Thursday, December 10, 2009

Open Access to the public domain

Thanks to the Open Content Alliance, we all have ready access to a great many works that are in the public domain. From a scholars's perspective, this makes it a lot easier to put our research papers into a more complete historical context.

Two examples:

Québec environmentalists now have access to a history of birds in Québec, thanks to the American Museum of Natural History Library. Charles Eus Dionne's 1906 work, Les oiseaux de la province le Québec, is just one example of an emerging and important field: the environmental history that we will need as we work towards repairing the environmental damage of the past century and restoring ecosystems to the extent that we can.

With the eyes of the world about to land on my home city of Vancouver as the 2010 Winter Olympics approaches, how lovely that we all now have access to the exquisite and prophetic early history of our city, Legends of Vancouver by poetess Pauline Johnson, thanks to the University of Toronto Library (among others).

What an enlightened approach; the public domain books are in the public domain; even though search engine Yahoo is a partner in the Open Content Alliance, these public domain works are equally available regardless of the reader's preferred search engine; I am in no way disadvantaged by my personal preference for google for most of my current searching needs.

To illustrate how easy it now is for scholars to ground their work in historical context, go to the Internet Archive and search the Open Content Alliance texts for creators like Plato, Aristotle, Ranganathan, or Dewey.

What next? Heather's wish list

Multilingual content and interfaces

Current contributors to the Open Content Alliance are primarily English language organizations. It is good to see at least a little bit of content in French, from Québec, but what would be really awesome would be full participation by the libraries and other memory organizations of Québec, so that the substantial literature of this province that is in the public domain would be freely available to all; and, of course, a French language interface. Multiply this by all of the languages of the world, and this is what I would love to see for the Open Content Alliance. OCA per se does not need to take the lead; it would make sense for each language to have a lead organization that works in its own language.

Full searching of texts and linkages

Full text searching would facilitate the scholar's task. Because many concepts overlap, and terminology for concepts changes over time and in different contexts, it would be very helpful to be able to search the links that other scholars have made between different works. This could mean a gradual integration of the scholarship of today and tomorrow into this public domain works. How useful is it, for example, for scholar after scholar to undertake the detective work to state that the idea that knowledge is, of necessity, at least to some degree always partially socially constructed, is not a new idea but rather one that extends back into antiquity? Why not make the linkages obvious and easy to find for anyone, so that scholars can focus on more timely questions, such as the implications of this concept for us today?

Google Books: please join the Open Content Alliance

Nothing would please me more than to see Google drop the most problematic aspects of Google Books, such as limiting access to public domain works and a permanent monopoly on orphan works as per the current settlement, adopt the principles of the Open Content Alliance which include broadest possible access (not always open access), and join OCA.

This post is inspired by research for the coursework I am doing towards my PhD program through the Simon Fraser University School of Communication.