Opening e-Artexte with Corina MacDonald – Mél Hogan

Image by Corina MacDonald

What follows is part of a conversation that was started through email in March, when Corina was settling into her new job as the e-Artexte Project Manager. e-Artexte is an Open Access (OA) repository for visual arts publishing in Canada, and I think it is safe to say that nothing quite compares to it in terms of its objectives and scope. The repository will offer publishers and authors the option to make their publications available in electronic form, with all the benefits that come from Open Access: metadata harvesting, access through Google Scholar, and so on. Corina is an information specialist, but her job, along with the e-Artexte team, is also in advocacy and outreach to convince Canadian publishers and authors of the benefits of the project and of Open Access. The e-Artexte project is expected to launch in the fall of 2011.

Mél Hogan: Who initiated the OA movement – where did it grow out of? Has there been resistance to the idea of Open Access?

Corina MacDonald: Basically the OA movement is founded on the idea that publicly funded scholarship and research should be freely available for unrestricted use. There are philosophical similarities to parallel movements in free software and culture, although OA really gained momentum in the early 90s as a response to what is known in academic libraries as the ‘serials crisis’.

Unfortunately this crisis has not since been resolved – the term refers to an ongoing situation where large journal publishers exert a monopolistic stranglehold over academic libraries and unreasonably escalate the costs of subscriptions. This has had serious repercussions for scholarly publishing. The rising costs of journal subscriptions are not matched by increases to library budgets, and so libraries have been left scrambling to provide access to the journals that their faculty need, often at the expense of other acquisitions. Faculty are still mostly unaware that the articles they publish in proprietary journals must be bought back by their libraries at increasingly high rates. Practical alternatives have emerged from this situation in the form of ‘Green OA’ (self-archiving) and ‘Gold OA’ (OA journals).

Many of the large journal publishing companies have adapted to Open Access, and have allowed authors to self-archive articles in institutional repositories under varying conditions. Ironically I think some resistance comes from within the academic milieu itself, where there is a lack of awareness of the situation and prestige is still the overwhelming factor in publication and tenure. This varies by discipline; in the sciences, there has been greater involvement in OA and many groundbreaking projects have emerged from that community, such as the Public Library of Science (plos.org). But overall there remains a real need for greater education about these issues for authors in academia.

I’m not an expert on all the historical details of the OA movement, so here are some links for further information:

Open Access Overview Peter Suber

Open Access Archivangelism Stevan Harnad (blog)

The Access Principle John Willinsky (e-book)

MH: What does self-archiving mean? How important is the idea of self-archiving in and for digital collections online?

CM: Self-archiving is a term that is quite specific to the Open Access (OA) community. It refers to the process whereby authors, usually from within a university context, deposit digital copies or pre-print versions of their published journal articles in an institutional or thematic OA repository. Many of these repositories offer support for the long-term preservation of the digital content they hold, but I would argue that access is an important impetus for self-archiving and so the term archiving can be somewhat ambiguous here. Self-archiving is an important strategy for Open Access, and many universities are considering making it a mandatory step in publishing by faculty.

Personally, I think that the concept of self-archiving can be relevant to many kinds of digital content creation. For example, I think that artists should be much more proactive about explicitly licensing and making available images of their work online for non-commercial use. Many artists would be happy to allow writers and bloggers to reuse images in their posts and articles online, but by not explicitly defining this reuse, they are essentially contributing to a large grey area of online activity. This is a backwards way of dealing with the situation in which we find ourselves.

So I guess that, for me, the concept of self-archiving can be broadened into the open culture context as a responsibility to explicitly make at least some of your content openly accessible for reuse. There are many tools available to do so – Creative Commons licenses, the Wikimedia Commons and projects like One for the Commons.

MH: If e-Artexte positions itself as an online archive, then how does it define or imagine dealing with the long-term care of its collection? What is its main priority as an archive: use or preservation?

CM: e-Artexte will extend Artexte’s mandate to provide reliable information sources for research in the visual arts. Artexte as a library does not have a mandate to preserve the documents in their collection – they make these documents available for consultation and do their best to ensure their longevity, but do not have the resources or capacity for long-term preservation.

The same approach will apply in principal to e-Artexte – provisions will be put in place to try to ensure the longevity of the digital content, but increased access to research material is the primary goal of the repository.

MH: Can you talk about licensing tools (presumably Creative Commons) and explain what interoperable standards are? What does ‘interoperable standards’ mean?

CM: OA repositories do not normally hold any copyright over their contents. Usually there is a agreement with depositors stating that they hold the rights for any content they upload. By default, material is freely available for unrestricted use, as per the definition of OA, but in some cases rights holders may choose to use Creative Commons licenses to make some restrictions on the use of their content (i.e. no commercial use).

Interoperability is really the backbone of networked culture. In this specific context, when we talk about using interoperable standards what we mean is that one repository stores and can export data in the same (or compatible) format as another repository. One of the important functions of a repository is to provide metadata for ‘harvesting’ by search services which can aggregate and search across multiple repositories at once. For example if you visit the OAIster website, you can use a single search box to cross search data from over 1,100 different contributors. Repository content is also harvested by Google Scholar. There are specific metadata and protocol standards that enable this interoperability.

MH: Can you expand on the idea of the ‘content provider’?

CM: We are in a networked culture where data is constantly moving around, being selected and recombined along the way by different types of services. As a result, the way we think about providing access to content is also changing. It is one thing to develop your own website where users can come to discover your content – but there is now an opportunity to make content available more broadly and in new contexts through federated search services or content aggregators, OAIster being one example.

To extend this idea we could also consider the city as a content provider, for example cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa that have adopted Open Data policies. In doing so they have been able to benefit from the experimentation and work of their citizens. There are communities of developers eager to get their hands on municipal data so they can build applications that tell people when the next bus is coming, or allows them to report on needed repairs in their neighbourhoods, etc. (there are many, many more examples). By making city data open, it suddenly spawns multiple contexts that city councillors may never have envisaged, and that the city may never have had the expertise or resources to develop on their own.

Cultural institutions like libraries, archives and museums have very rich content that they can make available in a similar way, allowing them to benefit from the imagination and innovation of their communities. Not every museum will be able to develop their own augmented reality app that provides contextual collection information based on GPS coordinates for example, but they can take the steps necessary to make sure that their content isn’t inaccessible when those developers come knocking. The Brooklyn Museum and The Powerhouse in Australia are two museums leading the way in this regard, having created open APIs for information about their collections.

So I see this role of content providers as an important shift in how institutions can imagine themselves contributing to a larger landscape of networked resources, allowing their content to live in new and possibly unforeseen contexts. Open Access repositories are one component of this landscape.

P.S. A group called Montreal Ouvert is working on convincing the city of Montreal to adopt an Open Data policy.

MH: What other models or projects out there have you referenced or used to build e-Artexte?

CM: We are using Eprints as the basis for the repository, which is an open source repository software developed and maintained at the University of Southampton. However, this software is configured ‘out of the box’ for an academic publishing context. So we are adapting this system to a visual arts context, and specifically to the context of Artexte’s existing cataloguing practices as an organization that has been collecting arts documentation and publications for 30 years. I am not aware of any other thematic OA repositories dedicated to critical art writing, so this is a pioneering project in many ways. It also leverages OA outside of the academic milieu which has not been done extensively.

MH: What are some of the obstacles you have faced? Are there worries when launching a project of this scale in terms of backups, and the ephemeral nature of digital media? If so, what kinds of precautions are put in place to ensure the long life of the project? What kinds of human labour and investments are required to keep this project going after you have created the site?

CM: This is definitely an ambitious project for a small organization to undertake. We are fortunate to be working with university colleagues who have experience in OA, and there is also a large and active Eprints community that we can look to for guidance.

There are certainly some obstacles in terms of the ongoing resources required to maintain the repository, but some of the decisions we make now will help to minimize future costs or problems. I think because we are using well established and actively maintained open source software, we can feel fairly certain that it will be sustained for some time into the future. Interoperable open standards are also an important foundation of digital preservation and sustainability. Of course the project will still be vulnerable to the vagaries of hardware failures, server crashes and other unforeseen disasters. Backups will need to be made regularly, and in keeping with the library mantra of LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe), we can keep multiple copies of backups in different locations.

I think what will be most crucial to the ongoing sustainability of the project is really the engagement of authors and publishers. There is education and outreach to do in the visual arts milieu about Open Access and the benefits of depositing work in an OA repository. e-Artexte has the potential to become an important research resource, but it must be cultivated over time with the collaboration and participation of the community. So in a sense, building the repository itself is only the first phase of this project.

Corina MacDonald is an independent information specialist and web developer specializing in digital cultural collections management. While a student in Information Studies at McGill (MLIS, 2006-2008) she worked as a research assistant with the DOCAM research alliance (docam.ca), where she learned about issues surrounding the documentation of digital and technology-driven art. After graduation she worked at the Canadian Heritage Information Network on the Artefacts Canada database, an aggregation of data from over 400 Canadian museums. In 2010 she began doing freelance software and web development work, and is currently the project manager for e-Artexte – an Open Access repository for Canadian visual arts documentation initiated by Artexte. When she isn’t crunching metadata she is djing and hosting modular_systems, a radio show on CKUT 90.3FM where she has been involved as a volunteer since 1996. She is also a member of the editorial team of Vague Terrain, an online digital arts publication and blog.