Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Commodification of Photographic Archives

(NWT Archives n-1979-058-0002)

There are a couple of interesting but divergent trends in the world of photographic archives.

One is what you might call the democratization of historic photographs preserved in archives. I have written about this before, and it is the route taken by such institutions as the Library of Congress or the Wisconsin Historical Society, or the Northwest Territories Archives along with many others. Here, collections of photographs have been put online. They are usually easy to search. Many "unknown" photographs can be discovered by a broader audience for the first time. Some archives have gone even further and have made many of their images available as big enough files that you don't have to place an order with the archives, but can just download it and print it yourself.

(Musee Heritage Museum P974-185-01)

Other archives have placed parts of their collections on Flickr, which not only makes them much more widely available, but also begins to allow for what you might call "citizen descriptions" with the images being tagged via crowdsourcing.

(Musee Heritage Museum P974-185-07)

But then there is the opposite approach. Archives that have put a lot of time and effort into digitizing their collections suddenly find a much increased demand for photographs within a fairly short time. Rather than really seeing this as a positive thing in terms of access and availability, they tend instead see it through free-market eyes and now view their collection as a source of revenue and profit. Instead of being the Keeper of the Records, they become the Toll-Keeper.

As a result, not only do they commodify the records they hold, but they also tend to become highly possessive about their collections and expend a lot of energy trying to exert control. Any "unauthorized" (in the broadest sense) use is seen as a threat to their bottom line. In more than a few cases this has led to institutions trying to re-invent copyright to suit their own ends. So we get cases where archives ignore both the word and the spirit of Copyright law and try to claim full control over photographs where copyright has expired and they have long been in the Public Domain. Or they seem to have forgotten that their have always been limits to Copyright in the form of legitimate exceptions.

(Musee Heritage Museum P984-002-11)

Most of all though, they begin to erode the availability and access to photographs by means of pricing. Of course most archives have always charged something for reproductions from their photographs - whether darkroom prints in the "old days" (where I started my archives career), or for digital files. But it was generally an amount that covered the basic costs of production. This meant that everyone from a student writing a paper to a little girl finding pictures of her great grandmother, to school kids doing a class project to an academic writing a book could easily and affordably obtain copies. But now, every "customer" is increasingly seen as a $ sign. Every use is being regarded as "commercial" and reprint prices are being increased 100% at a time.

(Musee Heritage Museum P988-047-52)

Digitization of photographic collections isn't just (or even) undertaken to increase access and availability. It has major benefits in terms of preservation. A photograph that his been digitized can be stored in the best environment to preserve it - e.g. nitrate negatives or colour prints can be frozen, or b&w prints can be kept in dark storage at a constant temperature and humidity etc etc. They don't have to be re-handled to copy again or in most cases to be brought out for research. The increased access that digitization brings is in some ways a happy side-effect. Either way, it is really something that archives should be doing as one of the core functions and mandate in order to help preserve their collections.

Of course this means it also makes the images easier to find and to access - which can only be beneficial.

Bear in mind that probably the majority of archives, photographs (and other documents) are usually held in the public trust in one way or another. The archives describe, order and preserve these documents on behalf of all of us - as either a broad population or a smaller group - as well as for future generations.

Turning them into a commodity which begins to reduce access for the sake of ideology and generating profits is not only a bad idea, it is also a bad precedent.

(Musee Heritage Museum P977-004-06)

(all photographs from the Archives of the Musée Héritage Museum unless stated)


Anonymous said...

good post, i produce the magazine for the thyssen-bornemisza in madrid and therefore deal with a lot of archives for artists works picasso, miro, you name it, i'm always astounded by the cost of reproducing work still in copyright, even a small postage stamp reproduction in a non-commercial magazine will cost you 300$. the estates of these artists are incredibly efficient in controlling, charging, prosecuting and bleeding the last cent out of their estate, it's a BIG BUSINESS.

Anonymous said...

This is one more sad fact that illustrates the direction of society. There are no boundries when it comes to turning a buck.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree which is affecting how we are planning to handle reproduction requests.

At the moment we do provide larger digital files free of charge if the institution who holds the original agrees (or if it's a public domain image).

Tom White said...

Culture is seen as getting in the way of commerce. I agree that this is dangerous. I think something along the lines of having low-res images available for free and high-res images available for a price (which would be defined by copyright status and intended usage) would be a good compromise.

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