Reuse of Digitised Content (1): So you want to reuse digital heritage content in a creative context? Good luck with that.

Although there is a lot of digitised cultural heritage content online, it is still incredibly difficult to source good material to reuse in creative projects. What can institutions do to help people who want to invest their time in making and creating using digitised historical items as source material?

The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights, repurposed over at Etsy

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested obsessed with creative reuse of digitised cultural heritage content. We live at a time when most galleries, libraries, archives and museums are digitising collections and putting them up online to increase access, with some (such as the Rijksmuseum, LACMA, The British Library, and the Internet Archive) releasing content with open licensing actively encouraging reuse.  We also live at a time where it has become increasingly easy to take digital content, repurpose it, mash it up, produce new material, and make physical items (with many commercial photographic services offering no end of digital printing possibilities, and cheaper global manufacturing opportunities at scale being assisted with internet technologies). What relationship does digitisation of cultural and heritage content have to the maker movement? Where are all the people looking at online image collections like Europeana or the book images from the Internet Archive and going… fantastic! Cousin Henry would love a teatowel of that: I’ll make some xmas presents based on that lot!

I’m not the only person interested in this: The British Library is currently tracking their Public Domain Reuse in the Wild, looking to see where the 1 million images they released into the public domain, and on Flickr, end up being used. At the moment, they manually maintain a list of creative projects of what people have got up to with their content. And people are using digitised stuff: pop over to a commercial fabric printing service like Spoonflower and you can see people grabbing creative commons images off Wikipedia and providing the means to print them on a whole range of materials for creative reuse. At Spoonflower, people are remixing images, providing opportunities for creative projects, designing and playing with available heritage content, using it as a design source and inspiration, although many dont quote the source of their hopefully out of copyright images used a basis for fabric design. Pop over to Etsy, and you can see (as the illustration above shows) high res images of historical art and culture turned into coasters, corsets, bangles, pillows, phone cases, jewellery, etc – and mashed up and remixed into further creations, all of which are for sale (although, again, where they got the source images from isnt usually made clear, and there are obvious copyright infringements happening in some cases). But overall, I’m left wondering why more use isn’t made of online digital collections – and why we havent seen the “maker’s revolution” where everyone is walking around going “this old thing? I cobbled it together from public domain images on wikimedia and had a tailor on Etsy run it up for me!” – or even see more commercial  companies start to use this content as the basis for their home and fashion collections on the high street. There are now funding programs and efforts to help try and help the exchange between the “multiple sub-sectors of the creative industries and the public infrastructure of museums, galleries, libraries, orchestras, theatres and the like” and funds for “collaboration between arts and humanities researchers and creative companies” etc etc – in this this new “impact” world, allowing reuse of your content will probably score huge brownie points – but what can institutions be doing off their own back to make sure the digitised content they spent so much time creating is used, and reused, further?

I was really impressed, at DH2014, to see Quinn Dombrowski have an entire wardrobe made with fabric designed using heritage content images in the public domain, and this inspired me to think: I should have a go at this. I should find something which is digitised and online, that I like, that I can access, that I can repurpose, and make something that I want and will use from it. What larks! But the rest of this blog post is an expression of sheer frustration at the current state of play of delivering digitised content online, for people who want to take digitised content, and reuse, and repurpose it.

Before I get started: let me make clear that I’m entirely supportive of folks like the Rijksmuseum, LACMA, The British Library, and the Internet Archive making their out of copyright images freely available for folks to use. Its absolutely the right thing to do, and I’m not going to start railing against them (there are, of course, many institutions who haven’t made their digitised content available and they deserve railing against.) But with that caveat in place, let’s broach some frustrations of someone looking through digitised heritage content, wanting to get a decent image of something they want, to reuse in a way that they would like (whether or not that involves paying for the privilege – this isnt just about getting stuff for free, its about getting it at all). It isnt pretty.

1. So much stuff, such poor interfaces.

Yay! so much stuff online! Europeana now has over 30 million items online from 2000 institutions! Flickr Commons has a tonne of stuff online! Flickr is now being used, independently of the commons, to host tens of millions of digital cultural heritage objects, by thousands of institutions! But for a user, browsing through this stuff, it is nigh on impossible to navigate or search Flickr in any meaningful way, and sift through this, simply because Flickr’s interface is so poor (and often the content isnt tagged very well, so isn’t very findable).  What if institutions dont use Flickr? Dont get me started on content management systems, and their “user friendly” interfaces, such as Aquabrowser, or Digitool: shudder. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, it’s incredibly difficult for a user to browse and view content – and there is a lot of dross out there to sift through. Finding decent images that are interesting from a design perspective is a time consuming, utterly frustrating task. I speak from a few months of chuck-my-computer-across-the-room frustration in trying to navigate ( mostly unsuccessfully) what the cultural heritage sector has spent millions of pounds putting online.

Suggestion: Institutions should use a little resources to get folk with any sort of graphic or design background help sort through the thousands or millions of images and present to their users a curated collection of a few hundred really good things which are ripe for using. Heck, put together some downloadable packs of images of art, logos, boats, trains, etc. Here are 10 great images of witches you may like to play with! At the moment you are making users work too hard to sort through the digital haystack to find the interesting, usable needle. No wonder much of the content isn’t used – people simply cant find it, or they walk away from your rubbish interface before finding that digitisation diamond.

2. The shackles of Copyright, part 1: aesthetic.

The copyright free images which are put online free to use are out of copyright (duh) which means they are from a particular time period: generally pre-1920s (depending on the country’s copyright laws). There’s a lot of stuff up there, but an incredible amount of it is Victoriana, which has a particular aesthetic. This is great if you are into Steampunk (check out the first few pages of the Internet Archive book images Flickr stream and you’ll see what I mean) but… having scrolled thought oodles of this stuff, it just doesnt float my boat. I’m into mid-20th-century design, so that puts me into an entirely different category of user: one who is going to have to sort out permission for reuse for items still in copyright, if the institution hasnt sorted out copyright before publishing online. B*gger. This isn’t going to be as easy as it first appeared for me, then.

Suggestion: Institutions should cherry pick a few in-copyright items that are really very reusable, and preemptively clear copyright under various licenses. Here are 10 fabulous 1950s illustrations which we have arranged for you to use under a creative commons license! (There is some of this stuff up on Flickr Commons, but it is in the minority). I understand the resources which are required for this, but really, institutions could be leading the way in making images of selected in-copyright items available and usable for people, to encourage uptake and creativity. Or – at least – make processes for chasing copyright clearance a bit clearer to users. Information on that is very sketchy, to say the least, and its often impossible to even find out who in the institutions to email about rights clearances.

3. The shackles of Copyright, part 2: cowardice.

Let’s put aside the wonderful work of those who are bravely making their collections available for reuse, and arranging licensing for folks to do so, and address the majority of institutions who dont do this. Say you think… I’d like to make some of my own stationery! I know, I’ll pop over to Europeana, and grab some cool images of old envelopes, and print up some notecards with those on (not to sell! just for my own use!). There’s 6563 images labelled “envelope” currently in Europeana.  The licensing for these – what you can and cant reuse – is incredibly confusing. Only 60 of these items have been put into the public domain. I have no issue with institutions wanting attribution when their images are reused – of course not – and you can do that with 592 images (although… how are you going to provide attribution on fabric or a cushion or a corset or a bracelet, etc). My beef is with the quarter of these digitised items which allow access but no further reuse of the images. Seriously, why not? What are you scared of? That someone is going to pop over to Photobox (other commercial photo printers are available) and make up some notelets? That someone will make a corset out of those image and sell them on Etsy? Quite frankly, if your stuff is out of copyright, and if you dont have the nous or cant afford to employ a graphic designer to turn your images of envelopes into going commercial concerns, good luck to anyone who can. I dont get why you would put images of old stuff online and say to the users “You can’t use it. At all”. What are you afraid of? (I also presume here that people wont use digital images when they dont have persmission to do so. Which is nonsense. People will take it and use it anyway).

Oh yeah, you are saying, but copyright is complex, envelopes are manuscripts, manuscripts never go out of copyright, blah blah, till the cows come home. But just let people reuse digital content, and good luck to them. Seriously, what is the worst that could happen? That something archival takes off and becomes another “keep calm and carry on” meme? But really – wouldnt your institution love to be the source of one of those, for perpetuity?

Yes, I did find a really good image of an envelope I wanted to use on some notecards, but couldnt get permission to do so (hence choosing it as an example). I’ll address licensing and paying for image licenses in another blog post (I’m not averse to that either. At the end of the day, just let me reuse that cool image, even if I have to pay license costs to do so).

All over the world, institutions are digitising cultural heritage content and putting it online with restrictive licensing which means that users cannot do anything at all with it (at least not without jumping through lots of begging hoops, or using it illegally). Not use it on a blog post. Not print it on a home made birthday card. Not make their granny a key ring with it on. Not make a scholar who is an expert in this field a mug with it printed on for their retirement present. This seems absolutely bonkers to me – and a complete waste of limited resources in the sector. What “access” do you think you are actually providing, if its only of the “look but dont touch” variety?

Suggestion: if you arent going to monetise it yourself, just make it available for others to reuse, with a generous license. Go on!

4. Image quality

All I want is a clear, 300dpi (or higher) image of the digitised item. Its no use saying “this is in the public domain!” if you only provide 72dpi: you cant do anything with that, except stick it up on another webpage. Just give me a reasonably high resolution image, and let me go and play with it. Cheers! So, so much of the “public domain” material is quite low resolution, which stops people from using the images for creative purposes. Maybe that was your plan all along (ha ha! we’ll put this online but only at low resolution! that’ll thwart those corset makers!) but seriously, 300dpi. Let folk have at it.

One other point: if you are using algorithms to crop lots of stuff before sticking it up on Flickr, please make sure that it works, and isnt cropping things too tightly. I understand that its all about efficiency and storage capacity – you dont want to be storing tens of millions of blank pixels and paying for hostage for empty content – but if you crop things too closely, its just unusable. Another reason I stopped looking for images in the Internet Archive Book Images Flickr pool was all the ones I want were shaved off. I know! I’ll make a montage of ye olde fruit and veg! except this apple is cut off at the bottom, these carrots are missing part of their top, this apple sliced right through, as are these peaches. Thanks for offering to give me all this stuff free, but its unusable for creative purposes unless you give me a whole illustration, not one that has been chopped off around the edges.

Suggestion: 300dpi, at least. Cheers, love.

5. Checking the maker privilege

Its worth just remembering that you may be making some content freely available, but its still actually quite costly for people to do anything creative with it where digital printing is concerned, especially in small print runs, making individual items, etc. It takes significant investment of time and resources to take an archival tiff and turn it into, say, a cushion (or a corset). I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here in making that point (isnt that what ranty blog posts are for?)… perhaps it offsets the feeling that institutions are giving this stuff away for nothing: people reusing digital images are putting in significant time and often money to turn them into something else. It becomes co-creation, rather than mere duplication. Or something. It’s certainly not an activity that is available to those without the skills to do image manipulation (despite many publication features being available on these commercial digital image printing websites: if you want to do anything that deviates from very simple printing, it still takes time and effort to set up). It still takes skill and resources and sometimes training and probably talent to make something nice and that people will want from something someone else has digitised, and it often takes a huge amount of time. It certainly surprised me how long the selection and preparation of items takes before you get to the stage of sending something to the print shop. So let’s all proceed in a realm of mutual respect and adoration, yeah? Love the provision of high quality digital heritage imaging online: love the people who have the sewing chops to make the corsets.  (There are also ethical considerations if people start sending high resolution images of items to be made into products in “cheaper” international production contexts, but I’m not sure realistically how that can be broached by image licensing).

Suggestion: Wonderful things can happen when individuals work with institutional digitised content! sometimes.


Overall, here is what institutions can do if they want people to really use digitised content:

  • Put out of copyright material in the public domain to encourage reuse. Go on! what are you scared of?
  • Provide 300dpi images as a minimum.
  • Curate small collections of really good stuff for people to reuse. Present them in downloadable “get all the images at once” bundles, with related documentation about usage rights, how to cite, etc.
  • Think carefully about the user interface you have invested in. Have you actually tried to use it? Does it work? Can people browse and find stuff? Really?
  • Make sure the image quality is good before putting it online. Dont chop bits off illustrations.
  • Make rights clearer. Give guidance for rights clearance for in-copyright material, and perhaps provide small collections with pre-cleared rights, to allow some 20th Century Materials to be reusable.

What do we want! Curated bundles of 300dpi images of cultural heritage content, freely and easily available with clear licensing and attribution guidelines! When do we want that? Yesteryear!

So what about me, and my task? Did I find something that I like, that I can access, that I can repurpose, and make something that I want and will use from it? After a few months trawling digitised collections online, I eventually stumbled across something which I adore, which got sent off to the print shop last week. I’ll be waiting by the postbox over the next few days, in the hope that my investment in time and resources has paid off: I cant wait to see it IRL. But that, my friends, is for another blog post. And in the meantime, I leave you with this conclusion: institutions can be doing so, so much more to help those wanting to use digitised content creatively.

8 thoughts on “Reuse of Digitised Content (1): So you want to reuse digital heritage content in a creative context? Good luck with that.

  1. superb post, look forward to your promised future post addressing “licensing and paying for image licenses.” although if, lets suppose, images from the national archive are about 20pounds a pop, and they set a limit of 8 for 'reproduction' (which they do!) this still seems unreasonable, so what to do? has the archive legally prosecuted anyone who remixes or freely shares online a few hundred images of photographs of text without license for non-commercial use?


  2. This is a very interesting post and raises so many important issues.

    I especially like the phrase “users work too hard to sort through the digital haystack to find the interesting, usable needle.” Absolutely! In fact, years ago there was an evaluation carried out on the website of a very large library.

    The GOOD news was, researchers were able to find all the content they needed on the website. Rejoice! The BAD news was, these researchers were only finding their content through sheer, determined bloody-mindedness. I think the evaluators (who were used to evaluating business websites) were quite awestruck at how much researchers were prepared to keep banging away at the interface until they found what they were looking for. “If this were a business site”, the evaluations warned, “then your users would leave the site after one minute”.

    Is it fair to compare GLAM online collections with business sites? Well, yes, it is: the people who make decisions on how much funding institutions get may well do so from one single visit to an institution's website. In other words, institutions need to build their online collections as if their lives depended on it – just as businesses do. At the moment, it's a bit of a nice-to-have.

    Another issue touched on here is the amount of resources spent on digitisation. There generally isn't very much central funding available for digitisation – it's generally project based. The EC will not fund digitisation and states that member states should do this. The heritage sector coming to the edge of a digital cliff, where newly digitised material is running out and material from old projects is being used again and again. This is rather like hearing the same sound effect of the same sheep on every single episode of the Archers.

    According to research carried out by Enumerate for Europeana, only 10% of heritage collections have been digitised across Europe, leaving around 3 billion items left to go. So if institutions carry on at the rate they are now, and there isn't a significant investment in job creation for digitising images any time soon, the year 2100 will come round…and much of Europe's heritage content will still be unavailable online.


  3. Lots of interesting issues here, and ones which – to my mind at least – are sometimes confusing and contradictory too. I applaud any drive to digitise as much cultural content as possible as rapidly as possible, but it also needs to be sustainable. Digital records need to remain accessible and supportable as technology moves on, and as public funding continues to decline. We need to work out who pays for the costs not just of initial digitisation, but digital curation and preservation thereafter too. The open access argument states that the costs of digitisation could be more than offset by the economic stimulation that comes from their re-use. Very possibly, but if that economic stimulus doesn't find its way back to the institutions that created the digital content in the first place, it's not a sustainable model. The opposite approach is to accept that initial (and continuing) digitisation costs need to be borne by the users of those assets in some form, perhaps through licensing, direct digital sales, advertising, or other ways of monetising content. I guess it's ultimately a political argument, but whilst we can all support more digitisation, we also have to promote a sustainable way for it to continue. I couldn't agree more with Tom's point above that digitisation is pointless unless search and discovery are also tackled, partly for its own sake and partly to showcase the institution in the cause of attracting more funding. Could this be seen as a sector-wide issue that institutions could tackle collaboratively?


  4. Lots of great talking points here !

    Many heritage orgs still have atavistic impulses when it comes to putting stuff online. There is strong fear that they will either be losing intellectual control or the possibility for financial exploitation.

    Thus the urge to control with restrictive licences .

    But even the more enlightened orgs are unsure how they should be licencing their content. Many have just ignored the issue or developed their own bespoke licences. But such licences tend to be far too complex for users to understand and incompatible with other licences. Thus the reuse of the content get blocked.

    One of the most important pieces of work Europeana has done is to create the Europeana Rights Framework. Every object featured in Europeana must have a rights statement

    This work is now being expanded elsewhere with the Digital Public Library of America ( This will begin to make re-use and mashing of material feasible – a consistent set of straightforward

    Only when cultural organisations start labelling their digitised items with these rights labels will the issues in the blog post start to dissolve.


  5. Here is a comment in from Mark Carnall (@mark_carnall on twitter) which blogger ate, but he sent it to me via email, thanks Mark!

    Interesting post Melissa.

    As others have mentioned although this stuff is the kind of neat 'off label' use of digitised specimens I can't think of a single museum that would prioritise this kind of work as the audience you are talking about here probably isn't a target audience to (m)any museums.

    That being said, there's no reason why these guidelines shouldn't be adopted for (project based) digitization that is going on already and it's my hope that there's much much more focus on a decent ‘usable’ UI. Look to Google, Amazon, Netflix. They make things available to millions of people a day.

    One last 'also on the negative' side of things is when keepers don't want you mashing up culture because you don't know what your dealing with


  6. Another thought: someone researching a collection, for academic use, may want to find an excample of mediaeval depictions of castles in France; someone searching for reuse content will be looking for something which is mainly in blue and gold, which would look great in the lining of a suit.

    So the interface of an online collection needs to be flexible to cater for the needs of the highly specific user and, also, for serendipitous browsing. Maybe online collections should include something like this:

    It's also important to remember that academic and reuse researcher can be one and the same person on a different day – there are plenty of humourous captions to mediaeval illustrations on twitter, posted by mediaevalists and others.

    The problem with making users pay up front for online access is that this puts content – much of which could be licensed under CC0 – behind a curtain, reducing serendipity and preventing the instant gratification of sharing material on social platforms.

    I've seen comments on museum websites from frustrated academics lamenting the lack of full resolution content on the museum website – academics can't use 100k images of maps and charts for their lectures, so they go elsewhere. Museums may hope to make the odd £15.65 per high resolution download, but academics cannot afford to pay for this if they want to present ten different charts per lecture.

    But institutions which freely share at least some of their material create opportunities to raise their profile, increase their web traffic and, ultimately, increase their footfall. At the end of the day, cultural institutions need to demonstrate that they are enabling the maximum use of their collections. Because, if these insitutions are not sharing their collections with the rest of the world, why have they got them? Why are they spending money on preserving and storing them?


  7. The age-old problem you've identified typically arises from conflating two distinct parts of a preservation system: the bit that handles the storage/archive mgmt, and the bit that handles the dissemination. Much of what you describe comes from CHOs settling for a one-stop shop system that (they believe) does both those things, but which in reality only does one of them passably well. Even though those functions are in separate boxes in the OAIS model, they still sit in a bigger box which implies they can be successfully rolled together: the evidence suggests they can't!


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