using library-specific standards such as MARC towards more cross-domain XML models, for example Dublin Core and RDF. It struck me that this isn’t a discussion much heard in archival spheres, but maybe I’m wrong?