Desperately Seeking Sustainability

Several recent conferences have included sessions on image licensing, spurring discussions as to whether licensing images can be profitable or at least self-sustaining. This seems to be especially of interest in the museum world, where some imagine great returns, even as others are emphasizing the value of setting the images free.

Many libraries and other cultural institutions have experience with charging for reproduction costs and licensing for publication rights. Not-for-profits in the library world have experience with attempting to cover costs via subscription. Many grant proposals must now include a plan for sustaining the activity after the grant money is exhausted. A large part of Ithaka’s raison d’être is to help develop sustainability models. Open Source projects like DSpace and Fedora are spinning off not-for-profit support organizations and are wondering how to sustain them.

We’ve all created valuable resources and we want to be sure they continue to be accessible. We’ve often done this under specially-funded special projects, but we’d like the work itself to be on-going programmatic activity. We’re all trying to find ways to make our efforts sustainable.

In this context, I wrote a short summary of what RLG had learned through our experiences with Cultural Materials and Trove.net. We tried subscription, licensing, advertising, and many other ways to try to establish them as self-supporting services. While it would be more gratifying to report on successes, it is in fact the disappointments that are more illuminating and instructive as we navigate the way forward. I share those experiences in “Seeking Sustainability,” an RLG Programs report (.pdf: 87K/15 pp.).

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