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Obstacles to the dream of universal access

This paper, while examining issues around open access to digital information from museums and cultural heritage institutions, touches on issues that are relevant to government information:

Crofts, of the Museés d’art et d’histoire, Switzerland, argues that one of the biggest obstacles to universal access is the commercial interests and desire by museums to “brand” their “assets.”

To put it bluntly, universal access may be in conflict, or at least may be perceived to be in conflict, with an institution’s commercial interests….

In the current economic climate there is strong pressure on museums of all sorts, both public and private, to maximise their performance – to turn a profit or, at least, to cut costs – and to demonstrate their relevance in terms of number of visitors. A museum’s collections are its major “asset”. Access to the collection and derived products can be commercialised directly or, in a not-for-profit organisation, leveraged so as to shine by whatever performance criteria are in place. In this context, allowing free unrestricted access to these assets may be seen simply as undermining the institution’s potential or, more cannily, as a form of advertising….

Incorporated into a common search engine, digital assets tend to become fungible and anonymous, just part of an immense result set, or worse still, they may become identified with the search engine itself….

Copyright notices and other restrictions on institutional websites generally prevent or at least discourage reuse.

This reminds me of GPO and other government agencies that are forced through legislation, skimpy budgets, and OMB regulations to attempt to commercialize their “assets” — what we might call “charging the public for information it has already paid for.”

Different agencies attack these problems differently. I was particularly reminded of the PACER courts information project, when I read this in Crofts’ paper:

…for many institutions, the accounting costs associated with charging for use of images far exceeds any revenue….

While making cultural material freely available is part of their mission, and therefore a goal that they are obliged to support, it may still come into conflict with other factors, notably commercial interests

Stephen Schultze examined the profits being made by the PACER project in his recent seminar at the Berkman Center (see Lunchtime Listen: Open Access to Government Documents).

FDLP librarians have seen this approach tried over and over again. When GPO first launched GPO Access it charged for access while at the same time providing free access inside FDLP libraries. Libraries responded by creating gateways that provided free access to GPO Access. GPO eventually cooperated with this grass-roots effort (GPO Access Gateways Project) and finally dropped its effort to charge for access to GPO Access. More recently, we have seen agencies using licensing restrictions to restrict access (GPO details onerous restrictions on digital materials) and agencies cooperating with the private sector to commodify their resources (The NARA/TGN contract as a bad precedent). And, with the PACER project, we see a return to the old model of limiting free access to certain facilities (Pilot Project: Free Access to Federal Court Records at 16 Libraries).

When legislative bodies skimp on the budgets for public dissemination of public information and create regulations that favor the private sector over the public sector for dissemination (rather than relying on both equally), they create obstacles to access. When agencies seek to commercialize their information and control access to it, they set up barriers to access. These obstacles are not in the interest of the the government or the people.

I would like to think that such efforts are doomed to failure the way charging for GPO Access failed. But when agencies use licenses to prevent free access and when libraries fail to take the initiative to demand free access and cooperate with projects that limit free access, it is difficult to imagine how free access will survive.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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