Open letter to cultural collecting organisations

Last week I spent two days at the NDF conference in Wellington. This is the lightning talk I wish I’d thought to give.

I work on web projects at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.* We run some wonderful websites, sites like Te Ara, NZHistory, Vietnam War, 28th Maori Battalion, and others. They’re popular, especially the first two. Te Ara gets about a quarter of a million visits a month, NZHistory a bit under 200k. That’s not bad for government websites, in fact, it’s pretty bloody good.

There are a couple of really obvious things going on on our sites, and neither are unique. I won’t ask you to guess. The first…

1. Text

There’s a lot of it. It’s one of the main things our area of the Ministry does. We research, write and edit text, whether for books or the web. Text is something we’ve been doing since our origins in the historical branch of Department of Internal Affairs in the 1930s.

I’’ll come back to the second thing that’s happening soon, but first take a look at this:

It’s the Creative Commons licence from Te Ara. A similar one appears on NZHistory. It’s a complicated statement that attempts to say “you’re welcome to use the text – non-commercially – and some of the images”. Which leads me nicely along to the second thing happening on the site.

2. Images (etc)

Our sites use a ton of images, like the one above from Auckland City Libraries – Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero (Reference: NZ Map 2664), video and audio files, interactives and diagrams. Images are the biggest group. We own some of them, maybe 10%, maybe as little as 5%. The vast majority of them, and this goes for video and audio too, come from organizations like National Library, the Turnbull, Archives NZ, museums, galleries and other organizations up and down the country.

To get a sense of how many images we use from big collecting institutions, try a Google image search of Te Ara for Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland War Memorial Museum, or the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Whats my point?

There was a lot of talk at NDF about the need for narrative around organizations’ collections, ways to connect the dots for users, as well as finding new ways to present collections, making interaction more about giving rather than expecting the user to ask for something. And that’s pretty much what we do – our text is the context for all the collection content that we re-use. Our content is context for that content.

Back to that creative commons license and what it’s effectively saying. As a user of our websites you can use our text for non-commercial purposes like research, study, mixing and mashing, etc. If you want to use it commercially, get in touch and we can talk. Of the images, where we own them you can use those as well. Our view is simple: New Zealand taxpayers funded the creation of this content and continue to fund the websites. It was created with the public good in mind, and sharing it widely contributes to that public good.

So what about the bulk of the images and other media files on the sites, can you use them too? No. They’re not ours and we can’t share them. You can use their captions – they’re ours – but sorry, not the pictures themselves.

The pitch

So here’s my pitch to the holders of our cultural collections: how can we work together to share our text and your images? How can we build on the narrative that Te Ara and NZHistory provide about your collections? How do we collaborate to make shared content and narratives available for re-use? And what could we do with that shared pool of content ourselves?

These seem like obvious questions to answer. Like our content, your collections are paid for and maintained by the taxpayers of New Zealand, and it’s on you to share and make this content available. Surely it would help your organization if you could easily find and re-use descriptions about your collection items? Or how about shared application like the beautiful Biblion iPad app from New York Public Library?

Like someone said at the conference, it’s just programming. This stuff should be easy. We’ve found the images, written about them, created a narrative, all we need now is permission and willingness.

* Full disclosure: as well as working at the Ministry, I’m also joining the NDF Board for 2012 and 2013. The views expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of the Ministry or the NDF Board.