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Digitization: change matters more than numbers

In August of 2013, the Getty Museum proudly announced the launch of an open content program, built around releasing 4600 digital images of artworks from the museum’s vast public domain collections – along with the explicit permission to copy and reuse the images, including for commercial uses. How many times have you read similar news? A few years on, the Open Content Program is still running, and even though – according to a recent update – ninety-nine thousand scanned images are now available online, this news was lost in the midst of many similar announcements, published by PR departments of large and small heritage institutions
all over the world.

When I hear about yet another museum, archive or gallery making their materials available online and open for reuse, I rarely click the links and often ignore such news. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not wish to undermine the efforts of many institutions wrangling with copyright clearance issues, and the work of many staff easy to ignore the work needed behind the scenes to place thousands of images online. But news about new collections is not, in itself, all that meaningful to me; there is something irritating about the rather noticeable rivalry between institutions in the vast quantities of files they release or the variety of newly available materials.

Comparisons between open activities of different institutions are often meaningless – they cannot reflect the real value of people’s work; it is impossible to compare the achievements of a large and well-funded European museum, placing thousands of scans online each year, with efforts of a small cultural institution from Poland that often faces serious organisational and financial challenges on its way to implementing open models of sharing its holdings. In many of the latter institutions, collection items are made available to Internet users not due to the official mission statement, but thanks to the determination of a single active and dedicated employee.

Information about a cultural institution releasing, or rather returning, public domain content thanks to digitisation and socially responsible copyright standards does not matter too much in itself: the value and advantages of these resources being available can be tested only when someone needs to use them. Once again – I do not intend to measure the sense of digitisation by the scale of reuse. Digital formats are a standard for cultural resources right now and preparing these digital files does not need justification – perhaps apart from deciding in which order to digitise, and aside from the relatively niche problem of sensitive collections or those with special status, which should not be made available online.

The attempt to use the newly available cultural resources is a real test of digitisation and open policies. The user who takes the institution’s invitation to reuse the newly available files can test these claims and very easily verify the ease of access provided by the museum or archive.

Copyright barriers are being reduced by many institutions, but other problems often remain. For instance, when one attempts to use the images provided by Getty, one finds that in order to download a reproduction of a medieval miniature at high resolution and for commercial purposes, it is obligatory to fill in a long online form, with multiple, open-ended questions. I understand an institution needs to gather information about reuse, but this method of gathering data results in the accessibility of files no longer being really open or public:


Poor design of digital archives, incorrect file formats, requirements to register, watermarks, missing or incomplete metadata, or unnecessary licensing – these are just some of the most frequent barriers to public domain materials. I wonder if at least some of these barriers are generated not by some technical or organisational factors (such as genuine gaps in information preventing the preparation of full sets of metadata, or the high cost of hosting, which limits the release of high resolution files online), but rather caused by a specific strategy?

Today’s Web is a commercial structure, centralised and disrespectful of a user’s autonomy, full of anti-scientific or discriminatory approaches. This is the space in which museums, libraries and digital archives function. They have a choice of adjusting to the space, to negotiate the rules, or to adopt a relatively autonomous strategy of being present online. If an institution adopts an open strategy, that strategy places it in opposition to the internet mainstream, which favours either restrictive copyright interpretations and commercial mentality, or – at the other end of the scale – invites the misuse or abuse of open standards in order to achieve temporary commercial benefits.

If the policy of allowing the public domain to be truly accessible places GLAM institutions in opposition to most of the present-day Web, perhaps it’s worth considering if they should set themselves free from the dominating paradigms. Why do many institutions think about releasing digitised collections in the context of return of investment (ROI)? Does digitisation require a rational, marketplace justification, or is it necessary because of the evolution of communication methods? If the role of libraries is not being questioned, why are digital collections still seen as a relatively unimportant addition to an institution’s mission? Why is collecting and analysing the data about users so important? Should cultural institutions – unlike most of the Web today – respect a user’s right to anonymity more? Should they treat the public as clients? Why are logos and branding so important?

Institutions of cultural heritage have often been compared to Ray Oldenburg’s concept of “third place”. A library, museum, or gallery was to be a place rising above the empty duality of a workplace (and commercial space) and home (a private and closed space). Values such as trust, community, local heritage, directness, openness, freedom to use, were to characterise these exceptional social institutions. I’m convinced that, in order to realise the idea of “third place”, it is necessary to reject the aggressive rationality of today’s Web.

One of the signifiers of that rationality is thinking in large numbers. It’s quite easy to observe: the value of internet-based projects is measured by their scope, the scale of an offer also matters (“We sell millions of books”, “We’ve got ALL the records”). Another sign of that mentality is the degradation of the meaning of activities performed without outside, and away from, the internet (“get all things sorted without leaving the house”). Activities belonging to the GLAM-Wiki thread (collaborations between Wikipedia communities and heritage institutions) demonstrate that this mindset can be rejected in favour of building a real ‘third place’ around cultural heritage.

The GLAM-Wiki Faras project is a good example of great results on a small scale. It is not about thousands of digital images; nor does anyone claim that it will result in a large-scale improvement in social awareness of history. It is simply a small project for an open Web that brings together a group of people who improve several dozen Wikipedia articles. I am convinced that this is a real “third place”, somewhere between the browser interface and the face-to-face meetings; stepping outside the Internet to change it for the better; supporting the open, alternative Web; working on a small scale to achieve results on a larger scale. And a cultural institution not as a brand name, but as a partner.

Published first in Open Digital Projects: NWW Collections and Wikipedia(pdf).

Translated by Marta Malina Moraczewska.

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