Saturday, February 11, 2006

Whispering in the Library

Google isn't the only corporation contracting with university libraries to digitize their content. The California Digital Library, which serves the U.C. system, has teamed up with Yahoo! (If you like the Yahoo! typeface, you can adapt it to your own purposes at Logo 54.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that this pact between another group of universities and another corporate partner is not intended as a response to the Google initiative, and indeed the Open Content Alliance does divert significantly from the Google model. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, there are strategic benefits to treating the online service provider as a contractor rather than as a potential content provider. Universities are generally on firmer legal ground from which to claim fair use, although in comparison to other corporate bodies the academy tends to be much less willing to risk litigation. Yet what has earned the Open Content Alliance praise from publishers is its cowardly avoidance of making any fair use claims on any material still in copyright.

Furthermore, many of the same structural problems with outsourcing digitizing still remain in the Open Content paradigm. For all the rhetoric of "openness," in this case supported by loss-leader pricing per page, the means of reproduction will still be controlled by an outside corporate entity. And the critical issue of funding necessary cataloguing and indexing continues to be deferred, despite the fact that this work needs actual, trained people, since it can't be entirely automated. More live indexers than ever are needed, now that so many visual images from printed materials are being scanned. Even if it didn't include pictures, a digital library with all keywords and no subject headings would be a chaotic library indeed.

To be fair, Union Catalog behemoth RLG has joined the initial group of partners to address some of the bibliographical issues I am raising. Yet conflicts inevitably become part of the process, because the human agents doing the cataloging are information stakeholders, and their allegiances may be divided when corporate partners come on-site. As Christine Borgman of UCLA points out, the construction of information architectures can be difficult without a single common culture much less a uniform set of standards.

These cultural faultlines can cross more than one axis, if "nonprofit populist" is added to the mix of "corporate" and "academic" cultures. Much of the decision-making that represents the "non-corporate" point of view at Open Content appears to be currently being done by The Internet Archive. Personally, I adore the Internet Archive, and I've used its materials in my classes, including in my September 11th seminar. Nonetheless, its jazzy, hyperactive organization that is oriented around sound bites and film clips lacks much reference to the scholarly apparatus of traditional print. In contrast, university library systems try to provide their patrons with a map through this new territory by foregrounding subject guides, information literacy tutorials, and other materials that are aimed at the evaluation and not just the finding of sources.

Librarians aren't alone in their struggle to adapt to copyright rules. The news continues to be bad for scholars who are using materials for which the copyright holders are difficult to find. The U.S. Government Copyright Office's position on orphan copyright continues to ignore the rights of consumers of intellectual property who repurpose it for educational and critical use. You can read some of the gory details in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently covered the story. Orphan copyright is particularly tough on filmmakers who would like to use ethnographic and historical footage in low-profit documentary projects.

I have my own orphan copyright horror story to tell. When Core Course students were studying the Third Reich, one of our Special Collections librarians recommended that students look at "cigarette albums" from the period, which were pre-packaged photo albums made for pro-German smokers and collectors. These books were aimed at American audiences, and maintenance of the album also involved an actual subscription for pictures from Nazi Germany that arrived in the mail and would eventually fill up each blank in the book. These black-and-white photos generally depicted Aryan life in the nineteen-thirties rather than specific German political leaders. In the Core Course, we were doing a lot of material about gender, sexuality, and ideologies of the body in the German racial state, and the cross-generational multi-activity sample of images would have been perfect for our students to see. Unfortunately, we found ourselves hesitant to digitize the materials, so they could be seen outside a rare books room, because even though the Nazi party was defunct, defeated by World War II, and illegal in contemporary Germany, we feared that the works were too recent to be safely considered orphaned!

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