Walled Gardens vs. Picket Fences

OK, so I’m a little late learning about “walled gardens.” I heard this term used several times during two recent events – first at the Berkeley Digital Media Conference and then again at a recent SDForum Search SIG meeting held at Microsoft in Mountain View. I thought this must be one of those terms like “the long tail” that came up in some magazine that I don’t read as often as I should. So I looked it up in wikipedia and realized that of course I know what walled gardens are, in fact I work for an organization that sits on quite a few of them. We call them “online databases available by subscription.”

I’m not going to get into the free vs. fee-based models of access to content because we all know nothing is free even though it may appear to be. I am more interested in sharing some examples on how we are making our own walled gardens more like gardens with picket fences. My first example is RedLightGreen, a wonderful union catalog of books available freely on the web. It is derived from our mature service, the RLG Union Catalog and designed for optimizing undergraduate library research. Its design was generously subsidized by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as a proof of concept project. It is beautiful and free and wants to stay that way. However, when advertising started to appear, the outcry was heard round the world, and the advertising went away. So, how does it stay free?

Well we still have the walled garden of the RLG Union Catalog that includes way more than the books in RedLightGreen. It has journals, musical scores, maps, visual materials, archives, manuscripts and special collections all searchable together. It is available by subscription.

Here’s another model, Trove.net. Partial content from RLG Cultural Materials, a digital image database, is available on the web. You can look at it for free and then you have an opportunity to license images that you would like to use for any number of purposes. And we still have RLG Cultural Materials that is a much richer research resource and it is available for subscription. In this instance, you can look through the picket fence and see the great treasures but you can’t pick the flowers for free and you can’t bring your dog in.

So, what are the economics of open content? This is a very important conversation that has to happen across all our cultural institutions and with the great big content aggregators that are clamoring to make our content “open”.