Obstacles to Opening Up Content and Data in the Cultural Heritage Sector

May 15, 2012 in Case Studies, Front Page, Updates

Over the last few months we’ve run a series of workshops with representatives from cultural heritage institutions in Paris, London and Berlin.

Across these sessions we’ve gathered a large amount of feedback on the problems – legal, technical and economic – faced by institutions trying to open up cultural content and data.

Below we’ve listed some of the most prominent difficulties that have surfaced during the course of the workshops. In doing so we are building on the work already undertaken in this area by JISC, UK Discovery and Europeana.

The list is, of course, very much a work in progress and we strongly encourage people to add to it either by commenting on this post or responding on our Open GLAM mailing list. Building and enriching this list will help inform the shape of events we run in the future and the documentation we can write to help demystify some of the issues highlighted.

##Legal Uncertainty

Uncertainty concerning the legal status of digital reproductions and the originals themselves are some of the greatest obstacles to a more open cultural heritage.

A set of key issues have been identified in this field:

  • The status of digital reproductions of objects. Can new rights be applied to digital copies of works that belong to the public domain?
  • Rights clearance issues
  • Orphan works

##Economic issues

There are a plethora of economic issues that prevent GLAMs from opening up more of their collections. The cost of digitisation is perhaps the greatest obstacle to more freely available digitsed cultural content. But there are also costs associated with sorting data, hosting data, formatting data and exposing data, as well as the costs of clearing rights.

On top of the costs associated with digitising and opening data there is also the concern over the loss of existing revenue streams. A minority of GLAMs have made significant income from selling the data they hold about their collections. This issue is compounded by the fact that there is sometimes an expectation on GLAMs from local and national government that they turn over a profit with their data.

However, for the majority of GLAMs the fear seems to be not that they will lose an existing revenue stream but by opening their data and “letting go” of it, they will miss future, as yet, unrealised business opportunities.

##Control problems

The truth is that open data and the web involves a radical rethinking of the role of a GLAM institution and the traditional dichotomy between curator and visitor. A cultural heritage open data ecosystem is one in which non-professionals can contribute to the process of curation and data enrichment.

This often generates a concern that something disreputable might be done with data and content or that authoritative data might be degraded by the activities of non-experts.

This relates to the further fear, often expressed by those working within cultural heritage institutions, that opening up data will lead to a loss of attribution to the agency that created it.

But beyond this, there is also a discomfort many feel within the cultural heritage sector about opening up data because it will enable others to make money from it. This has proven to be something many within GLAMs are uncomfortable with.

##Technical constraints

There are a plethora of technical obstacles to opening up cultural heritage data. More needs to be done to clarify practices and standards that make cultural heritage datasets more open, more easily re-used and interoperable. Questions such as which formats (RDF, MARC etc), vocabularies (standard, ad hoc) or serialisation (xml, json etc) could be more effectively addressed.


Some of the challenges faced to a more open culture are based on misunderstandings about the nature of open data. This point was made very forcibly at the legal workshop we held in Berlin by a number of the participants. For instance, institutions are sometimes unwilling to open up their metadata thinking that this will necessarily commit them to a waiver on the rights of the content itself.

What is needed here are better more visible explanations and justifications of the key concepts within open data — both legal and technical. In the coming weeks we will be addressing precisely this problem with the team over at UK Discovery by writing blog posts on key concepts and continuing to develop freely available documentation on this topic such as the Open Metadata Handbook.

Stay tuned!

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