Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Heritage Heritage Minute and The Digital Library of Canada We Lost

It's time for me to write about Heritage - the ten year digitization project that is being undertaken by the non-profit charity with 50,000 reels of microfilmed historical material from Canada's national library, Library and Archives Canada - which has been partly funded by most of the university libraries of Canada through CRKN, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network, which raised $1.74 million dollars toward the deal signed on June 14th.

CRKN is a licensing agency that negotiates deals with publishers and then brings those deals to its members to sign onto. Normally, for those librarians - like myself - who are not privy to the conversations of library directors or not among the small set of subscribers to the restricted CRKN listserv, it is not unusual to hear about the proposed deals only after they have been signed and committed to by their leadership.

But that didn't happen this time. What happened?  To explain, let's have a Heritage Minute.

Part One: The Heritage Heritage Minute

We don't know when Canadiana first approached CRKN but on May 1st a proposal from Canadiana went to the library directors that make up the membership of CRKN with a signing deadline of May 31st and with a statement that the deal was under an non-disclosure agreement until June 14th when the project was slated to go to public.

Someone who had seen the proposal was concerned enough by its contents to provide a copy of the document(s) to Myron Groover a librarian / archivist who has been following writing and commenting on the decline of affairs of Canada's national library for some time now. Myron first raised the matter of the proposal on June 6th on his blog, Bibliocracy and then followed up by posting a transcript of the summary of the plan on June 10th.

Concerns from librarians, archivists, researchers, and citizens over the proposed deal were shared casually online on Twitter and Facebook but things really heated up when NDP MP Andrew Cash brought his concerns with the proposal to the attention of James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages in the House of Commons on June 11th.

Confusing matters, later that same day the CBC reported that the deal in question was to be delayed til the fall based on the Moore's comment that the digitization project would resume once a new Head of Libraries and Archives would be appointed. No one really knows if this was a simple misunderstanding during the confusion of Question Period or if this was the result of of James Moore being unaware of the Heritage deal at this point in time.

On the next day, June 12th, the Ottawa Citizen covered this story around the leaked proposal in an article with the headline, Library and Archives Canada private deal would take millions of documents out of public domain.

(As an aside, the media coverage of this story seems to implicitly frame the controversy as a battle between archivists vs. librarians. Myron is referred to as an archivist (and not a archivist / librarian) and other archivists were interviewed to give the 'against' side of the story. This framing may have come about unintentionally because no librarians involved were allowed to speak on the matter and as none one of the professional bodies that represent Canada's archives community were involved in the negotiations around the Heritage Project, so they were free to speak their displeasure).

Also around this time CAUT - the labour organization that represents university faculty and librarians started a campaign to stop the Heritage proposal from going forward.

It's worth noting that during this particularly frantic week, there was not a single official statement made publicly by CRKN on the matter.  Their Twitter feeds points to clarifying statements by Canadiana (No paywall, no privatization) and a short radio interview from a director general at LAC (Library and Archives responds to concerns about a new digital service). Meanwhile, an employee of Canadiana felt comfortable to speak out on the matter on his own personal blog (Good news Canadiana & LAC project spun into bad news?)

It appears that CKRN did sent out an email to the members of the CRKN listserv to clarify matters (which was then posted on Bibliocracy) but from what I can tell, they did not make public notice of the same information.

The most important difference between the original leaked proposal and the 'clarification' from CRKN is that the language that described the digitized content as 'open access for Canadians' (which as Heather Morrison aptly put, there is no such thing) was changed to being 'under a Creative Commons licence for non commercial use'. As an outsider, I have no way of knowing whether these changes were the result of negotiations that occurred before May 31st or afterwards once the proposal was leaked and the objections raised, but conjecture suggests the latter.

CRKN also retweeted a particular telling document on June 13th, the day before the deadline, a letter from CARL entitled "CARL urges Minister Moore to go forward with Héritage Project". For me, this suggests that perhaps the deal was in some jeopardy, either due to the fact that it had now become controversial or perhaps less palatable since the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages had gone on record stating that Canadians should not have to pay to access our achives.

A similar letter of support for this project was produced by the Ontario Council of University Libraries. These letters are not surprising since almost all of members of these organizations were the same ones who signed on to the CRKN deal. There may have been other letters of support for the deal sent to the Minister but the only other one that I know of was from the Canadian Urban Libraries Council [pdf].

On the afternoon of June 14th, there was a message sent out to the institutions of CRKN that the deal had been signed and this announcement - CRKN Participates in Innovative Project to Increase Access to Canadian Documentary Heritage - was posted on their website. What's curious about this public document is that license for the digital material of Heritage is described vaguely as under a 'Creative Commons' license instead of explicitly as a CC-NC as they had done earlier that week in their internal communication.

Which brings us to today. I've been writing this over the weekend of June 22nd and 23rd. Earlier this week, the Heritage site quietly launched. And there are still many unanswered questions surrounding the licensing of the work involved.  The next part of this post will explain why I think these unanswered questions are still very important.

Part Two: The Digital Library of Canada We Lost

Now, before I go further, please understand that I am empathic with many of the proponents of this deal who were were confused, frustrated, and even hostile to the fact that there was a group of librarians and archivists who were asking critical questions about this deal while they watched helplessly as these concerns were being raised in Parliament and in the press and remained unaddressed from their leadership.

I know several librarians whose professional judgement I trust who have stated that they believe that the Heritage deal is good for the partners involved and good for Canadian history. Some of them asked, libraries sign similar deals with commercial vendors all the time - what's the fuss here? What's the difference between this deal and the deal that presumably led to the creation of the digital product of Early Canadiana Online

So I'll try my best to tell explain my concerns.

First off, what I think is particularly damning is that - with all of the media coverage and the fact that the matter was worthy enough to be brought up in the House of Commons - the questions that critics like myself have been raising - still have not been answered by the parties involved.

Many of these questions raised by those concerned have been best captured and expressed by Kevin Read in his post, Concerning the deal between LAC and Canadiana: We ask for transparency:

But there are two questions that I would like to add to his list:
1) When, if ever, does the material in Heritage turn from CC-NC (Creative Commons Non-Commercial) to CC-0 (Public Domain) licence?

1) Why isn't the material being put immediately into the public domain (CC-0)?

2) Where and how will the Linked Open Data that was explicitly promised as part of the original proposal from Canadiana that was signed by CRKN going to be made available?
If the documents and metadata in Heritage never make a transition to explicitly being open and unrestricted for commercial use (such as to be published in a book that is subsequently made for sale), then CRKN has indeed paid for a commercial product that Canadians will 'have to pay for twice' to use and as feared, millions of documents will be taken out of the public domain.

We have heard nothing that contradicts these fears.

By allowing Canadiana to maintain a CC-NC licence for the materials involved, does Canadiana essentially becomes a licensing agency for the use of scholarly materials just like Access Copyright?  And does Canadiana even have the right to apply CC-NC in the mass digitization of microfilm? One librarian well versed in copyright measures isn't so sure.

In short, the Heritage deal may prove a good deal financially for the organizations involved, but it fails the public in some profound ways.

To explain why, let's do a thought experiment. Let's imagine that CRKN responded to the Canadiana proposal with a counter proposal that would have absorbed the amount of money that was estimated as coming in from cost-recovery measures into the CRKN contribution. Let's imagine that like a true Open Access project, the costs are not passed on to the reader. Admittedly the project would indeed result in less material being described but there would be other benefits that would come from the provision that all digitized material and metadata created would be immediately placed in the public domain. Just imagine what sort of activities this new platform could support:

  • Like the British Library, libraries and archives across Canada could easily partner with organizations such as the Wikimedia Foundation to co-host events like this history-themed editathon
  • Like the Digital Public Library of America, the digital collections could be considered a platform for others to build work on. For example, once the LAC documents are geo-coded, there would be a variety of applications that could be developed that could add document discovery through geolocation.  This could allow anyone - researchers, students, entrepreneurs - to build web or mobile apps that present historical documents in an historical, gaming, or creative context without having to make arrangements to pay Canadiana ahead of time for use of the documents. 
  • Libraries could reassure the Canadian people, as well as the current Harper government, that they - unlike companies and not-for-profit charities - they exist to make information and creative works available for free to the Canadian public

I can only hope that from this controversy that our leadership has learned that our reading public now has a far greater literacy and expectations for matters regarding licensing and the public domain than ever before.

Case in point:  Aaron Swartz is on the cover of the Time Magazine this week. 

I believe that in the pursuit of brute efficiency in the manifestation of the Heritage deal, something was lost. So, in the spirit of the quiet hope that is embodied in the lament of Anil Dash's The Web We Lost, I would like to write about the the digital library of Canada that was not to be.

What could have we done instead?  Well, I like what what librarian Mike Ridley suggested over a year ago:

... we need to form a collaborative organization linking libraries, museums, and archives to operate this distributed collection and service. We need to take on the long term responsibility that this government is refusing to do. Yes I know we have no money or space or staff; we need to do it anyway.

Oh yes, he also offered this timely warning:
Shouldn’t we partner with LAC on this? OK but let’s be careful. Not being harsh here. LAC has a history of not always playing nice with others. The wonderful and visionary Alouette Canada initiative (now part of; a good model for at least part of this mission BTW) was launched with strong support from LAC; they enthusiastically offered to seek federal funding for this national, collaborative project. Money they did get and it went to LAC digital projects not those of the consortium. Lesson: Don’t get fooled again.

Well, at least this time Canadiana and LAC were upfront in regards to where all the CRKN money will go: it goes "to fund metadata creation and and to build a sustainability fund to maintain the platform"... both of which, I will remind you, belong and remain to Canadiana alone.

To imagine what else could have happened, it's useful to look at CKRN's first deal - its pilot project called CNSLP:

In January 2000, 64 universities in Canada signed a historic inter-institutional agreement that launched the Canadian National Site Licensing Project (CNSLP), a pilot project totaling Cdn$50 million over three years.

The gist of the CNSLP project was that instead of individually licensing digital products from commercial vendors, the academic libraries of Canada would band together and achieving substantial savings from the bulk licensing on a nationwide basis. In Ontario, the savings gained from CNSLP were not directed into buying more products, but were instead directed into an infrastructure fund that gave rise to OCUL's Scholars Portal.

Canadian National Site Licensing Project (CNSLP)
2000 : all OCUL libraries are participants in this Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funded initiative ($20M from CFI and $30M in matching funds from 64 academic institutions) to enable national licensing of electronic resources to increase access and reduce costs. Ontario Innovative Trust funding ($7.6M) will enable Ontario to initiate the Ontario Information Infrastructure to ensure rapid and ongoing access to these new resources for OCUL libraries...

Scholars Portal
2002: Scholars Portal (created with Ontario Information Infrastructure (OII) funding) is a shared technology infrastructure and shared collections for all 21 universities in Ontario. Scholars Portal Journals and Racer (Rapid Access to Collections by Electronic Requesting), an online interlibrary loan request system, are the first modules to go live.

And ten years later, unlike the National Library of Canada, we - the academic libraries of Ontario - have our own Interlibrary Loan Service and and a Trusted Digital Repository, among many other cherished services provided by excellent and skilled library professionals.

And what will academic libraries get from ten years from now from the Heritage project?  We will have gained no increased infrastructure or additional expertise from the digitization of historical materials that we can share with our local communities. And ten years from now, I'm afraid to say that I believe that we will have less capacity and smaller budgets to do the work that Canadiana now does for us.

We have outsourced ourselves. Again.

But maybe this dream of an open digital library of Canada is not completely lost.

As Russel McOrmand of Canadiana reminds us in his post Why is a license required for a Canadiana project built from public domain material?

I am a system administrator at Canadiana, and not someone involved in policy relating to licensing of the parts of this project that will be covered by Canadiana copyright.
When it is a Canadiana decision, it is our Board of Directors made up of librarians and archivists, and our executive director, who ultimately are responsible for such policies.

Our library leadership sits on the board of directors of Canadiana.

What it is is up to us.


Social outings said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative analysis. I would just add that there is nothing clear about how organizations or individuals are nominated / elected / invited to join the Canadiana board. Which is finally where the national leadership for our future digital heritage will be centered as you point out.

Mita said...

Thanks for your observation about the board. It's been noted that the board size and membership has recently changed, perhaps significantly?

Russell McOrmond said...

Few thoughts:

I wish Canadiana wasn't being looked at as if it were yet another third-party vendor, as opposed to a creation of Canadian institutions to collaborate on dig/pres/access projects. Who our board is, and who we ultimately work for should be more obvious.

I see the work libraries have asked us to do on their behalf, and a bulk-commercial-licensing initiative, to be quite different. I also think Canadiana and Access Copyright sit at opposite ends of the funding/etc spectrum: Canadiana isn't tied to one funding model and will experiment with funding models for these types of digitization/preservation/access projects, while Access Copyright tries to impose one payment method on all creators and users. (I have been an AC critic for years as creator and user)

The page on our website that listed the board members was recently updated to reflect the current list when we noticed people were commenting on it. Nothing interesting there, and only reflects priorities being elsewhere than updating that part of website -- not an issue with the board.

If there is interest in more details about the board/etc, and how to become more involved, I'd suggest connecting to one of our more official contact persons

Note: I'm just a sysadmin who happens to work with some cool librarians, and not someone who represents anyone but myself.

Mita said...

I agree with you that the comparison of Canadiana to a third party vendor is probably unfair. Perhaps it would more appropriate to make a comparison to a body like OCLC: a partnership that brings both strengths and conflicts.

And I appreciate your outspokenness against Access Copyright.

Thanks for sharing your insights. It's appreciated

Russell McOrmond said...

My larger concern isn't about fairness. If libraries think of us as a vendor, then they will be thinking in terms of minimizing these collaborations as a cost.

I'd personally love to see more of what we do go directly public to everyone. That is something entirely up to our funding partners (IE: libraries).

Thinking of us or other projects like us as vendors may make it harder for libraries to collaborate towards opening things faster.

Mita said...

Thank you Russel - couldn't agree with you more.

When I was pressed to come up with summarizing this all in tweet, I came up with this that I regret I didn't include explicitly in my post:

The language around the LAC Heritage deal is and remains that "access is free." But what was unsaid was that *use* is not free. Let's not forget the first rule of librarianship...

Russell McOrmond said...

I understand the access/use separation. In software there are many distinctions between software which is $free (as in Freeware) but where no modifications/derivatives can be made (and no source code to do that), and FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) where derivatives are always allowed. Then we have CopyLeft licensing where any derivatives must also be royalty-free/etc.

As much as I see the ultimate goal being fully liberated (including for future "commercial" uses -- I don't agree with those who want NC tags within OA), I'm practical enough to be willing to move forward in steps.

I'm not a policy guy here, but the Heritage project in the short term adds new access methods to what is already there. What the LAC has been doing with the collection will still be there, and this project adds a new way to access.

Unlike the Access Copyright types who think in terms of perpetual monopoly rents (except more like an arts funding program than retail...), I'm happy to always hear people involved in these projects separating one-time costs (digitization, metadata, etc) from ongoing costs (maintaining servers, storage, etc).

So -- as the one-time costs are paid, the material itself can get the rest of the way liberated.

Now -- if only the project had been negotiated 10 years ago rather than looking 10 years into the future :-)