Opening up collections in Libraries supports creativity

More and more libraries are working to open data from heritage collections. Many institutions (the Library Brasiliana Guita e Jose Mindlin in Brazil, the Auckland Libraries – Heritage Images in Australia or the Library Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” in Cluj-Napoca for instance) are turning to digital, in line with the OpenGLAM principles, to realise the potential of the public domain: to promote access, use, re-use – including for commercial purposes – knowledge and skills of materials in the public domain.

Yet at the same time, funding for cultural institutions is declining in Europe and North America. With their means reduced, the development of strategies is dependent on the economic model of the institution.

In order to reconcile these two goals – opening data and collections, and ensuring financial sustainability – libraries and other cultural institutions are reflecting on ways to allow their reproductions to be opened. This means that heritage institutions are exploring different economic models in order to develop models that generate funding and that do not create additional barriers to knowledge from collections in the public domain in particular. In doing so, by opening up data collections from the public domain for commercial reuse, libraries also have an impact on the overall economy of the country.

This is not always easy. While large heritage institutions are committed to opening up heritage collections in public domain  (offering the possibility to download in good quality with extensive information on the use that can be done with the reproduction), this digital strategy is struggling to develop in smaller institutions

Still today, requests for the use of reproductions of images are handled manually by agents of the institution. This mission involves a considerable labour force and time to verify the status of the work (the rights applied to the artefact) and the status of the reproduction of the work. This is meticulous work which requires having a team trained in these issues.

In parallel with this situation,  where libraries have developed platforms which allow users to download reproductions of objects from library websites, it has been clear that investment is essential to building such a digital infrastructure. It also means investing human resources on missions related to collection datasets to clarify the status of artefacts.

In short, it appears that in both cases, human resources are needed to clarify the status of the objects and their reproductions, and then either add data and carry out the development of a platform, or deal with requests on a case-by-case basis.

However, several points seem interesting to take into account:

_ the time and  work of the employees

_ the initial presumption that the user will / must ask the institution for the image

_ the promotion and outreach of the collection

First, time. Time that agents spend responding to requests for images and other materials is relative to the size of the institution and the size of the collections. However, whereas agents can repeat the same action for several years on the same item, data integrated into the website relating to this item can be reused repeatedly, and is likely to be easier to use on other platforms also.

This means that even though providing clarity on the artefact data and the status of these objects is a long and precise job, once this job is done, there is no need to do it again. In the same way, an updated database filled with all the information will have little change over time.

Secondly, there is an assumption that users will ask the institution to use an image. While users affiliated with research institutions may well be experienced in making requests, but what about other users, such as:

_ Heritage institutions, start-ups, non-profit organisations and companies that aggregate heritage data in the public domain.

_ Students who must consult heritage sources in the public domain to facilitate referencing and reproductions in academic research.

_ Designers, artists, graphic artists and creators in general

Users’ digital practices show that they will not take the time to make an official request. In the best of cases, they will quickly seek a reproduction whose rights are free and in the worst case, they will use a copy which is not in the public domain.

Therefore, if libraries wish to enhance and promote their collections by promoting the re-use of materials in the public domain, it is necessary to facilitate access to users. This again speaks in favour of moving to easy-to-use platforms, rather than assuming that the possibility to request access is enough.

Finally, there is also evidence of the possibility to development of economic models based on the public domain, without violating fundamental principles of free access within cultural institutions.

For instance, the Rijksmuseum offers to its users the possibility to download collections in the public domain for free in high quality, but if the user wishes to have a poster, frame, reproduction in aluminium, it is possible to place an order for a fee. This decision reflects a desire to support creativity while developing an economic model.

From this example, it seems relevant to think about what a gift shop can bring in this direction primarily on the realisation of prints on objects (T-shirt, cups, bags for instance) or paper works on place, within the library.

We could imagine the possibility of imagining an online store based on a Print and Read model (linked to the Print and Play concept for games). It would be possible to produce objects publish works which are no longer issued for economic reasons with pictorial covers.

Some examples of re-use:

Items sold on Etsy from the Rijksmuseum collections:

On the Society6 site, Public Demesne offers items made from heritage collections in the public domain: