Thursday 10 November 2011

Beyond access

My term on the National Digital Forum board is drawing to a close (I finish up after the NDF conference later this month).

It's a bit of an end of an era for me - I see it as part of the six year journey I've been on since I started work at the National Library in January 2006. Although I left in the middle of last year, working at the Library had a huge impact on me. For the past six years, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about cultural institutions and their collections.

I think about what these institutions stand for, and why they exist. I think about who they serve (or what they serve - I have this fuzzy, not particularly well articulated theory that collecting is part of creating history, whether or not anyone ever puts what is collected into a history). I think about how people interact and engage with the institutions and their collections. With our collections, when you really think about it.

Working on things like the National Library's Flickr Commons account and the @NLNZ twitter account reinforced for me not only that, thanks to the web, collections have moved beyond the physical places they're stored into the unlimited world, but that the role of researching and sorting and presenting these collections have moved beyond curators and historians and into the hands of anyone with a search box and a link to share around.

We've come a long way in the decade or so since cultural institutions started digitising their collection items and putting them online. But we haven't gone quite far enough. I still want more. I want more freedom to play with collections. In particular, I want more freedom to play with items that are out of copyright and ready to move back into the creative melting pot.

I was prompted to think about this again tonight when I read about the launch of Mixel, an iPad app that lets people grab images from around the web, remix them into collages and share them around. As one of the founders, Khoi Vinh, writes:

... we chose collage for a very important reason: it makes art easy. Photos, the component pieces of every collage, are among the most social and viral content on the Web, and allowing people to combine them into new, highly specific expressions of who they are and what they’re interested in is powerful. Collage also has a wonderfully accessible quality; few people are comfortable with a brush or a drawing implement, but almost everyone is comfortable cutting up images and recombining them in new, expressive, surprising or hilarious ways. We all used to do this as kids

When I see things like this

and this

and this

all I want to do is share them. And I can, thanks to the new statement on the National Library's Beta website:
You can copy this item for personal use, share it, and post it on a blog or website. It cannot be used commercially without permission, please ask us for advice. If reproducing this item, please maintain the integrity of the image (i.e. don't crop, recolour or overprint it), and ensure the following credit accompanies it
What I want now is the next bit. I want to start playing. I want to give them another life, like Mixel is doing:

Mixel keeps track of every piece of every collage, regardless of who uses it or how it’s been cropped. That means, in a sense, that the image pieces within Mixel have a social life of their own. Anyone can borrow or re-use any other piece; you’re free to peruse all the collages (we call them “mixels”) and pick up literally any piece and use it in your own mixel. If you don’t like the crop, the full, unedited original is stored on the server, so you can open it back up in an instant and cut out just the parts you like. Mixel can even show you everywhere else a particular image has been used, so you can follow it throughout the network to see how other people have cropped it and combined it with other elements.

I know we need to respect copyright, attribution, donors' original intentions, and the makers of these works themselves. But I honestly think it's what we need to make happen if we want to move from being providers of things that people enjoy and look at, and become providers of things people love and use. 

Introducing Mixel for iPad from Mixel App on Vimeo.

Images, from top 
Total eclipse of the sun. Ref: 1/2-051134-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Young boy on a rocking horse. Harding, William James, 1826-1899 :Negatives of Wanganui district. Ref: 1/4-008595-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 
Taieri Pet at Middlemarch. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-28295-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Full disclosure - although I no longer work at the Library, the company I work for has a long relationship with the Library and we've worked together on the Beta site. Also, I realise the Whites Aviation photo is most likely not out of copyright - I just like it.


barnaclebarnes said...

That is the one thing that bugs me about the new site. Images that are clearly out of copyright have a "non-commercial" use tag on them. I'm OK if there are valid reasons behind this but I wish they would clearly state why the image cannot be used. I would also like to see more hi-res images available for download for works that are out of copyright and are able to be used. The notion of 'ordering' non-pysical items in this day and age is quite antiquated.

Courtney Johnston said...

I know what you mean.

When we wrote the permissions statement for the images we posted to Flickr Commons we didn't stipulate non-commercial use (although admittedly, we didn't explicitly state that it was okay, or even welcomed).

I've always felt it was a bit of a personal failure that I couldn't push harder to at least line up the permissions the Library was applying on the Commons to the permissions applied to the same items on different collection delivery platforms. It was kind of like 'one step forward, one foot bogged down in systems that we can't easily make changes to'.

I've seen comments around the traps lately that suggest solving the non-commercial thing will be the next hurdle for open data in the humanities (I realist that sentence suggests the other hurdles have been swept aside, which is debatable :). I'm hoping it's a topic that will get lots of attention at the LODLAM barcamp after NDF this year.