Copyright and Risk

It is hard to believe that it has been almost a month since Digital Directions. (I guess being involved in two NEH grant applications and some strategic planning activities can just consume time otherwise spent thinking about archives and digital libraries). My two biggest takeaways from DD2012 were about copyright and delivery. I’ve heard Peter Hirtle give his copyright talk a number of times over the years and was struck this time by how the landscape around copyright and digital libraries has shifted over the years, much to the benefit of open access to information.

Peter summed up the shift in a couple of bullet points:

  • Don’t just ask “Is it legal”?
  • Ask “Who is going to be angry if I do this? Who will benefit?”
  • Look for ways to minimize potential harm while maximizing access and use.

Citing  the recently published ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, Principle 4 that supports the idea of fair use in archival collections that are comprehensively digitized, Peter emphasized the idea of risk assessment in addition to, and perhaps before, legal precedent in determining whether or not to provide digital access to primary source materials.

And finally, he said that it was important to be honest and open about your own decisions, to inform users about all you know about the rights that relate to your content so that they can be responsible as well.

This seems to me to bring us back to the common sense approach that was prevalent in the pre-digital but post-photocopier age, when we informed people of the potential of copyright issues relating to the material we were making available but trusted the users to be responsible researchers.

After some years of worrying that the specter of copyright would choke off most of the innovation in delivering digitized Special Collections, I see these developments as a positive step forward.

Digital Directions and the Direction of the Digital

Digital Directions comes to Boston

Starting tomorrow I’ll be in Boston for three days at NEDCC’s Digital Directions, where I’ll be on the “faculty” talking about Digital Repositories and Managing Digital Content. [Full disclosure here: my wife, Jessica Branco Colati is the Director of Preservation Services at NEDCC and the organizer of the conference. However, let me just say that I participated in Digital Directions BEFORE Jess went to the NEDCC so I guess that gives me some amount of credibility.]

Back when Digital Directions began in 1995 it was called “School for Scanning” because the idea was that rather than a conference where you might learn something, this was seen as a purposefully educational experience. The faculty as they were (and still are) called, were drawn from what was then a very small group of people actively involved in creating the discipline of digital curation (althogh no one called it that at the time) and were there to teach people to THINK in this new, digitally directed way. They generally stayed for the entire conference and were available to participate in discussions and mingle with the students.  I attended the School as a student in 1998 and can tell you that I was in awe of the people who I felt were actually bona-fide digital gurus.  I don’t know if any of them thought of themselves as digital gurus at the time, but they seemed to me the people who held the keys to some mystic brother- and sisterhood that was creating a new world for archives, museums and libraries. It was only later, when I had the good fortune to get to know some of them, did I learn that they were much like me, only with a bit more experience and opportunity, that is, they were navigating a new and uncharted territory with their imagination and intelligence, and their constant collaboration and discussion with their peers as guides.

From the beginning School for Scanning/Digital Directions focused on how to make decisions rather than prescriptions for how to do this or that task. It was never a training session or a software or hardware review (although goodness knows that there are always a number of people who just wanted to be given the “answers” to those questions).  But in the true educational spirit, we were urged to find those answers for ourselves, based on how we were taught to think about our own situations,

Eight years after attending School for Scanning as a student, I shared the stage as a faculty member with some of the same people who had taught me how to think like a digital archivist, and told the student audience that I was in NO WAY a digital guru, and that if I could go from student to faculty, they could too, because, after all, it was all about learning to think and learning your profession and being willing to share that knowledge.

So, I’m tremendously grateful to have the opportunity over the next few days to share my thoughts and to learn from others both on the podium and in the audience, not as one who knows the “answers” but as one who is also on the journey, because that’s what keeps us all moving forward toward whatever future we can imagine.

The More Things Remain the Same

Digital Repositories, 2012 edition

I just finished teaching a workshop for SAA, with my wife Jessica,  on building and maintaining digital repositories.  We’ve been teaching this workshop in some form or another for more than 10 years. When we were creating the latest version we noticed, not surprisingly, that a lot had changed since we started doing this. In fact, there were only a few slides that persisted in essentially their original form from the beginning. One of them introduces the “Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections.” Although the slide has not changed the Framework itself is now in its third edition.  That leaves just the slide that quotes from Paul Conway’s 2000 article in the NEDCC’s “Handbook for Digital Projects” where he says that “preservation is the creation of digital products worth maintaining over time.” We use that slide to illustrate how digital objects, even ones that are surrogates of analog documents, are information objects themselves and have a value that need to be understood and appraised. I also see this slide as the precursor to the field of digital curation and the idea of the digital curation lifecycle, that requires us to continually appraise and reappraise digital content.

So much else about digital object creation, management, and preservation has changed tsince the beginning that the details of workshop would probably be incomprehensible to the average archivist of 2001 (cloud storage? data visualization?), except for the basic fundamentals of the profession: collect, maintain, preserve, make available. There is some amount of comfort in knowing that, at least for us, the more things change, the more they remain the same.