Open Access How museums are opening their digital archives

Although data is accessible for research in libraries and archives, in many cases it is not allowed to retrieve it or use it for further purpose.
Although data is accessible for research in libraries and archives, in many cases it is not allowed to retrieve it or use it for further purpose. | Photo (detail): Colourbox.com

Museums and archives are rethinking their handling of the cultural heritage in the digital age. Financing, responsibility, licence and structural issues represent the biggest obstacles. Nevertheless, things are changing.

When out for a stroll through the streets of Germany, they are hard to miss: Stolpersteine. Approximately 42,500 plaques on pavements commemorate the fate of those who were murdered, displaced or deported during the NS regime. A smartphone app called Plate Collect may soon help those who are keen to know and discover more Stolpersteine. In November 2013, the app’s developers - who came up with the idea as part of the Jugend hackt (literally: Youth is hacking) competition - unveiled a prototype at the Shaping Access conference at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Rather surprisingly, the programme was not developed by museum workers or archivists, but by three pupils called Niklas Riekenbrauck, Daniel Petri and Finn Gaida, who used public records to create the app. The problem with museums, archives and libraries tends to be that while information regarding catalogues and holdings is usually available for research purposes, it may not be reused or republished.

The „Crowd” as helper and collector

This is why Pavel Richter, member of Wikimedia Germany’s managing board, is asking museums: “Do you have a cost unit when someone comes and says: Hello, I’d like to participate?” Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing has long emerged as a model for many other platforms. Not only does the community act as both a co-administrator and helper trying to preserve the “cultural heritage”, but also as a collection director - for example, for picture libraries in the case of Wikimedia Commons or book scans for Project Gutenberg.

The more established cultural institutions tend to view these platforms sceptically. Even so, much has changed recently: in November, five German institutions signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. The declaration states: “Establishing open access as a worthwhile procedure ideally requires active commitment of each and every (…) holder of cultural heritage”. The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, the German Archaeological Institute, the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation now count among the science organisations and cultural establishments that support these internationally recognized principles.

Open Access, Vermeer Remixed

To find out what exactly this entails, one should look to the Netherlands. In the Rijks Studio of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, online visitors can browse through 125,000 artworks and, on top of that, they are able to download and reuse them - given that the rights have expired. Whether users want to create their own remixed takes on old classics, or print them on coffee mugs that are sold on, the museum will not cause any problems. The Rijksmuseum’s open strategy transformed it into a true pioneer.

Where does open access end??

In Germany, museums are currently discussing how far open access should go. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation recommends open access as far as possible, while contending that commercial users should continue to pay. For this reason, the foundation only shares digitalised pieces like images of manuscripts and collection items online for non-commercial usage.

Hanns-Peter Frentz, director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s picture library, says their decision is essentially a political question. He explains that while cultural establishments received the task of digitalising their records, they were told to do so by their own means. “Apart from a few subsidised projects most cultural establishments have been left alone by the state”. Therefore, asking commercial users to pay is necessary to finance the digitalisation, he says.

Open and closed

“The decision to restrict open access practices have to be justified”, contests Pavel Richter of Wikimedia. Two opposing points of view: on the one hand, commemorative institutions argue that it is not in fact the restriction but the opening, or publication, which requires justification. Many institutions share this opinion. On the other hand, proponents of the open access approach argue that the opposite is true.

Börries von Notz, managing director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, is among those leaning towards the latter position. According to Von Notz, the distinction between commercial and non-commercial is not only imprecise, but “morally rather far-fetched”. Even where fees are low, subsequent users experience problems with the clearing of rights. Von Notz names uncleared and still existing copyrights as the main problem as far as the intentions of cultural establishments are concerned.

In this sense, the current debate can be interpreted as a challenge to institutions’ self-image. What exactly does their task of both preserving and making the “cultural heritage” accessible mean in light of digitalisation requirements? It took ten years to move the big German cultural institutions towards more open access. Now the debate is finally happening - and examples are growing more numerous.