May I speak Openly about mass digitization?

We all agree that Open is good (even if we may not agree about what Open means) at the same time, we can all see reasons why corporations have a hard time fitting Openness into their business plans. I think it’s the responsibility of non-profit, cultural heritage institutions to find ways to bridge that gap and work with the corporate world toward a public good.

Since the RLG project regarding public/private mass digitization partnerships that resulted in the publication of the Good Terms report, there have been many encouraging developments on the mass digitization front.

There was a panel discussion at the November 2007 DLF Forum (for notes from the session, scroll down to the Session 2 “presentation”) that talked about public/private digitization partnerships. There were representatives of partnerships with Google, with Microsoft and OCA, with iArchives/footnote.com, and with Kirtas and Amazon. Now that many of the agreements have been made public, lifting to some extent the shroud of secrecy, we seem to be back in the mode of sharing and working as a community toward common goals. The panel members openly assessed what was good and not-so-good about the agreements and procedures involved in their arrangements. Those who follow will hopefully be able to craft better arrangements.

More and more libraries are getting involved in an increasing array of arrangements to digitize books and other materials in their collections. Many of them are getting involved in multiple arrangements, e.g., Google partners also becoming OCA contributors. European libraries are also finding a variety of ways to ensure their collections are in the flow. There have been a few noble declarations of self-funding (e.g., Emory’s Kirtas initiative and the Boston Library Consortium’s OCA activity), thereby avoiding restrictions issues altogether. Follow the progress through our resource page.

A group of moving image archivists and experts met to prepare themselves in anticipation of interest on the part of potential mass digitization partners. They took the important first step of being clear about their own objective (broader access), before they considered how their interests might intertwine with those of a private partner. They agreed that it was better to have a community voice than to act independently, which often leads to competitive, rather than collaborative, initiatives. They’ve since secured funding to complete an inventory of footage in cultural heritage institutions and they formed a group to flesh out a set of agreed principles.

Exemplary in approach is the (US) National Archives. NARA has released their Plan for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access. And, best of all, they sought public comment. Granted, they entered into a number of partnerships prior to creating this document, but now they’ve got it to guide future initiatives – and the public can feel confident that they are acting responsibly. Their principles for digitization (in Appendix A) are especially worth a look.

Keepers of other types of special collections should be preparing similarly. There is already interest in scanning rare books. The Sloan Foundation has funded rare book scanning at LC, Boston Public Library, the Bancroft Library, and others. Since the release of our report, Shifting Gears [pdf], which addresses moving toward mass for non-book collections, several funders have contacted us to talk about ways to prevent special collections from becoming jetsam in the sea of digital books. So, while I think that eventually private companies will get interested in our rare artifacts and visual and audio treasures, the funders may come first. Let’s be ready to impress them with plans for how we can increase the scale at which we can make these valuable materials more accessible.

Paul Courant’s thoughtful November blog postings regarding the University of Michigan’s Google partnership are helping to focus the debate. Google-bashing gets us nowhere and we have to acknowledge that there are some things that used to belong to libraries that now belong to Google (say, for instance, search). Is it fear that the books will also belong to Google (and that they will be evil) that makes us panic? I think it’s better to ask, How can we best work with private partners, while protecting the rights and desires of the people we serve? Let’s acknowledge what they do well and what we do well; we both have a lot to contribute (I hear Google has recently cottoned on to the role of metadata in powerful searching). I hope Paul’s blog will encourage us to focus on topics where we can make a difference, like the quality of the digitized books, preservation of the files – and of the original books, rights issues regarding orphaned works, and useful metadata – as well as how to help people find needles in the haystack.

But regardless of what happens along the way, what matters is the end result – and for that reason, I find myself repeating this mantra: No matter what compromises we may make in finding ways to work with private partners, we must ensure that at some (hopefully not too distant) point in time, all restrictions will be lifted and the content will be openly accessible (limited only by rights inherent in the content itself).

That’s a long mantra, here’s an abbreviated one: Ensure that the content will be open.

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12 Comments

  1. You know, it took Sputnik to wake us up to the space race, but we quickly rose to the challenge. Google’s initiative is the same kind of wake-up call. I have never doubted that better arrangements would evolve from Google’s start. But you do have to start. Large-scale and mass digitization projects needed this kind of infusion of energy. It is refreshing to hear a library commentator put things in perspective. I’m really sick of Google-bashing. Thanks, Ricky.

  2. One of the big problems we face in the UK (and the problem is undoubtedly the same elsewhere) is that libraries, archives and the like still have to pay hefty sums to run the back-end servers, technical staff which maintain digital content online.

    There is often considerable pressure from government and senior management to try and recoup the cost of such infrastructure via restricting access via subscription and other payment models, therefore getting in the way of open access.

    Until institutions are prepared to see digital library infrastructure as a core cost – in the same way that traditional libraries are seen as part of a core cost of a university – then digital content providers are going to be looking for mechanisms for recouping costs.

  3. Alastair,
    Good to hear from you!
    So many reactions whirling around in my brain:
    –libraries could get terms that don’t preclude them from doing whatever they like with the content. If they decide to limit the openness…
    –most attempts to make library endeavors self-sustaining end up adding to the cost — and reducing access.
    –and why do libraries need to recoup the cost of something that is so mission essential? (so I agree with you that this should be a core part of the budget)

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