Sharing is caring. Both-and.

Jill Cousins talking about the European Commons at Sharing is Caring 2012

Jill Cousins talking about the European Commons at Sharing is Caring 2012.
Photo by ODM on Flickr. CC-BY-SA

Last week’s “Sharing is Caring – Let’s Get Real!” gave rise to a couple of comments about the seminar’s title that was perceived as somewhat selfrighteous and evangelical. The critics asked for a more realistic approach to the change we need to make in our institutions instead of all the lofty ideals that may be hard to argue against but is at risk of being perceived as hot air.

As the originator of the “Sharing is Caring” seminars, I’d like to comment on this.

I don’t think it is a matter of either ideals, or realities. It is a both-and. I find it inspiring and invigorating to follow the big thinkers in our community who dare to scale up the vision of what impact the heritage sector can have in society. One of them is the keynote from Sharing is Caring 2011, Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. He is the driving force behind the vision of a Smithsonian Commons that would allow free and unrestricted access to and creative reuse of millions of digitized objects from the Smithsonian collections:

“The Smithsonian Commons will be a special part of our digital presence dedicated to the free and unrestricted sharing of Smithsonian resources and encouraging new kinds of learning and creation through interaction with Smithsonian research, collections, and communities […] Commons are usually created when a property owner determines that a given set of resources—grass for grazing sheep, forest for parkland, software code, or intellectual property—will create more value if freely shared. Our understanding of research, education, artistic creativity, and the progress of knowledge is built on the axiom that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built upon the ideas and innovation of others.”

Another big thinker who inspires my work is Nicholas Poole, CEO of Collections Trust, who in a recent blogpost called “Culture Must Always Be a Commons” talks about why we have and sustain heritage institutions in the first place:

“I love museums, libraries and archives. I think that investing in professional communities who bring together and protect our shared heritage and make it available for use and enjoyment is one of the most important marks of an enlightened society. The future, after all, is made of everything that came before it, and our job as a profession is to defend the universal and inalienable principle that people must be free to benefit from their heritage […] It is this principle that forms the core identity of our sectors, much more so than any particular model of delivery. It is not buildings, not places, not even collections, that lie at the heart of what we do. It is, and must always be the public we serve and the purpose they need us to fulfil. This purpose is the reason we have collections, the reason we bring them together to uncover narratives, the reason we invest in protecting them.”

Now, good rhetorics is one thing, tangible action another. That is why I am inspired by these colleagues because they act according to the ideals they champion. Edson set up a public wiki to crowdsource the Smithsonian Institution’s Web and New Media Media Strategy that yielded the vision of a Smithsonian Commons:

“Anybody – – inside or outside the Smithsonian – – can join this wiki and help us. You don’t need to be a member to see everything on the site, but if you want to edit, discuss, create new pages, and add comments you’ll need to join. Thanks!”

That, to me, is an exemplary case of sharing authority and decision making power with the public.

Poole is leading the task force behind the European Commons that Jill Cousins, Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation, presented in her “Sharing is Caring” talk last week. In 2012, Europeana managed to get the support of its more than 2,200 GLAM member institutions to open up their dataset of over 20 million digital object records, using the Creative Commons CC0 to dedicate the aggregated data to the Public Domain for free reuse and innovation. An awe-inspiring achievement! The task force is aiming to follow up this milestone in open culture by creating a European Commons, not only of metadata but of high quality rich content, tools and services that can be reused and built upon by everyone and that is founded on the principles of equality, mutual commitment, and shared responsibility.

Nicholas Poole presenting the European Commons at Europeana's Annual General Meeting, November 2012, referring to the inspiration stemming from Michael Edson's work

Nicholas Poole referring to Michael Edson’s work as an inspiration to the European Commons. Europeana’s Annual General Meeting in Berlin, November 2012.
Photo by Merete Sanderhoff. CC-BY-SA

Personally, I welcome with open arms that big ideas like these are presented, when they are followed by real and substantial changes in mindset and behaviour.

Edson gets credit for introducing me to the idiom “Think Big, Start Small, Move Fast”. While we need to start small and keep both feet on the ground to make informed, realistic choices about how to work with heritage in the digital, connected age, I believe we can move faster when guided and inspired by big visions about where we can go, if we dare.

So Think Big, and Happy Sharing in 2013!


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4 comments to “Sharing is caring. Both-and.”
  1. You neglected to mention the work of your own institution, the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) as an example of bridging the gap between a lofty vision and pragmatic tactical direction and achievement.

    Like other museum institutions SMK is used to being seen as a gatekeeper of cultural heritage. But our collections do not belong to us. They belong to the public. Free access ensures that our collections continue to be relevant to users now and in the future. Our motivation for sharing digitized images freely is to allow users to contribute their knowledge and co-create culture. In this way, SMK wishes to be a catalyst for the users’ creativity.” — Karsten Ohrt, Director of SMK

    From a Creative Commons case study on SMK’s CC-BY pilot project, April, 2012

    And, of course, there are many, many more…

  2. Thank you, Michael, for mentioning Statens Museum for Kunst’s efforts which in this context seems very small in scale – in the pilot project we so far only shared 160 highlights from our collection

    But doing this has nonetheless been an important step for SMK in our process towards sharing our digital assets. And the inspiration comes from the Europeana and Smithsonian Commons initiatives, and many many more, like the the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Yale University Public Domain Dedication, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., The Walters Art Museum, LACMA, and as you say many many more.

  3. Pingback: Sharing is Caring 2012 – Let’s Get Real! Program | Formidlingsnet

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