David Meurer is a PhD candidate in the Joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities and Senior Research Assistant, Artmob.
Artmob is a research project driven by several principles: that Canadians should have greater online access to publicly funded cultural collections; that Canadian cultural institutions have a responsibility to make materials available to scholars, researchers, and the general public for educational purposes; and that the successful creation of digital archives requires a foundation of trust between rights holders, cultural institutions, funding agencies, and the public. The principal investigators of Artmob are Rosemary J. Coombe and Christopher Innes, both Canada Research Chairs at York University, and Darren Wershler of Wilfrid Laurier University.
Artmob takes an innovative technological approach to ameliorating the obstacles that face cultural institutions wishing to develop digital archives and collections. In particular, securing licences to display collective works and materials online can be an expensive and time-consuming process for projects. Depending on the time period and cultural field in question, clearing promotional materials such as theatre programs, posters, photographs and playbills may involve unforeseeable complexities. Arts organizations are at times unable or unwilling to assert ownership over works created to promote their own cultural activities due to factors such as inadequate administrative records, lack of clarity regarding old employment arrangements, or fear of litigation. In such cases, clearing the works may involve a lengthy and costly process: one that may not ultimately yield the necessary permissions. Licensing orphan works individually through the Copyright Board of Canada adds additional administration and costs that are not easily borne in quantity. Clearance processes work adequately for contemporary subject matter or for smaller, representative samples of a large collection, but they are poorly suited to the digitization and online publication of large collections and databases for research and study. Funding agencies do not always comprehend these complexities and can contractually obligate recipients to fully license all materials.
Responding to cues from networked communication technologies and practices, we believe that a dialogic approach to identifying and locating rights holders can yield better results for all parties and nurture a relationship of trust between creators, owners, cultural institutions, funding agencies, and the public. Collecting and sharing information about the creation of works is important from a licensing and permissions standpoint but also greatly enriches our understanding of Canadian arts and culture.
Currently, the Artmob content management system enables rights holders to identify themselves and, once verified, set licences for the public use of their work. Users are invited to share knowledge of the cultural conditions in which resources were created, and they can request permission to use them. Rights holder and contributor details are displayed alongside the works as a teaser list, with the ability to drill down for comprehensive details. Items can be selected, gathered into exhibits and annotated to elaborate on their shared cultural contexts.
To date, two digital archive projects have been fully completed: bpNichol.ca and the Canadian Writers in Person archive, cwip.artmob.ca. Three additional projects are in development, including an archive of Canadian poet Fred Wah’s career, the conversion of an interactive Website for the study of modern drama and performance, and an audio and video archive of readings for the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto. Current development plans are to further enhance the existing system and to release an updated version for wider use. In the short term, we will be improving the input and display of rights holder information to better accommodate and illustrate the layering of rights. The user interfaces for accessing the key system functionality described above will be reorganized around a more intuitive “See more, Know more, Do more” framework. We will also explore the possibility of giving rights holders the ability to create their own customized licences. Finally, the software and various independent Drupal modules that have been developed will be released for use by additional cultural institutions and organizations. Ultimately, we hope that our innovative technological approach provokes a flourishing of Canadian cultural heritage online.