A how not to guide for special collection librarians
August 11, 2015 2:41 AM   Subscribe

So you're an university or research institute with a special collections library full of interesting books and other cool stuff and you're pressured to get down with the kids in social media but don't want to? Sarah Werner has you covered: How to Destroy Special Collections with Social Media.
posted by MartinWisse (33 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's a cite to Mefi's Own (tm) Horace Rumpole. Look for the dudes on skates.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:34 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


> A more diabolical approach is to do what the Vatican does...

ಠ_ಠ
posted by ardgedee at 4:09 AM on August 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


She forgot the obvious method. Paywall them and charge $15-30 per item or charge institutional access fees via proxy servers that cost thousands.
posted by srboisvert at 4:10 AM on August 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's a real tension here, though, between her first edict (everything should be digitised and immediately available and easy to copy) and her second (that it should be taken seriously). Realistically, when you release a flood of click-n-copy fair-use images, the first thing that happens is that the scraper bots, and the LOL-image history accounts (including those of historians who should know better!) RT the hell out of them stripped of all context.

It's clear that at least some of the libraries committed to better access are frustrated by the way images are used to actively misinform audiences, as well as by bloggers & tweeters who routinely refuse to acknowledge their sources. It actually doesn't help them make an argument for the value of their collections if, for e.g. the most seen image from their collections is that one of the cure for leprosy that keeps being used totally inappropriately (inc. on wikipedia) as a picture of people with plague.

So what's her solution to this problem? Making access slightly more difficult, including those dreaded water marks, or considering slightly restricted copyright conditions might help, but all that would fall foul of the stuff she's complaining about in the first section. So where does that leave us? Other than crowdfunding picpedant, what do we do to answer these two conflicting demands?
posted by AFII at 4:23 AM on August 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Permission to make quotations from Library holdings should be sought in writing from the Library."

What's the justification for this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:44 AM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sarah is the best, and I loved this article, even if my hands aren't perfectly clean of the sins she describes. I love using Twitter to have goofy fun with special collections, and I love using it to be informative and excited about them as well. I try to include links back to our records, but sometimes 140 characters doesn't allow that. I've never not replied to someone who asked for more information. And I always include links and/or citations in the official social media accounts for my library.

The tension that AFII notes is a real one. I believe firmly that everything special collections digitizes ought to be 100% freely available as aggressively as our shameful copyright laws will permit. I think "Pics" accounts have the right to use public domain materials to be cynical profiteers that contribute nothing, but that we have the right to call them out for it. I think watermarking is ultimately a losing battle, and less relevant in an age of increasingly sophisticated reverse image search.

All that said, I thought this was full of good reminders to us in special collections librarianship to think carefully about what we're doing, and how it serves the goals of our profession and our users.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:49 AM on August 11, 2015 [19 favorites]


So, I agree with the whole "lack of attribution" problem when it comes to funny captions or amusing GIFs, especially when it comes to cash grabs and lack of original research. I disagree with the need to be more informative than funny at all times. For one thing, personally, I just didn't find most of the academic "humor" she cited funny. And I have an appreciation for history and context and and and...but I found most of it lacked a sense of play and a sense of juxtaposing the present with the past in the language of today, which is an accessible starting point for historical humor for many people. She doesn't seem to believe that even "trivial" humor can spark real curiosity, and I think she's wrong.

The past is an alien world (I am about to fail at citation, because I cannot remember who I am paraphrasing here). It is a weird place that we can neither access nor completely comprehend, but we try anyway. Is gawking and poking fun at it the most erudite and profound way to interact with the remnants of it left to us? No. But fascination with oddities and such do motivate people to look at historical artifacts in a different light. You might spend a few more minutes looking at the illuminated manuscript you might have passed over briefly in the museum before, looking for cat butts or odd creatures of the imagination tucked in the margins. Even some of the new scholarship she cited as being founded in sharing on social media springs from the "Huh, that seems weird/off" tickle that someone had. Humor is very often from a similar "hey, that's odd" place.

Anyway, I realize I haven't perfectly fleshed out my point, and I have to go to work, where I will be interacting with my collections and indeed, looking up the documentation showing the historic value of some of my educational specimens. And yes, when my non-history students (all of them) learn about the history of the specimens, they make jokes; at the same time, they're often a bit awed knowing that all of their predecessors for over a century have studied these same bones for the same ultimate purpose.
posted by Naamah at 4:55 AM on August 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


The past is an alien world (I am about to fail at citation, because I cannot remember who I am paraphrasing here).

The Go-Between is a novel by L. P. Hartley published in 1953. The novel begins with the line "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Librarians!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:03 AM on August 11, 2015 [33 favorites]


Thank you! I remembered it's officially "foreign country" in the shower just now, but I still couldn't remember the cite.

(I do think of it more as "alien planet" myself, which is why I mixed it up, since there's so much of the actual Earth we wouldn't recognize, even within the past few centuries.)
posted by Naamah at 5:20 AM on August 11, 2015


This is brilliant in general, but I think things get a bit difficult in the middle section. In particular, it seems like the problems of sharing in an informative way are understated.

"It’s not actually that hard to create tweets of visually interesting objects that help readers understand what it is and why it’s interesting and that lead them to a source where they can learn more about it. Here’s Erik, again, with a great picture and tweet that’s more than just a joke."

I tried to work out what the image referred to is using the data provided in the tweet. I can't really do it. I know that it was bequeathed to the Bodleian by someone called Douce, which gives me a bit of context and I expect I could find out more. But I don't know, looking at where the info in the tweet gets me, precisely what is involved in finding it out, how much effort it would take to find it out, and how much I will find when I get there. So I will give up, without having learned anything much about the image I'm looking at.

I know that I have better search skills than most people, and I am excessively curious, but I'm up against major uncertainty pretty quickly.

The need for description and citation when academics share images (I don't care about joke accounts, although I know the author dislikes certain aspects of their behaviour) is clear, but it's also tricky while Twitter is the main platform. There's only so much you can convey in ~140 characters.

I think the author is possibly looking at things too narrowly in terms of academic citation, and not sufficiently in terms of context for the layperson. I think it's probably more important, in a lot of cases, to focus on helping the viewer understand the image than on enabling them to access its source. These will sometimes work together and sometimes conflict, so it's likely to be an ongoing struggle.
posted by howfar at 6:14 AM on August 11, 2015


I fully agree on the maddening effects of ludicrous, counter-productive use of copyright and other restrictive mechanisms on academic material, and she speaks sense about not getting obsessed with metrics. (I particularly dislike how, if you attempt to have any sort of finessed discussion about metrics with those who think of nothing else, you get the "you don't understand/you're against/you are scared of metrics" argument. No, I understand and appreciate metrics, thank you, and they can be useful, but they have to be used properly.)

But I don't agree about the dangers of the lolbots. I do understand the frustrations felt when it happens, the feelings of unfairness and inappropriateness, because it does feel wrong to have something you're involved with at a serious level used like that, especially for someone else's profit when it seems that nothing good is coming back as a result.

Good stuff does come back. I've had innumerable friends become aware of the richness of medieval manuscripts through precisely this, and that wouldn't have happened otherwise. And an uncited image isn't an orphan; if you like it, then image search will likely find you more, and better connected, examples. Or just plain search for obvious keywords, which will land you on a pukka medievalist's blog in no time. Job done.

And besides, as Terry Gilliam's Python animations so ably demonstrated, this stuff is funny. Hurrah!
posted by Devonian at 7:57 AM on August 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


There's a cite to Mefi's Own (tm) Horace Rumpole. Look for the dudes on skates.

Huh, usually he's just wearing a MetaFilter t-shirt, but the skates would make him easier to spot at meetups.
posted by maryr at 8:04 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I moderate a Facebook group focused on sharing and discussing old photos of DC, where we post decent-sized, unwatermarked images from a variety of sources every day. It has 30K+ followers, and routinely reaches 50-80K people a week. Followers regularly share images from their personal collections, help one another identify photos, and post detail-rich and moving anecdotes (or just exchange gossip) about the city's past.

DC's primary historical society - who are 100+ years old and have a stunningly rich image collection - largely refuses to share anything other than tiny, badly watermarked images via social media (including images in the public domain), and those only sporadically, and have ~3000 followers on FB. They rarely respond to questions and comments, and basically treat social media as a mimeograph machine. They have so. much. good . stuff. - it makes me want to punch a wall.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:45 AM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]




I think of people misappropriating/mis-using old images in this way; if it wasn't for misappropriation, we wouldn't have lots of the ancient information we have now. Put everything in one Library of Alexandria, and you risk losing it all in one swoop. Spread it indiscriminately and even if all legitimate copies vanish, maybe something can be rescued from a stupid meme or Tumblr joke someday.

(I don't feel the same about people swiping living people's art off of Tumblr and claiming it/failing to attribute it, because that is just being a jerk to the artist. But medieval manuscript authors aren't around to be upset by your using their art.)
posted by emjaybee at 9:10 AM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


How much of this stuff is official institutional policy, how much is what the web/publishing tools available (or mandated) afford?
posted by thefool at 10:44 AM on August 11, 2015


When the Cologne archives collapsed, destroying many medieval and early modern documents, they made a call out to see what various patrons had digitized.

I keep thinking of all the institutions who make digitization expensive or impossible: they are preventing researchers from making free backups for them.
posted by jb at 11:02 AM on August 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


Great article and great discussion; thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 11:05 AM on August 11, 2015


DC's primary historical society

[Not me, i swear.]


I work in academic publishing and have in my project archive many wonderful high-res scans* of out-of-copyright photos/illustrations that i’d love to share online but for most the usage agreement with the library/museum/etc. prohibits me from doing anything with them outside of the scope of the projects i acquired them for.

I know the Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. decision probably means that i couldn’t be successfully sued for copyright infringement, but nevertheless i could end up seriously damaging my relationship with these organizations. The places online where these images would be most appreciated include a few members who are employees of those archives. Someone would get territorial and pissy. Meanwhile the official online version of these images (when they are online at all) are crappy, over-compressed, and small with ugly watermarks.


* High-res and high-quality even from a professional print publishing point-of-view. Absolutely gorgeous images. Like seriously, man, this information is begging to be free.
posted by D.C. at 11:41 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


DC, that's a real shame.

I'm an occasional rabbit-holer of the LoC and other digitized collections with a useful interface (sidebar: is there a collection of those anywhere? Do we have a FPP yet?) and especially considering difficulty of access to the original works it's almost an incumbent responsibility to make a version available widely.
posted by a halcyon day at 12:11 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why does holding a rare book entitle a library to control reproduction of its contents? Is this some weird portion of copyright law I don't know about?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:59 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


It doesn't (see above reference to Corel v. Bridgeman). But much like clickwrap licenses on software, a library can set the terms under which it agrees to make a copy of its book for you. My library, I'm proud to say, no longer sets such terms, with some very limited exceptions where our hands were tied by previous generations who accepted donations of materials with use restrictions. And the movement towards greater openness is gaining ground in the profession.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:10 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't think Werner is specifically calling out lolbots and other silly, out-of-context usages by third parties when she says "be more serious." I think she's calling out the institutions themselves who are doing the exact same thing as the lolbots but should know better and have the resources to do better. That's why I don't think the first and second points create that much tension: I don't think she's saying institutions have to control all usages of their images, just the ones they're responsible for through their own media accounts.

As a layperson, her examples of how to be informative and cite things on social media was somewhat lacking for me as well, but I think inherently there's difficulty in trying to be informative AND funny AND cite properly in a Twitter post of 140 characters. Which maybe is a hidden message that ideally, showcasing parts of your special collections is better done on, say, Instagram, where the text limits are less strict and you can do things like the Toronto Fischer Rare Books Library post she highlights in her talk.

Ultimately I wonder if the entire project of "having a social media presence" is itself inherently flawed. In a bid to chase followers and retweets, it feels like eventually every institution devolves into awful memes and bandwagon-hopping that turn the internet into a kind of pop-meme slurry, all Impact font and dumb hashtags signifying nothing and pleading to be liked or favourited. It's as if an entire public relations arm of your company has decided it can no longer talk to people normally and must resort to putting out press releases in babytalk and written in crayon to get attention. Maybe that makes me old. So be it! *shakes cane*
posted by chrominance at 3:32 PM on August 11, 2015


* High-res and high-quality even from a professional print publishing point-of-view. Absolutely gorgeous images. Like seriously, man, this information is begging to be free.

I know the Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. decision probably means that i couldn’t be successfully sued for copyright infringement, but nevertheless i could end up seriously damaging my relationship with these organizations.


Sounds like a good case for putting them out there a few decades down the road when those relationship don't matter any more. The internet archive would love to have them then, I'm sure.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:40 PM on August 11, 2015


"So what's her solution to this problem? Making access slightly more difficult, including those dreaded water marks, or considering slightly restricted copyright conditions might help, but all that would fall foul of the stuff she's complaining about in the first section. So where does that leave us? Other than crowdfunding picpedant, what do we do to answer these two conflicting demands?"

Isn't part of the philosophy of scholarship that by increasing access to these resources, people are more likely to learn what the actual context and value of pieces? Short term misinformation for the gain of long-term correct information?

"I fully agree on the maddening effects of ludicrous, counter-productive use of copyright and other restrictive mechanisms on academic material, and she speaks sense about not getting obsessed with metrics. (I particularly dislike how, if you attempt to have any sort of finessed discussion about metrics with those who think of nothing else, you get the "you don't understand/you're against/you are scared of metrics" argument. No, I understand and appreciate metrics, thank you, and they can be useful, but they have to be used properly.)"

Heh. Every time we prepared a coms report for the board of the c3 I was at, I got asked for the social media metrics, and every time I gave the ED the numbers, I gave him a long spiel about tying metrics to actual goals and strategies, and the board always just heard "We got more likes!"

(To be fair, my current consulting gig is mostly saying, "And how would we measure that?" over and over so…)
posted by klangklangston at 10:19 PM on August 11, 2015


Isn't part of the philosophy of scholarship that by increasing access to these resources, people are more likely to learn what the actual context and value of pieces? Short term misinformation for the gain of long-term correct information?

This might be the philosophy, but I've seen no evidence that it actually works in principle (or rather, the balance between the no. of people you misinform vs. those you actually inform seems way, way off). The process of correcting mistakes once they've been amplified by something like twitter is excruciatingly time consuming, often impossible, and can lead to you being called a 'pedant' - I wasn't joking about the leprosy/plague example, and correcting it is a labour of love.
posted by AFII at 10:11 AM on August 12, 2015


Someone would get territorial and pissy.

Right, I mean, what's the point in preserving history if people can actually view it and learn from it? Much better to establish a petty fiefdom and hide it from the great unwashed masses.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:46 AM on August 12, 2015


"The process of correcting mistakes once they've been amplified by something like twitter is excruciatingly time consuming, often impossible, and can lead to you being called a 'pedant' - I wasn't joking about the leprosy/plague example, and correcting it is a labour of love."

The argument would go that overall, more people have seen that image with the correct explanation now than they would have if it hadn't been digitized. I get the Sisyphean task of correcting misperceptions, but despite the handwrung language, the "dangers" of the mislabeled image are fairly small: Roughly zero people are going to diagnose themselves with plague based on a mislabeled Medieval manuscript, and scholars should be able to do enough research to turn up the real story of the image. It's not pedantry to work to correct it, but it's also not something that's very important for people outside of a very narrow subfield.
posted by klangklangston at 4:27 PM on August 12, 2015


D.C. Please tell me you've got a couple of discs somewhere with instructions to your heirs. Maybe one of the various orgs out there should set up a time capsule dropbox system, like wikileaks with a built in timer for anywhere from 1 to 40 years to protect careers.
posted by mcrandello at 9:44 PM on August 12, 2015


The argument would go that overall, more people have seen that image with the correct explanation now than they would have if it hadn't been digitized.

Yeah, and the counter argument is that this comes with a massive number of people who have been given incorrect information, which will never be corrected. The debate isn't about informing or not informing people, it's about how you maximise the good side and minimise the bad side. So, for example, watermarking, copyright, blah, can all be used to increase the number of people who see the correct image without creating a vast number of misinformed people.

And the plague issue may seem trivial to you (which is kinda my point too - if you complain about it you get 'pedant' accusations because most people don't really care/think it matters), but that's my particuarl illustration of the enormous challenge 'correcting' creates. It's a demonstration: that happens all the time, to all sorts of images, in all sorts of ways, and some of those *might* be topics a viewer thinks are important.

tldr: I am not happy with the balance here, I think it could be shifted in such a way that we're not actively contributing to misinformation - however 'trivial' that may be - online, especially not to image-based misinformation.
posted by AFII at 1:32 AM on August 13, 2015


"Yeah, and the counter argument is that this comes with a massive number of people who have been given incorrect information, which will never be corrected."

Right. So what? Are they harmed in any meaningful way? Is the field harmed in any meaningful way? The cost of this particular type of misinformation is very low.

"The debate isn't about informing or not informing people, it's about how you maximise the good side and minimise the bad side."

No, that's a framing argument. If the argument is between maximizing the good while minimizing the bad, the underlying terms of informing versus not informing have to be considered, and I'd argue that seeing it purely in the good/bad information is a false dichotomy.

"So, for example, watermarking, copyright, blah, can all be used to increase the number of people who see the correct image without creating a vast number of misinformed people."

…except that's a dubious assertion too, because social sharing allows an audience that is orders of magnitude bigger.

For a hypothetical, assume that 90% of people get the wrong info about a historical image if it's free, but that watermarking decreases that by, say, 60%, and that social sharing increases the access by one order of magnitude. If we start with an audience of 10:

With watermarking, etc.: 10 people see it, six get the correct information and four get the incorrect info (rounding up). (Incorrect info can come from e.g. digitizing library mistakes.)

Without watermarking, etc.: 100 people see it, 90 get incorrect info and 10 get the correct info.

If your mission is to promulgate the correct info, you've still done better through sharing than you would have through restriction. And without digitizing it at all, it's unlikely that more than one or two people would see that image per year.

"And the plague issue may seem trivial to you (which is kinda my point too - if you complain about it you get 'pedant' accusations because most people don't really care/think it matters), but that's my particular illustration of the enormous challenge 'correcting' creates. It's a demonstration: that happens all the time, to all sorts of images, in all sorts of ways, and some of those *might* be topics a viewer thinks are important."

Right, and in that case, it was from the original library making the mistake. But the argument that because this was difficult means that other, more important corrections will also be equally difficult doesn't follow — with more people having a legitimate stake in the knowledge, which should correlate with its importance, there's more of an incentive to correct it. An example may be instead of fixating on the misleading vividness of this one image, think about the overall trend of Wikipedia to correct errors. Outside of some ideological fights, the more people see a page, the more likely it is to be updated and corrected. Again, that's a basic argument for access.

"tldr: I am not happy with the balance here, I think it could be shifted in such a way that we're not actively contributing to misinformation - however 'trivial' that may be - online, especially not to image-based misinformation."

There may be ways to shift the balance, but restricting access doesn't serve the underlying motives of libraries to begin with. Again, I think the fallacy of misleading vividness is apt.
posted by klangklangston at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2015


Well, we're now arguing about a philosophical position, in which there's an absolutist stance that prevents discussion.

Even given it's entirely hypothetical, for me, this is fundamentally about whether you think 90 get incorrect info and 10 get correct info is better or worse than 50 get incorrect info and 40 get correct info or 10 get correct info and no one gets incorrect info.
But of course, if you've pre-decided that information ought to be free/putting barriers up is fundamentally wrong or immoral, then that weighting decision is irrelevant - those are two entirely separate debates & you're never going to come to an agreement, or even an understanding, if you're arguing across each other like that.

I don't think there's a moral imperative to provide information (especially when that has to be done at a cost) freely and openly to everyone, without barriers; I don't always think it's better to inform 10 and misinform 90 than to inform 10 and misinform just 1. So I am interested in ways to mitigate these problems, or find ways to rebalance the situation, and 'making access a bit harder' isn't off the table for me. Obviously YMMV, but free/not free is a different discussion to 'how do we mitigate this?'.
posted by AFII at 2:05 AM on August 16, 2015


"But of course, if you've pre-decided that information ought to be free/putting barriers up is fundamentally wrong or immoral, then that weighting decision is irrelevant - those are two entirely separate debates & you're never going to come to an agreement, or even an understanding, if you're arguing across each other like that."

There are two parts of this. First off, I'll cop to generally siding with the "information wants to be free" camp. I see that view as both a consequence of Enlightenment philosophy, but also something that has been historically validated — increasing access to information has improved nearly every field over the last 500 or so years.

Secondly, it's important to remember that this conversation is happening in the context of the internet, where one of the fundamental precepts is that the internet routes for the most efficient distribution of information. Arguing that more distribution of information is bad within the context of the internet seems fairly ungrounded.

So, on the internet, consistent with nearly everything we know from the distribution of knowledge from antiquity onward, it seems entirely reasonable to presume that the benefits of distributing information outweigh the downsides, generally. Obviously, that's not true of everything, but in order to argue that it's not true, the burden of proof is on the person who wishes to distinguish their case from the general.

"I don't think there's a moral imperative to provide information (especially when that has to be done at a cost) freely and openly to everyone, without barriers; I don't always think it's better to inform 10 and misinform 90 than to inform 10 and misinform just 1."

First off, again, the general philosophy of the modern academy is based on the idea that providing information is, in fact, a moral imperative — or at least so socially valuable as to be exempt from most taxes and directly funded by the public. So where you see me as making an absolutist argument, I see you as not providing an argument that distinguishes the specific from the general case, but rather just rejecting the general case out of hand.

Second off, I talked above about why I think that in this case, misinforming 90 isn't likely to provide any harm — if you've got an argument that it will harm scholarship, feel free to make it. Otherwise, honestly, it just sounds like you're working PR for Elsevier, lamenting the rise of open-access journals. If the costs of making information accessible are too high for your institution, you can either be in a situation where that's a legitimate position based on patron needs — I don't necessarily think everyone should be rushing out to scan their whole collection if it means that, say, the reference desk can't be staffed — or you can be wrongly calculating the costs and benefits of your digitization project. But in either case, the argument from the FPP would seem to hold: If you're digitizing, you should do so correctly, with an emphasis on providing more information for the public. If not, it's on you to explain why access controls are more valuable to you, and handwaving about potential misinformation seems more like the defensive pique of ego than a coherent position.

"So I am interested in ways to mitigate these problems, or find ways to rebalance the situation, and 'making access a bit harder' isn't off the table for me. Obviously YMMV, but free/not free is a different discussion to 'how do we mitigate this?'."

Right, and I'm saying that while you may see mitigation as your primary priority, absent any coherent argument for access control, it's more likely that you're viewing your collection as a fiefdom rather than a resource. You haven't stated any coherent harms, the paper you linked to specifically repudiated the theory that this was due to faulty access controls, and since access controls almost always come with greater costs to an institution than benefits when addressing archival resources that they own (something like access control for a journal is a much more nuanced and complicated discussion) arguing that mitigation should be the priority is a statement of opinion with as much relevance as saying that your favorite color is blue.

Free or not free is a discussion that's intimately connected with the topic, and if you have a case to make that mitigating misinformation should be the top priority in librarianship, you're welcome to make it. But as it stands, you simply seem to be dismissing one of the fundamental principles of academic and scientific progress because someone was wrong about something on the internet. If I'm missing something, let me know.
posted by klangklangston at 4:45 PM on August 17, 2015


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