looking for open digital collections

A view of books on the shelves of the Folger Shakespeare Library's vault (detail) photo by @pleasant_peasants (all rights reserved)
A view of books on the shelves of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vault; detail of a photo by @pleasant_peasants (all rights reserved)

Because I have a project coming up that will need lots of pictures of early printed books, I’ve been trying to compile a list of openly accessible digital collections of early printed books. Sound like a straightforward project?

You might think it’d be pretty easy to identify whether a digital collection has terms that are useful for your purpose. You’d be wrong. Some collections have clearly stated terms and link to those policies in obvious ways. My favorites are those providing that information with the items themselves—both because of their ease of use and because they allow for item-specific information, which is handy given confusing copyright regulations and diffuse collections. But there are also places that use a cover-their-butts note instead of providing user friendly information. Statements along the lines of “we obey all relevant copyright laws” might protect a library from the risks of wrongly stating whether an item is not or is under copyright, but they do nothing for the person wanting to use the image.

You might also think that a library that has digitized images of their collections online would allow people to use them. You’d be wrong. Most places at a minimum allow their images to be used for personal and/or research needs, and sometimes for non-commercial and/or educational purposes. But there are institutions that do not allow for any use of their images at all. I guess you’re just supposed to be happy that you can sit in front of a screen and stare at them.

What I need for my work are images able to be freely used, whether because they are public domain or licensed CC BY or CC BY-SA. Alas, these open collections are harder to find, as the bulk of institutions out there seem to think that a non-commercial license is plenty generous, thankyouverymuch. I understand why non-commercial licenses might be appealing for libraries who are often struggling for income—the feeling of “why should someone else make money off our collections?” is awfully strong. But there are many reasons why this is a problematic license. I don’t mean for this post to be a rant, so I’ll give you a quick list of points:

  1. Non-commercial is a pretty narrow category. My intended project, for example, is a free website that will work in conjunction with a commercial publication; it is designed both to supplement my book and to advertise it. So is that a non-commercial use? I’m in a bit of a grey area—probably fine but maybe not.((The Creative Commons definition offers some guidance: “NonCommercial means not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”)) Do I want to risk it or to spend tons of time corresponding with libraries asking for permission? Not really.
  2. Non-commercial licensing in these cases asserts copyright over images that are public domain. According to the 1999 US case Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. and the 2015 UK Intellectual Property Office copyright notice, faithful reproductions of public domain works cannot be copyrighted because they do not involve an element of originality. Being the possessor of the physical object doesn’t grant you its copyright; sweating over imaging an object doesn’t give you copyright either.
  3. Finally, and this is the biggest hurdle for me, the one that really makes me want to stand up on my soapbox, is this: Do libraries exist to hoard knowledge or to spread it? The mission of libraries is to preserve and disseminate knowledge—locking up resources does neither of these things. No wonder we suffer from a dearth of funding when we aren’t making the case to the public why what we do is important. <deep breath>

So, library friends. I know most of you agree with me on these points—the librarians I know overwhelmingly want their collections to be more freely available, but they are not always able to convince those who administer and set policies that openness is the way forward. Perhaps as more studies continue to point out the benefits of open access, this argument will get easier to make. (If you haven’t already, read Effie Kapsalis’s The Impact of Open Access on Galleries, Libraries, Museums, and Archives and Michelle Light’s “Controlling Goods or Promoting the Public Good: Choices for Special Collections in the Marketplace” —both provide plenty of hard evidence that charging for reproductions doesn’t add to the bottom line and does harm their mission.) (Update: if you want the rant version of the problems of finding and using digital collections, my RBMS talk, “Looking for a radically open digital landscape,” will give you that.)

At the moment, my list of open access early modern digital collections has 16 institutions on it. Some of them are a joy to use, some of them are frustrating as all get-out. But I hope that I will be able to continue adding to it both as I learn about more collections and as more libraries change their access policies. Do let me know if I’m missing any, do continue working on hosting your collections on better platforms, and above all, do continue fighting for open access!

detail of opening from Tasso's Aminta (Folger T172)
detail of opening from Tasso’s Aminta (Folger T172)

The photo at the top of this post is one of many lovely ones from @pleasant_peasants’s Instagram. My thanks to Pleasant for permission to use this photo, and my recommendation to you to follow the stream!

6 thoughts on “looking for open digital collections

    1. Alas, the terms of use on e-rara clearly state that it is for “non-commercial use in teaching, research and for private purposes” (see http://www.e-rara.ch/wiki/termsOfUse for the full text). I see that the link you provide says that public domain should remain public domain, but that text is on a different site, and so in my judgment, the e-rara terms take precedence. I’d be happy to add it to my list if that changes!

  1. May I add some more libraries with liberal access policies? But they all only have pdfs for download. As far as I know there are only very few digital libraries that offer image files for free.

    – In Germany the Staatsbibliothek Hamburg has just announced that they have changed the license to CC BY-SA 4.0

    – The National Library of Chile has an excellent collection of digitized books
    for example:
    For books in the Public Domain they simply note:
    “Este documento pertenece al patrimonio cultural común, por lo que puede ser utilizado y reproducido libremente”, like here for Havestadt’s Chilidugu

    – The National Library of Estonia

    They have no real rights statement but simply say that they “supplement the digital archive DIGAR pursuant to the Copyright Act”. Of course they have digitized mostly books from the Baltic, like a Catechism printed in Reval in 1673

    – Nasjonalbiblioteket, Oslo ( http://www.nb.no/ )
    also has a great collection of digitized books, mostly Norwegian of course, for example here Peder Syv’s Et hundrede udvalde Danske Viser, 1764
    I haven’t yet found a rights statement and assume that it’s all public domain with no restrictions.

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