The Promise and Peril of using Commercial Sites for Historical Materials

Tom at FoundHistory recently posted on the layoff of one of the architects of Flickr Commons, that incredibly useful source for materials from a number of major archives and museums. Tom sees this as a moment to discuss some of his own concerns about the promise and peril of using commercial sites like Yahoo, Flickr, Second Life, and others for publishing cultural and academic resources online.

This debate is one that I’ve had both internally with myself and externally with my colleagues for several years now. No one wants to think that the time, energy, money, and resources invested in placing something valuable online is just going to go away, but the benefits of a ready-made location and user base are also clear.

It seems to me this is about balancing the ability to reach more people, often with a more polished and supported interface, with the need to protect against the risks of commercial failure and potential loss of access to data. [Although we also need to remember that just because something is hosted on the servers of an educational or cultural institution doesn’t mean it is always going to be there. “Forever” is a long time in the era of government budget cuts and rapid software change.]

Still, in the end for me it comes down to a question of whether or not an institution can get data placed in repositories like Flickr Commons back out with some relative ease (both technically and in terms of copyright).

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  1. Maybe I’m not familiar enough with Flickr Commons. But I thought that anything you put in had to have no known copyright restrictions.
    Also are you thinking that institutions might use these sites as a primary depository with no other back up?

  2. This is a deep problem for many in academia.

    Question: what’s the role of the campus library in solving the problem? For instance, should libraries help people pick out services with easy export architectures, or help host local copies of off-site content?

  3. @Shannon — My point about copyright at the end was more generally about the potential problems with putting one’s archival materials or institutional creations in the hands of a commercial entity, and was not specifically about Flickr Commons.

    I would hope that institutions have local copies of everything that they place online, regardless of whether they host it themselves or with some commercial entity, but I know that not all do, and that there can also be a difference between the original data from the institution and how it’s presented (and perhaps enhanced) online. [One can imagine, for instance, that the LOC has digital copies of all the images that it posts in Flickr Commons; however, if Flickr’s parent company went out of business and the site went down, would the LOC have copies of all the comments made on each of those photos? Maybe they do, I don’t know, but you can see how even an institution with backups of the original data might lose something if the commercial site fails.]

    @Bryan — Though I know that resources (time, money, equipment) are always an issue for campus libraries, my own feeling is that they should be at the forefront of all campus conversations about the storage and accessing of information (broadly defined), whether that means giving faculty/staff/students advice on what services to use, or being involved in hosting (or helping others to store and/or host themselves) in some standardized and exportable way.

  4. A lot of these issues came up with the Vital project at UMW. Where it gets sticky is determining which materials are “institutional” and which are personal in nature. Not philosophically, but in terms of who owns the system housing the stuff. I think in this realm, and in all realms having to do with ready access to robust content like images and video, this is not just a discussion about systems which always, ultimately, either outlive their usefulness or fail. It’s part of a discussion about personal vs. institutional responsibility. I wish that type of discussion, in earnest and depth, occurred long before technology were even mentioned. If it did, these kinds of problems could be stemmed, or even headed off at the pass.

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