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?
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.