Digital Britain and Collections

What role has Culture (capital C) in Digital Britain? And within Culture, what do digitised collections and content mean to the nation? Perhaps more importantly for the sectors involved in cultural provision (such as museums), can digital collections take part in the Digital Economy in a meaningful way? In January 2009, the UK Government produced an interim report setting out a kind of manifesto for placing UK Plc at the forefront of the “global digital economy.”

I would like to see the relationship develop more as that between supporter/donor and custodian, rather than just producer and consumer.

In response, Collections Trust made an interim response. And here is a summary of my response to the interim response. I attempted to take the long view, looking back at my own experiences with digitised collections and other content. My full reply and Nick Poole’s (CEO Collections Trust) response can be read in the list archives of jiscmail’s Museum Computer Group list.

The report is to be highly commended, in my view. It conveys most of the must crucial problems that cultural organisations have faced in the 7-8 years of digitisation, of whatever form, but particularly collections, of museum, library and archive content. However, this is a positive report which also brings to inescapable attention the strength of digital culture in the UK and the fundamental role Culture has to play in a Digital Britain.

While I have significant problems with the way in which the language of cultural politics, for want of a better term, is so severely entrenched in economics, these are more philosophical than practical. If we are to be understanding our work as part of a ‘Digital Economy’ then we need to be very clear about a) what economy means and b) what is the quid pro quo?

However, I do admire the persistence in using the kind of language that the current government seems to understand to the exclusion of all else. In other words, to make them listen, one has to speak in their own tongue.

Nevertheless, I hope there remains a strong sentiment within the sectors concerned that cultural heritage is important for the ‘well-being’ (alas, another buzz-term which is just about to be abused in the Education sector) of a civilised society for its own sake particularly in relation to promoting cultural organisations as ‘safe spaces’ within which to better understand social and political issues. As collections-holding institutions were themselves born out of a desire to conserve the sum of human knowledge through papers, artefacts and books, what better raison d’etre in the Digital Age.

My few specific points of criticism and questions are:

.Use of case-studies

I hope a fuller report might highlight more non-national projects, and also be more open about the legacy of, for example, the content creation side of People’s Network and what is being done to remedy this. So much fantastic information was digitised which still remains online but difficult to access in any meaningful way. However, I do know that in their localities especially, these resources are being used in the kind of digital skills training that is referred to in the report. It was certainly something I started up immediately after the launch of the Hantsphere project (a New Opportunities Fund project), itself part of, an albeit loose, alliance of projects across South East England ( There are so many other examples.

.Digital rights, income, access

This, for me, was the most important part of the report. The plea for a more balanced approach is essential, indeed it is fundamental to creating the kind of digital content that is meaningful and has high impact, particularly in the light of then creating APIs and using other methods of exposing content to WWW more efficiently.

I would like to see overt and practical support for small to large organisations to adopt micro-donations as a way of providing an income. See what it did for Wikipedia and the US Presidential Election of Barack Obama.

I think this will not only provide more income than many current IP and reproduction protocols (which themselves need review) but will also improve and strengthen the relationship between users and organisations.

I would like to see the relationship develop more as that between supporter/donor and custodian, rather than just producer and consumer.

.More practical grass-roots support for smaller organisations

All organisations, particularly smaller ones need practical help, both in person and online if they are to succeed (not just survive) in the so-called Digital Economy. Yes, strategy and consultations are important. Yes they often get unfairly demonised as wastes of time. However, if strategy is more visible than action, no one will take their roles and responsibilities as seriously as they perhaps should.

Particularly with regard to the legacy problems of early digitisation projects, where organisations did not sustain staff or other resources to maintain a resource, this kind of support for the ‘core staff’ who are left holding the baby is really very important.

If standards and a good /brand/ are so important then the best way to achieve these is to provide the requisite support at a national level.