Open cultural heritage
JISC have announced five new digitisation projects, funded jointly with US’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Looking at the announcement text, I am slightly worried about the licences under which the resulting digitised resources will be made available. Yes, I know I bang on about this all the time but we seem to have a well ingrained habit in this country (the UK more so than the US I think) of publicly funding digitisation projects which result in resources being freely available on the Web, but not being open. I, for one, would feel reassured if such things were made more explicit.
Now, the word open is used in multiple ways, so I should explain. I'm using it here as in open content (from Wikipedia):
[Open content is] any kind of creative work published in a format that explicitly allows copying and modifying of its information by anyone, not exclusively by a closed organization, firm or individual.
This usually implies the use of an explicit open content licence, such as those provided by Creative Commons. Free content on the other hand, is typically available only for viewing by the end-user, with copyright and/or other restrictions typically limiting other usage to 'personal educational' use at best.
Based on the minimal information provided about the five projects, only one explicitly mentions the use of Creative Commons, one mentions the development of open source software and one talks about results being freely available (though as mentioned above, being free and being open are two different things).
Why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that whenever possible (and I accept that there may be situations in which it is not possible) publicly funded digitisation of our cultural heritage should result in resources that can be re-purposed freely by other people. That means, for example, that any lecturer or teacher who wants to take the digitised cultural heritage resource and build it into a learning object in their VLE, or an exhibit in Second Life, or whatever, can do so freely, without needing to contact the content provider.
Open content is what makes the Web truly mashable, and we should look to the cultural heritage sector for our richest and most valued mashable content. Free content is not sufficient.
There is probably a useful debate to be had around whether the cultural resources produced by publicly funded digitisation should be able to be re-used in commercial activities as well as non-profit ones. My personal view is that anything that adds value is fair game, including commercial activities, but I accept that there are other views on this issue. Whatever, re-use for non-profit purposes is an absolute minimum.
To conclude... I really hope that I'm wasting blog space here, and that the conditions of funding in this case mandated that the resulting resources be made open rather than just free. And further, that such a condition is already (or rapidly becomes) the norm for publicly funded digitisation of our cultural heritage everywhere. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.