open access

Open and Engaged at the British Library

Hazel King

[4 minute read]

Open and Engaged: Open Access Week at the British Library was a day of talks with speakers from a range of cultural heritage institutions discussing how they were making their collections openly accessible online. There was a good mix of institutions represented, including museums, galleries, libraries and archives, and universities.

The two keynote talks were from Helen Hardy, the Digital Collections Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum, and Mark Sweetnam, a professor in the Digital Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.

Helen talked us through a project to digitise the collection of insect specimens they have at the museum – including some cool use of Lego to help them capture images of very delicate bug corpses – and some of the ways they’re trying to make such a huge collection easier to navigate (I think it was 30 million specimens they own, or a figure in that ballpark). For instance, they used crowdsourcing to transcribe the labels attached to each specimen, and they’ve been uploading the images to Wikimedia Commons to increase discoverability.

Mark brought a very interesting researcher perspective, which mostly boiled down to the self-deprecating idea that humanities scholars are pretty useless when it comes to technology, and this is one of the things getting in the way of a wider acceptance of open scholarship in the arts. He was involved in the Cultura repository, which was a project to digitise and make open several projects from the humanities, such as historical documents.

One of the things he tried to do was speak to colleagues in the humanities and find out what they wanted from a digital platform, only to discover that they really had no idea because they simply didn’t know what the technology was capable of and lacked the vocabulary to ask for certain things. But they were great at criticising existing systems, so by using examples from existing websites he managed to more or less figure out what would be helpful to them. He also discovered that humanities scholars are incredibly distrustful of any kind of automated system to input data, for example. If told that a machine could transcribe a digitised document with 95% accuracy they were shocked that there might be some errors, yet for some reason they had total faith that data input by humans would always be 100% accurate.

Linda Spurdle from Birmingham Museums Trust spoke about their digital collection of images, mostly of artworks owned by the trust, and how they were shifting from a ‘pay to use’ model to an open model. The project only went live a few months ago and the trouble they seem to be having is how to advertise this collection and raise awareness of it, and also how to discover how the images are being used.

Jason Evans had the most unusual job title of the day – he is a ‘Wikimedian in Residence’ at the National Library of Wales, and his role is to share digitised images to Wikimedia Commons and then use Wikidata to link images to every possible connection under the sun by the sounds of it. A lot of this talk was clearly trying to explain technical concepts to non-technical people, but it seemed like they attach tags to images in order to increase findability. Some of the tags do seem a little odd – I found this image they’d uploaded, and if you look at the categories at the bottom of the page, the image has been tagged with ‘water supply in Wales’, which is reasonable, but also ‘men in hats’. Apparently the reasoning behind creating an entire job role dedicated to this task is that it’s a way for the library to link their collections to information on other websites, collections from other institutions, etc, but I’m not sure how effective this will be, and neither do they yet since they’re still working on a way to measure impact.

Finally, there was, inevitably, a panel dedicated to Plan S. The panellists brought up the same arguments for and against that we’ve all already heard, and then when questioned on how they think we should solve these problems, they all collectively shrugged and said things like ‘ah, now that’s a good question!’ before hastily changing the subject.

Overall, it seems like the cultural heritage sector is making a big move towards open, but the issue of finances came up multiple times during the day. It seems like the thing on everyone’s minds is impact, and proving that giving away images and data for free, and sometimes spending a lot of money to make it free and accessible, is worth it. It sounds as though there’s a lot of scrutiny from the powers that be at these institutions and in some places the speakers mentioned fighting against the idea that ‘even though we have data proving that we didn’t make any money selling access to these resources in the past, it might still make money sometime in the future.’ It seemed to me similar to preoccupations around money in research institutions where the push towards Open Access is raising questions about where the money to fund that push is going to come from.

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