on being a responsible monopoly

It seems that every professional conversation I’ve engaged in lately has touched on the tension between openness and branding in digital cultural heritage. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it really is coming up a lot.


The open culture movement is a very exciting trend in our field. More cultural heritage (CH) institutions are putting more metadata and digital reproductions online with as few barriers to access as possible. RBMS 2014 preconference attendees recently assigned the hashtag #bestplenaryever to Michelle Light’s rousing talk challenging the “permission to publish” culture, and its associated fees, that has arisen in our field. Light made an ethical argument about our responsibility to serve scholarship by providing as much access to material as possible. She also argued that requiring permission to publish is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Institutions that are able to make significant amounts of money charging publication fees are probably losing most of it in the labor required to manage the permissions documentation. The final nail in the “permission to publish” coffin was probably driven at the same time Light was preparing her talk, as the University of Arkansas Libraries made embarrassing news by asserting “intellectual property rights” over material for which they do not hold a copyright. Peter Hirtle just published an excellent (and scathing) explanation of the legal implications of Arkansas’ actions on the LibraryLaw Blog.

I hope that’s the end of the bizarre practice of requiring users to seek permission to publish material from our institutions just because we have physical custody of that material. But there’s much more conversation about openness going on in our field. There are a variety of grassroots movements, such as OpenGLAM, that encourage us to use our positions within CH and academic institutions to strengthen the public domain. It seems that there’s a new announcement of a major historic image set being released under a CC-BY license every day. Instead of building our own portals to collection information, the GLAMwiki community encourages us to put more information in Wikipedia, where is far more visible and useful. The Digital Humanities community is finding incredible ways to analyze, manipulate, and visualize CH data and metadata, and they are constantly hungry for more. Feeding scholarship is what we do, and having so many new ways to do it is incredibly exciting. Openness is where it’s at, it’s where I want to be, it’s the present and future of cultural heritage, and the academy.


Another trend shaping the profession within the specific context of research libraries is the desire to leverage special collections, archives, and other unique assets to distinguish libraries from one another. Increasingly, we hear the argument that general research collections will become more and more uniform in the age of digital information. Special collections will be the primary way that libraries are distinguished from one another. Organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries have fostered a great deal of discourse around this argument, bringing special collections out of the periphery and into the center of conversations about the future of academic libraries. This is obviously very positive for those of us who work in special collections in academic institutions.

From an administrator’s perspective, this thinking leads to a desire to leverage special collections to “brand” our individual institutions as places with unique, relevant, and exciting offerings. Good branding is incredibly important. It helps us explain our value within the context of our increasingly resource-strapped institutions, and it gives us a way to tell a story about ourselves to users that can excite and motivate them to explore our collections, services, and spaces (I hope). And, from a deeply personal perspective, I work damn hard for my collections at my institution, all in the service of my users. Branding gives us a sense of identity that helps us feel good about the work we do.


I recently read a wonderful essay by Ed Rodley about the “virtues of promiscuity” for museums. The article argues that we should stop trying to create “digital analogues of our existing museums” because “virtual museums… [fail] to take into account the reality of how people use the Internet. [People] don’t go to museum websites” (emphasis mine). His proposal is that we stop creating carefully designed websites and portals, and focus on making shareable metadata (including digital surrogates of material) broadly available. He makes a strong argument for this kind of “promiscuity,” noting that we can make ourselves more relevant in the digital era by embracing the open and distributed nature of Internet culture.

He does address the desire to brand ourselves and its role in our choices to attempt to control the way information about our collections is presented and used online. He tries to resolve the inherent tension here by arguing:

The more we sow these seeds of culture and the more effective we are at seeing those seeds take root, the more likely museums are to see cultural ideas persevere in the constantly-changing world.

By aligning CH institutions not just with the technology of the digital information age, but also with its principles and norms, we can ensure the endurance of engagement with the very heritage we work to preserve and promote. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but I still fear that we run the risk of losing a valuable and potentially crucial opportunity to tell our story when we entirely forsake branding for openness. Obviously it doesn’t have to be “either/or” (as Rodley acknowledges), but these tensions have been coming up quite a bit recently in my own work, and I am often challenged to strike the right balance. I imagine others struggle with the same issues.


I’m currently taking an online course about copyright. The very first thing we learned is that copyright is intended to create a “limited monopoly” on cultural expressions, thus creating market value where none might exist otherwise. CH institutions also hold a monopoly over many forms of cultural expression, as sole physical owners of unique materials. How do we wield this power responsibly? Openness has the obvious appeal of serving our mission to promote, disseminate, and provide access to our collections in support of scholarship, education, and other forms of creative use. Branding is a tool we use to strengthen our foothold in a world where support for traditional institutions of education and culture is rapidly eroding.

I would argue that our attempts at branding often miss the mark. We tell the story we want to hear, not one that resonates with a generation raised in a world where immediate access to rich and networked information is a given. (And yes, I am aware that this is not true for everyone, and I am making assumptions that are deeply rooted in privilege. Access to networked information and its relation to privilege is a subject for a separate post entirely.)

As I’ve said many times before, it’s incredibly exciting to be an information professional at the dawn of an information technology revolution, but it’s also frightening. The choices we make will shape the future of our institutions. And we do this not having any way to predict the outcomes. Bethany Nowviskie recently gave a wonderful talk on extinction at Digital Humanities 2014. The end of CH institutions as we know them could occur in my lifetime. The choices we make as a profession now could precipitate that death.

That’s a bit dramatic, but I do think a lot of this tension derives from our basic fear of extinction as a profession facing incredible challenges. But of course, we’re also facing exciting opportunities that our predecessors of just a few decades ago couldn’t have imagined.

Because I can’t predict the future, I tend to choose openness over branding. It makes me feel better about myself and my work today. But I’m very glad I’m not alone in making these choices. Working through these issues with colleagues is one of the main reasons that I love this work.


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