The Right to Culture in the Digital Age
Access to information about our history and our ancestry is part of our human right to culture and a key component of our personal and collective identities. Our governments have in the past sought to make access to such information as freely available as possible within the technical constraints of their eras. The benefits are clear: from education to citizenship and community cohesion.
Yet today, as the Internet offers greater possibilities, legal and technical constraints are restricting people’s ability to engage with this genealogical information and documents by creating financial and practical barriers.
These barriers threaten to undermine the benefits that society, genealogists and individual family historians could accrue from the digital age.
Archives, registers, libraries and other cultural institutions are digitising their holdings. Unfortunately, this is increasingly done through commercial partnerships that restrict online access to the digital copies to those able to pay.
Funding for digitisation of genealogical records cannot solely depend on multi-million pound restrictive commercial deals. While there is a virtually unlimited amount of archival materials to digitise, there is a much more limited subset that is both of value for profit driven enterprises and large enough to apply economies of scale.
The Open Genealogy Alliance will work with public institutions to explore solutions to the sustainability of digitisation of archival materials. We understand the financial constraints currently faced by institutions, but future alternative models that allow free access while covering digitisation costs must be sought.
- We believe that access to public culture in the digital era cannot mean travelling to a library or archive for free on-site access via local computers, while paying for online access, as it is becoming the norm. Both forms of access should be treated equally.
- We also believe that a marginal cost pricing should be applied to digital materials whenever possible; and if cost recovery pricing is inevitable, this must be transparent and time limited.
Innovation and reuse
In many cases where data is available, license and copyright conditions make it impossible for third parties to further share the information and build added-value services based on the reuse of records.
The online commercial genealogy sector is a multi-billion pound industry. It is currently based on mediating customers' access to public information in exchange for covering the costs of digitisation. Although most operators do provide some tools for handling family data and networking, the fundamental model is based on access to existing basic data, ideally under an exclusive deal, rather than new data-rich services.
Availability of Public Sector Information for reuse is increasingly seen as a key component of the knowledge economy, and there is legislation that clearly prevents the creation of monopolies on public data through exclusivity agreements with commercial partners.
Although cultural and archival data are not covered by existing legislation at present, the same basic principles apply here. While this model helps to provide some income for existing services, it depresses the incentives for businesses to innovate and provide new value, which does not benefit anyone in the sector. New business models based on data availability and integration (such as geolocation, mobile, and social networking) are currently being developed, and some institutions are doing a great job in this respect, but will not be able to flourish within the current licensing regime.
- The Open Genealogy Alliance aims that all key genealogical datasets are made truly open and available under an open license that allows anyone to freely use, reuse and distribute without reservation (see opendefinition.org).
Participation, volunteers and engagement
Voluntary groups and independent professionals form the bedrock of the genealogy sector, predating commercial operations, and still have a very important role in the transcription and dissemination of materials.
Unfortunately, many of these groups are also trapped in the sector dynamics of artificial data scarcity, and currently depend for their economic viability on restricting access to information.
Some initiatives are able to make a small income from selling data in CDs. However, this type of market is disappearing in other sectors such as music and video, being superseded by Internet distribution which is much harder to monetise and control in the same way.
Another source of income for volunteer groups is to license data to the big commercial operations. However, the increased outsourcing of transcription services to English-speaking countries with cheap labour will reduce this possibility.
The sustainability of the independent genealogy sector will depend on its capacity to develop new models that allow organisations to be financially viable while delivering their educational and social mission without restricting data flows.
The Open Genealogy Alliance will work with other organisations in the sector to harness the benefits of this transition to an open data framework. In particular we believe that:
- The role of volunteer groups in holding key knowledge and contributing quality data should be clearly recognised and their contribution accredited.
- Participatory digitisation methods that bring more people into the sector and allow the new materials to remain open should always be the preferred choice over commercial deals that restrict access.
- Volunteer groups and Big Society initiatives should not be prevented from competing with the big commercial operations if they wish so. Tendering processes should be structured as to make the most of engagement with civil society by dividing projects into smaller parts.