Here’s another story of a digitization effort that’s not been made publicly available. USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains 7,584 historical — and beautiful! — agricultural watercolor paintings of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942. Through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, USDA has digitized the paintings, but are only giving access to low-quality previews of them. The public can request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, but must pay $10 per file beyond that. USDA says that a “portion of the proceeds supports the conservation treatment of fragile materials.”
Conservation treatment is expensive and time consuming, but necessary. But it’s clear from the FOIA request submitted by Parker Higgins (who posted the images and story) of USDA that the revenues USDA is collecting for access to high-resolution images is neither recouping the cost of digitization nor paying for conservation treatments. So I call on USDA to 1) release these 7,584 paintings to the public domain where they should be; and 2) request adequate budget from Congress to properly conserve these important historical paintings.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.
They’re remarkable as art, and also have serious scientific importance: they are some of the only documentation, for example, of thousands of apple types that no longer exist. The USDA has called the Pomological Watercolor Collection “Perhaps the most attractive as well as historically important of NAL’s treasures,” and it was cited just this week in a Washington State University article about apple preservation efforts.
The public should have access to these images, and that access should be automatic and unrestricted. Fortunately, that is technically possible: the USDA, through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, went though a multi-year digitization effort and now has high-quality scans of every image. However, members of the public can currently only view low-resolution versions online, can only request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, and must pay $10 per file beyond that.
And though the order page touts the fact that a portion of proceeds will go to conservation efforts, the numbers just don’t add up. I suspected that conservation costs are orders of magnitude higher than reproduction revenues, so I asked. Through a FOIA request to the USDA, I obtained the digitization project report, as well as a breakdown of the last three and a half years of revenues that the collection has generated.
Digitizing the images cost $288,442. Since the collection went online in 2011, members of the public have ordered just 81 images, for a total of $565. That relatively tiny amount simply cannot justify the cost to the public of keeping these images behind a paywall.