350MC Research Presentation

Title: Does Archive Information Want To Be Free?

Firstly, I wanted to research into why archives are important and why we keep them: I found a document from Stephen Plant from University of London who says archives “form a unique and indispensable record for researchers”. Stephen Plant is the records manager at UoL; from this it can be inferred that he has a great deal of knowledge about records, archives and how they are catalogued and managed. Yet, the nature of his work automatically makes us assume that of course he is going to suggest that keeping archives is a positive thing. However, over research I found only supported this need to keep records for future works to be created. The only negative was that physical archives are not as accessible for researchers.


This physicality of archives reminded me of Stuart Whipps’ exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 2011 Why contribute to the Spread of Ugliness? His work explored the physical uncatalogued archives of the architect, John Madin, whom designed the now closed Birmingham Library. It was also accompanied with urban landscapes of the architecture. This work is about Madin having seen three of his buildings being demolished and his public library to be next.

From looking at the catalogue I noticed an essay by Catherine O’Flynn, a writer in it she talks about the physicality of archives and their limitations because of their form. However, in relation to the work, she states that these archive boxes are ‘returning soldiers’ and are the only evidence left of the buildings which once stood proud after WWII. She argues that these records are valuable for future historians because of the scarceness of its information. Understanding that there is so much scarce information bound in a physical form restricts audiences from viewing it: this is forming the basis of my argument of whether Archive Information should be free.


My presentation is going to be discussing whether archives should be free online. I was researching and came across Stewart Brand, digital activist from the 1980s and his quote ‘information wants to be free’ which is only one phrase of his meme. Of course as a digital activist his intentions were to challenge the way the Internet works: how can content really be restricted. I thought that this was an interesting point and that if the nature of archives are to serve future research, then uploading them onto this seemingly ‘free’ platform called the Internet, really can change the future of archives. Before jumping ahead; in the English language free has two meanings: libre and gratis: this means that this “information wants to be free” is very ambiguous.


From here I read parts of Chris Anderson’s book Free – The Future of a Radical Price in it he dedicates a chapter to Stewart Brand and almost updates it: “Abundant information wants to be free. Scarce information wants to be expensive”. This means that anything uploaded openly on the web automatically is deemed with  no monetary value: however, having information restricted automatically makes it more valuable. Yet, Anderson also points out that Google is open and used in abundance by us all; does that make it any less valuable because it is free to use? This is where the digital economics gets more confusing. But from this theory it would seem that an archive that is still physical and not on the internet is more valuable than one that is shared online; I disagree. What is the worth of something that isn’t known or talked about? This knowledge has been in the back of my mind so that I can question my further research with archives.

When thinking about archives, Aaron Guy educated me that there are three different types: Commercial, Private and Public. However, I am only using commercial and public in my research as private archives can be a bit of a grey area in terms of ‘free’. Commercial archives are to make profit and pubic archives have been funded by tax payers. Aaron Guy has been a valuable source of information, pointing me in the right directions and informing me on the current digitising landscape. On the digital landscape Aaron says that some Commercial archives are behind a paywall so there is zero access, but some are available to browse for zero price. He also suggests that public archives are zero price to see; however,  smaller institutions thought less about the distribution via web design.


So, starting with public archives and their place in ‘free’. Aaron guided me to look at the National Lottery Fund projects from the 1990s. I found that DIGI project from 1994 which awarded public bodies a share of £50 million to digitise their archives for online use. However, this didn’t tell me anything much; so I found the evaluations from ten years later about the projects: it suggested that not enough money was dedicated towards the website design so that many of the archives are actually unable to be seen. It can be inferred that public archives information is free of price; however, accessing the data online is a tough process, uneasy to navigate, concluding that the information is not libre. The evaluation was made internally, so it is laid out promotionally to advertise themselves as being professionally; however, some of the content is self-critical about the projects. Nevertheless, it would be more reliable had there been more facts and quantitive data.


This aside, other public bodies, or larger public bodies, such as the Library of Congress really embraces what it means to be free. The website is clean and easy to use, with side bars to refine search results, just like an eCommerce website such as eBay and Amazon. Web designers suggest that users stick to what they are familiar with; complicated new designs are harder to navigate.

Furthermore, public archives are not restricting themselves to their own website, but extending to already well established platforms such as Flickr. I found the paper copy of the talk ‘Flickr the Commons: Challenging Perceptions of Photographic Collections?’

Summary of talk:

  • Social Media Platforms “generate broad interest on a large scale”
  • Social Media Platforms encourages user-generated content/involvement
  • Creates user interest groups
  • Does the user-generated content disrupt the power of curators/archivists alike?

The author is a PhD student studying the relationship between users and Flickr and how it affects curation. Flickr The Commons was launched January 16th 2008 with partnership with the Library of Congress “and has since developed to host the photographic collections of a fifty-one museums, galleries, libraries and archives (as of 22nd May 2011) […] Institutions are expected to upload historic photographs under the ‘no known copyright’ restriction” (page 2). This means that publicly funded works are expected not to be copyrighting the work which is available to all, increasing its state of ‘freeness’. Flickr is used by thousands and is an easy to navigate platform to search for images and welcomes archive imagery.

Slide_6Flickr is not only welcoming public archives to use the Commons, but is also in partnership with Getty Images. Getty crowd spotted images already uploaded onto Flickr to be hosted by Getty: so that Flickr users and Getty can make money from images. The interface works in the same way as Flickr the Commons; users can view and comment: however, must purchase the rights should the images want to be used. This challenges Commercial archives: people can see the content and choose what they then think is worth having/paying for. Content is zero price and available to browse and at a fee to use. Getty’s own web interface works in the same way; like Amazon.



My research consists of two main text bodies: Chris Anderson (Free) and Bronwen Colquhoun (Flickr The Commons…) but from those I have found articles related to them such as by David Campbell and Cory Doctorow. From there, I have found web articles discussing what devices in web design are more successful.

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