A healthy and robust Public Domain needs libraries and archives

01 Jan 2024

Preservation and digitisation are crucial to the continued importance of the Public Domain and libraries and archives are important players in the Public Domain.

A postcard featuring a coloured black and white photo of Queen Street, Brisbane, circa 1908. It includes a number of historic buildings, including the post office with a large clock in view.

A postcard featuring a coloured black and white photo of Queen Street, Brisbane, circa 1908. Public Domain. View full attribution information.

As a new year starts books, music, visual art, films and other content move into the Public Domain. New Year’s Day is also Public Domain Day. 1 January each year is when these cultural objects join the countless volumes of content no longer protected by copyright that is available for everyone to share, use and adapt. Yet, for a lot of material in the Public Domain the biggest barrier to its productive reuse is obscurity. After all, you can’t make use of things you don’t know exist.

All copyright-protected material ultimately becomes part of the Public Domain, but a lot of the artefacts in it are held by libraries, archives, museums, galleries and cultural collections. Libraries, archives and other cultural institutions are charged with collecting, curating and preserving important cultural items so that future generations have access to their cultural heritage and can learn from them. These tangible links to the past provide insights into political and societal changes and the evolution of ideas.

Yet, knowing what is in a collection is the first hurdle. Historically, the second hurdle was getting to the collection’s premises. You were beholden to proximity; to access cultural heritage materials you needed to be privileged enough to be able to spend the time and money to travel to the collection’s physical location and arrange to see the material. With the digital age came the ability to make copies of collections material in digital formats that can easily be shared online. While online access is not a panacea, it makes a significant contribution to providing more equitable and convenient access to cultural heritage.

The journey cultural artefacts go through to become viewable online is often a complicated one. First, it must fall within the scope of what a cultural institution collects, and align with the institution’s current curatorial interpretation of their mandate. Then, the material must be able to be collected. The library, archive or collecting body may not be able to acquire or procure physical material or may be restricted from buying or licensing digital material such as e-books. If the material has made its way into the collection it is then subjected to careful storage, conservation and restoration practices. Each of these steps in the preservation of cultural heritage have benefited from digitisation of collections materials into digital formats. Digitisation has become an increasingly important part of cultural collection’s preservation programs.

While the preservation and digitisation of content that is protected by copyright is an important part of what cultural collections do, so is preserving and digitising material in the Public Domain. For so long much of this older material was limited to physical formats. As more of it is digitally reproduced and made available online it becomes more readily searchable and viewable.

Accompanying these digital versions are catalogue records and metadata that contribute to their searchability and enriches each item with added contextual information, descriptions and other details. Metadata and catalogue information make them easier to find and high-quality digital reproductions makes them able to be examined in detail without damaging and degrading the original item.

Suddenly, rare historical documents, newspapers, magazines, government documents, personal letters, diaries and journals, recipe books, forgotten photographs and so much more content held in a building somewhere can be found using search terms and filters and viewed online by anyone with an internet connection, no matter their location or socioeconomic background. This digital access empowers artists, students, educators, researchers, historians, documentarians, innovators and everyone else to find and make use of our rich Public Domain.

A proactive approach to digitisation aligns with the principles of stewardship, safeguarding important cultural objects and guaranteeing the continuity of our cultural heritage. Plus it supports new kinds of uses of this material. For academic researchers for example, digitised content accelerates the pace of scholarly inquiry, facilitating interdisciplinary research and the creation of new knowledge.

Despite the enthusiastic uptake of digitisation by many cultural heritage institutions, so much of Australia’s vibrant Public Domain is not available online. The National Library of Australia, for example, reports that less than 10 per cent of its physical collections have been digitised. Copyright considerations coupled with the cost of digitisation and technical and human resources limitations play a big part in what gets digitised, and what of that is accessible by the Australian public.

The Public Domain is important. Libraries, archives and cultural collections are the right place to focus investment on digitising the Public Domain. Few if any other players have the right incentives in place to want to spend time, effort and money making material no longer protected by copyright widely available to the public. The potential rewards to be gained from more complete digitisation of Australia’s cultural collections are too great to ignore. Digitisation is a collective investment in our shared cultural legacy. Knowledge is power, and in the Public Domain that power belongs to everyone.

Written by: Elliott Bledsoe

Artwork: New Year postcard showing Queen Street, Brisbane, year unknown, photographer unknown. Photographic print: black & white, c. 1908, Negative number: 193117. Collection: State Library of Queensland, available at https://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/126452. In the Public Domain. Reusable with no restrictions.

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