“Free-riders” and cultural heritage

G.A. Berckheyde: De Gouden Bocht in de Herengracht

Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde: Herengracht Amsterdam. Courtesy Rijksmuseum

Recently I attended a meeting of SPUI25, a discussion centre of the University of Amsterdam, where the theme of the evening was Digital Humanities with a focus on research related to the success of 17th century Amsterdam. Those days are characterised by great wealth and a flowering artistic life, with famous painters (Rembrandt van Rijn), famous publishers, important jewellery makers , cartographers, etc. Researchers nowadays try to relate these successes, hoping to find the magic formula that led to this success – and learn something of it. Databases, dictionaries, websites and ontologies of linked data are created.  Lots of students are using these resources to finish their thesis, the creative industry is using these collections to build new games, and make a living out of it. This sounds very promising, and the nice thing is that at the basis of these results quite often lies digitized material: books, newspapers, maps, archival records. Digitized and collected by big, publicly funded organizations like the National Library, the National Archive and municipal archives, the Rijksmuseum and owners of specialized collections. This type of research is part of the intended target audience these public organizations had in mind when they started digitizing their collection.

These digitized collections are becoming a source for research, therefore we should call them “research data”. Quite often this phrase is reserved for data generated by instruments in large quantities, but excluding the data sets in the humanities and social sciences  from “research data” is incorrect in my opinion. And these sets of data will need to be preserved for a long term. Current and future researches will check the findings of their fellow researchers and for this purpose the digitized source material need to be available. To enable this, long term preservation and curation of this digitized source material need to be in place. Digital preservation however will require budgets, and these budgets will only be available if the benefits of preservation are clear. But currently the relationship between the research done and the “research data” that was at the basis of it, is hardly visible. Sometimes via a reference on the website, a footnote in an article. Some organisations keep statistics about the use of their collections and the amount of downloads, but this is information often kept for internal and reporting purposes. Is this enough to convince the general public of the usefulness of the digitization and preservation activities?

The Blue Ribbon Task Force already pointed to this risk and called this the “free-rider problem”: organisations are investing millions and the ones who benefits from  this work won’t pay a penny or give enough credit to these organisations. With shrinking budgets this could become a problem for cultural heritage organisations. And here and there you see initiatives to better estimate the effect of the digitization and preservation activities (see the work done by Neil Beagrie on value and impact), but these are isolated initiatives. Therefore I like the view of the 4C project (Collaboration to Clarify the Cost of Curation), that explicitly aims to investigate not only the cost factors but also the benefits  for organisations with a preservation mandate. This way of thinking will force organisations to find better ways to get the credits for their efforts and advertise them, so that the general public, that is often paying for these activities, will see where the money goes. Cultural heritage organisations no longer can afford to do their good work in silence. They need to find ways to be able to advertise in bold characters their contributions to society.

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