Don't liberate, help GLAMs to emancipate content

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Don't force cultural institutions into a defensive stance – when the Wikimedia community uses the phrase “content liberation” GLAMs don’t hear “freedom”, they hear “theft”. Picture: medieval chain book.

You may know the old saying: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter“

When we in the Wikimedia community use the phrase “content liberation” in front of those who look after original collections of content, they don’t hear “freedom” they hear “theft”. “Content liberation” is a commonly used phrase in Wikimedia-land to describe the effort to have media items (most frequently collections of old photographs):

1. Digitised;
2. Published online (especially in high resolution, in a lossless format, without DRM or irritating intermediate layers like zoomify);
3. Released (if still in-copyright) under a free-culture approved copyright license;
4. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

The emphasis in this effort is the publication and dissemination of cultural heritage that was previously unavailable, or only available to a certain few, so that it can be given a new lease of life - to set it free.

However for the gallery/library/archive/museum (GLAM) that owns the original physical object there is a corresponding and sometimes contrasting concern to that of publication - that of preservation. Not just preservation of the original object in its proper state but also the preservation of the context and proper ‘meaning’ of the object. Just as people don’t like to be quoted out of context, museums don’t like their works being used to demonstrate ideas contrary to the spirit of the object.

From that perspective, when we in Wikimedia-land come along to a museum and ask them to “liberate” their photographs to Wikimedia Commons (and any subsequent users of our free-culture content) they might be happy for the increased publication but also unhappy about the potential for their photographs to be “misquoted”. It is their job, after all, to make sure people don’t just have access to knowledge but that they are given it in an appropriate and correct way.

So, if we want to build relationships with content owners we need to give them the power to decide for themselves whether or not to join us. What we should not do is take their power from them by “liberating” their content, thereby forcing them into a defensive stance - a position where they are likely to stay in for some time.

Of course, this does not mean that we should roll over and acquiesce to the outrageous claims made by some content holders - such as “you may look at this 200 year old painting on our website but you aren’t allowed to copy it”. Nevertheless we need to find a more collaborative phrase than “liberate”. This is why the subtitle of the GLAM-WIKI conference was “finding the common ground” and the key phrase we tried to get across (and repeated over and over) was that we wanted to focus on “sustainable partnerships”. And a term that describes the process and stands for equal negotiating positions would be “content emancipation”.

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  1. This difference in perception of the same practice is a key to building a good and helpful dialogue towards a collaboration agreement. At Wikimedia Argentina we are working with a number of institutions that have lead us into building a manual for these collaboration agreements (which we hope to share here soon). When writing these toolkits, we find ourselves constantly thinking of how GLAM institutions perceive our work and the collaborative projects of Wikimedia Foundation. When we sit down to talk to them, or when writing a toolkit (that is aimed for open access), we talk about "opening archives to the community" (instead of "liberating content"). That expression goes together with "promoting participation within the community", in a way to enrich that archive. --María Cruz (WMAR) (talk) 16:17, 9 October 2013 (UTC)
  2. It is fine in that it sheds some light on the approach and the communicative strategies available to deal with GLAMs. From a non-English perspective I should say that the above phrases (emancipation etc.) in order to avoid the term liberation are not effective or helpful; María Cruz's proposal works better instead. Other useful ways to address communication may be "highlighting / approaching / valuing the Museum and its content in relation to the local and the global community". --Iñaki LL (talk) 10:39, 18 August 2016 (UTC)
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  1. A success story about how to present the content emancipation and how a museum could be nicely convinced to work with Commons is needed, especially, what kind of vocabulary have been used. Dereckson (talk) 06:27, 10 June 2012 (UTC)