Converting information into a digital format and preserving the data. That is all it is. Seriously.
Originally written and published in 2010 on Past Thinking. Republished here for archival purposes.
Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.
A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.
The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects.
This is a quick response to a very good and pleasantly short blog post on Open Objects regarding the conflict caused by Wikimedia scraping high resolution ‘zoomified’ images from the NPG’s website and making them available.
I concur with your thoughts. I don’t think Wikimedia is, however, anything other than extremely naive not to have thought things through a bit better. That they couldn’t even respond promptly (allegedly) to original complaints by NPG is highly unprofessional and this in itself has lowered them in my esteem.
By and large I think the NPG’s response is balanced and correct. We should all be well aware by now that someone has to foot the bill for this quality of digitisation and delivery. It occurs to me that the ‘free, free’ mob is just as naive as WM in this regard.
Perhaps Wikimedia Foundation Inc could do what they did for Wikipedia last year and have a high profile campaign to raise money, but specifically for organisations to digitise and make available some of their content by way of return? I also don’t see any reason why WM needs to host such high res images; a decent image doesn’t have to be art catalogue quality and a link to the zoomify image on the organisation’s own website would surely suffice in the bid to ‘open up access’.
There is an active discussion going on on the Museum Computer Group and also the Museum Copyright Group which some have lamented as indicative of the lack of cohesion inherent in the museum/heritage/cultural sector on issues of access vs. the need for income to fund projects.
Some have said, well as they are publicly funded, they should make all this available for free. But who should pay? The very people who advocate this radical stance must enjoy taking their wage packets home at the end of the month and are not, as far as I can see, willing to give up their jobs for the greater good?
And in any case should we now question the motives of Wikimedia administrators who say they are doing this for the greater good of providing the sum of human wisdom to the world for free?
Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of all this two things are clear: in all acts, even ones purporting to be for the greater good need to be honourable and this one clearly was not, whether through naivity or not. Secondly, those who campaign for absolute open access to everything for free really need to start coming up with new arguments for how this could be made possible, assuming for now that the State is not going to suddenly decide that this is more important to support than propping up corrupt banks and over-bloated businesses.
Edit: I have just received an email from an anonymous person from Wikipedia Belgium wishing to point out the exact difference between Wikimedia Foundation Inc who ‘own’ (is this the right word?) Wikipedia and other projects like Wikimedia Commons. I have slightly adjusted the phrasing of the paragraph above regarding fundraising to clarify. I had appreciated the difference but had not expressed it clearly enough before so I hope this helps.
I was rather disappointed to have received this response to my post privately, which itself misunderstood what I was suggesting, as it means I cannot publish it here with my response, but I can say that I hope this anonymous individual will maintain a correspondence to make very clear a) what his/her opinion is and b) how projects like Wikimedia Commons can work more openly _with_ organisations like NPG so conflict like this doesn’t have to arise again. I can say, however, that the individual cited the Bridgeman Art Library vs Corel case in the US in his/her response, to which I replied that the ruling does not apply as a UK precedent as many of us who have been involved in collections digitisation realised a long time ago.
I have since received a further response and will be respecting the individual’s privacy as one can understand that in the current circumstances they would prefer it this way. I would, however, like to thank him/her for expressing their own personal thoughts about this case. I have been reminded that the nebulous network of people like Wikimedians don’t always in themselves agree about the best way to do things and there has been disappointment amongst other uses in the way the NPG images were reused, which were contrary to the terms and conditions NPG applied to their content. There is also a genuine desire to work more closely with organisations to make their content available through such initiatives as WM Commons and there have been examples of this, e.g. Wikipedia Loves Art and Wiki Loves Art. While content is usually sought on a gratis basis, there have been instances where illustrations have been paid for, and these are supported by the Philip Greenspun project.
So it’s been good to get some of these things aired. Wikimedia Inc has challenged the way we present our information in all its projects and it is perhaps not a bad thing that this conflict, which we all hope can be resolved amicably and quickly, has happened as it will at least give people and organisations pause for thought when undertaking digitisation projects, asking perhaps more obviously, who are we doing this for, why, and is this the best way?