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Liberating heritage collections (Part One)

2009 September 11
by Adrian Cunningham

What does Government 2.0 mean for the world of archives, records and information management more broadly? The short answer is, much more than you might have thought. A longer answer follows (in somewhat discursive form)…..

First of all it provides a tremendous opportunity to unlock the hidden potential of archival collections. Public institutions in Australia hold hundreds, probably thousands, of shelf-kilometres of archival materials. Because of funding and other practical limitations the majority of this material is difficult to get access to. Because archives are created in the course of organisations and individuals going about their business, they are not created with a view to making it easy for some future researcher to find their way through them.

Archival catalogues and finding aids aim to assist researchers navigate their way through these collections, but the sheer bulk of most public archives and relatively small number of archivists employed to catalogue them inevitably means that, for most archival holdings, researchers need to be clever, persistent and a little lucky to find what they might be looking for. Add to this the fact that the physical location of original paper records is usually hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from where most Australians live and it is not surprising that very few rarely ever darken the doorstep of an archival institution, much less pluck up the courage to try to make sense of the often bewildering catalogues and finding aids.

The advent of the Web has been changing that paradigm, such that now many archives have web interfaces to their finding aids and are busy placing digitised copies of records on the web for easy (though not always free) access. Statistics tell us that this approach to providing access to archives is overwhelmingly popular with both established and new users. Indeed, community expectations are such that if archival resources are not available on the Web they may as well not exist as far as the overwhelming majority of users are concerned. Web 2.0 offers an almost infinite array of possibilities for opening up avenues for access to and use of these resources. There are enormous possibilities for mashups, clever visualisations and user tagging of resources.

Harnessing the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ means that we can have millions of ‘archivists’ now creating metadata and archival finding aids – indeed whole new online archival collections, not just the overworked handful of archivists who have these duties in their job descriptions. For instance, the National Archives of Australia’s Mapping our Anzacs site mashes digitised copies of World War 1 service records and their archival metadata with geospatial metadata to provide a whole new means of access to and navigation of these popular records. In addition, a scrapbook facility allows users to upload their own family history information, hyperlinks and digitised records relating to the individual concerned – thus creating a much more valuable set of historical resources.

Copyright can be a major headache for archives wishing to make their collections more available an useable. Usually archives, while they might own their physical collections as objects, they will not own the copyright that resides in them. To make matters worse, according to the Copyright Act unpublished ‘manuscripts’ (ie archives) are in perpetual copyright. Yes that’s right – they are in copyright FOREVER unless the copyright owner (if they can be found) gives permission for them to be published. I think Australia is the only country anywhere that has such a strange provision in its statute books.

5 Responses
  1. 2009 September 14

    The crux of the matter is copyright. Many of the manuscripts in this regional archives were lodged to provide public access to the materials long before even the 1969 Copyright Act was enacted.

    It is hard work tracing a copyright owner after a couple of generations in an environment where no concept of copyright even existed to be noted in a will 50 years ago.

    Even a redefinition of the term unpublished might provide for just some of the material held to be published on the web.

  2. 2009 September 15
    Mike Nelson permalink

    Copyright would only be a problem for private archives. Since we’re talking about Government 2.0, surely the government can give permission for all unpublished ‘manuscripts’ over a certain age to be published.

  3. 2009 September 16

    We’ve been having conversations about this with representatives of Australia’s archives for the last few years, and it’s amazing how much interest there is out there.

    Everyone wants a solution – but they need:

    - better funding – to digitise, to clear copyright, to create sustainable business models based on open access
    - better legislation – orphan works (including manuscripts) has got to be the single biggest problem for most archives. If Google and publishers can come up with an answer, why can’t the legislature?
    - recognition of access and reuse as a KPI – at the moment, it’s things like sales that drive most archive’s funding – which is not what our archives should be about.

    Anyone interested in this topic should check out our Opening Australia’s Archives project ( We’re running meetings on how to address this problem around Australia over the next couple of weeks. The more the merrier.

  4. 2009 September 24

    Is there some provisions in the Copyright Act for dealing with orphaned works?

    I know this was discussed some years ago. I work in agriculture sector and we have large archives of materials, including video, images, maps, data sets, laboratory books which we want to release as archive research information. I know orphaned works was being discussed for audio-visual materials, and surely this could be used when the author is not traceable or knowable.

  5. 2009 September 27
    Adrian Cunningham permalink

    At present there is no reference to the concept of orphan works in Australian copyright law. In 2006 the Government announced its intention to conduct an inquiry into orphan works, but this has not yet taken place.

    In practice the concept is applied in a de facto sense. Cultural collecting instiutions often take a risk management approach to dealing with copyright in works for which there is little prospect of identifying a copyright holder and/or little prospect of any income being derived from the work in question. For every such case, however, there would be many other cases whereby institutions are reluctant to take the risk, even for really old unpublished manuscripts. For example, our institutions are full of unpublished letters that are well over 150 years old written by people like Sir Joseph Banks, Carolyn Chisholm and John Macarthur – people for whom, with enough effort, there is a reasonable chance that a copyright owner might be identified. Tracking down such copyright owners can be incredibly resource intensive, so the choice is then either invest your scarce resources in an arid and legalistic exercise, or take the easier path of just not releasing the content in question. You can guess what usually happens under these circumstances.

    Finally, in response to Mike Nelson, I should point out that our public collections are full of copyright material that is not publicly but rather is privately owned. The administrators of Commonwealth Copyright have no legal power to give permission for such content to be reused.

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