Sunday, 3 December 2017

The public library as a place for the sharing of culture

This case study of Newcastle Libraries was written by myself in December 2016 for inclusion in Fred Saunderson's and Gill Hamilton's book Open licensing for cultural heritage  published August 2017. This is one of two contributions published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (the other being Merete Sanderhoff's "Small steps, big impact: how SMK became SMK Open").

Newcastle Libraries are the public libraries serving the citizens of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Newcastle is the biggest city in the North East of England and its library service, in particular the City Library, attracts users from across the region and beyond. The City Library houses the local studies and family history collections - this section also regularly receives requests and enquiries from overseas customers.

In the early 2000s a funded project allowed Newcastle Libraries to digitise a large part of its local history photographic collections and to publish them on a dedicated website called Tyneside Life and Times. However, a few years later the website encountered technical difficulties and the photographs were moved to the Flickr image hosting platform in June 2009. When the Flickr albums were created the images’ legal status appeared as the default copyright setting. Download was originally disabled but this was changed early on, although this particular feature was never publicised. Apart from the Torday collection (a thousand photographs of 1960s-1970s Newcastle) which was digitised by a volunteer and uploaded to a new album, the historic images collection on Flickr has only been extended on an ad hoc basis.

In 2015 I started developing at Newcastle Libraries the Commons are forever project, with support from the Carnegie UK Trust’s Library Lab programme. Commons are forever aimed to empower people and inform them of their rights to use and re-use works that are either in the public domain or available under an open licence, and encourage them to in turn share their creations with others. The project took the form of a series of events where members of the public were invited to create their own artworks in workshops facilitated by local artists, while learning about copyright and where to find free-to-use content.
A secondary goal of the project was to firmly re-position the library service as a place for the sharing of culture. Public libraries are traditionally making knowledge and culture accessible through loaning materials to members of the community, but I believe raising awareness of works that are out of copyright - in the public domain i.e. that belong to all - or under open licenses is also part of libraries’ role. On that basis, it made sense to me to use Commons are forever to also promote resources that are part of Newcastle Libraries’ collections and have entered the public domain. Since we were promoting free-to-use materials as part of the project we also needed to apply those sharing principles to our collections and our services.

The first step would be to correctly re-label the local history images on Flickr from “copyright - all rights reserved” to “public domain”. In order to get this agreed and done I started talking to colleagues in June 2015. It emerged that the issue was less about owning copyright over the digitised pictures and more about enforcing an indication of provenance: people who were not using our pictures for commercial ventures should be able to use them for free but be obliged to mention they were from our collections. However, it was felt that claiming copyright was still important because we were the keepers of the collection: if people want to make money from using our pictures then the library should get something too, and it should be clear that the images came from Newcastle Libraries. As we were selling copies of our pictures, the potential loss of income was mentioned - at a time of budget reductions even the small amount we were making may become significant.

Swing Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1889
From the Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

After this initial meeting the conversation stalled as changing this particular policy which had been in place for a while was not part of the team’s priorities. The topic was picked up on several occasions over the following year and the number of people involved in the discussions was extended to the wider group of librarians. To get colleagues to understand why I wanted the Flickr images’ status changed from in copyright to public domain I used arguments such as: “because you’re trying to claim rights that you probably don’t have, what we are doing now is slightly illegal but also ethically wrong”!

Towards the end of the Commons are forever project the focus moved from sharing creative works to sharing data and information collected by the library service. We released performance statistics and usage figures as open data - using the UK Open Government Licence (OGL) which allows anyone to re-use the information in any way, as long as the source of the information is credited. In April 2016 we ran a one-day hackathon when we invited members of the community to “play” with our open data. For the occasion we were also given permission to publish 31 digitised historical maps of Newcastle from the libraries’ collections - in the public domain, clearly labelled as such in a Flickr album. The maps proved quite popular, with several participants using them to superimpose “old Newcastle” to a current map to highlight the evolution of the city centre.

I think what happened with the maps helped to show colleagues what releasing our information and content meant, and more importantly that it did not harm the library service. On the contrary, it was interesting to see what citizens had done with our maps when appropriating them - re-using them in ways we had not thought of and contributing to the visibility and reach of our collections.

Plan de Newcastle ou Neuchastel
From the Newcastle Libraries collection

In August 2016 we changed the status of our local history images on Flickr to “public domain”. Each album now bears the mention:
“These images are, to the best of our knowledge, in the public domain. You are welcome to use them in any way you like – we would love it if you could say you got them from the Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection. If you want to use the images for commercial purposes we can provide you with a high quality digital image for a fee – just contact us.”
On the spur of the moment, it was also decided to move the Torday collection (the copyright of which had been assigned to Newcastle Libraries) into the public domain - under CC0.

We were pleased to see this initiative bear fruits a few months later, with an article in a local newspaper about Newcastle’s old Odeon cinema featuring several of our Flickr images - all in the public domain but nevertheless used with the mention “from the Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection”.

Around the same time we changed the status of of our local history images on Flickr to “public domain”, we also decided to stop using OGL for our open data and use CC0 instead, making it even easier for our information to be re-used.

In December 2016 we went further: we librarians agreed that in the future all Newcastle Libraries collections and documents published online would be made open by default. All public domain materials digitised from our collections will be clearly labelled as such when published. Materials created by library staff - images, event pictures, information booklets, training guides, etc. - will be published under a Creative Commons Attribution license. In 2017 we will start making more of our content available via platforms such as Flickr and GitHub.

No comments:

Post a Comment