Independent Voices

Independent press digitisation – new directions and lessons learned

A couple of year ago Jisc worked with Reveal Digital to provide early access to US independent press publications for UK Higher Education institutions (the US publications are now openly accessible). This led us to working with 13 UK universities to define a set of UK material which would complement the US offer.

Earlier this year, we issued an open call for information relating to independent press publications in the categories second wave feminism, and the struggle for racial equality in Britain. We had ten submissions from HEI libraries and independent community archives and libraries. According to our criteria we were not able to proceed with two of those proposals and this left us with eight to investigate in terms of the potential rights clearance complexity, and estimated costs of such clearances.

The assessment of all the material in the eight repositories, all of which is in copyright, led us to estimate that 24,000 items would require some form of rights clearance.  Of these, we think that 25-40% might be orphan works. Now that the assessment has been completed, we know that the total cost of clearance would be more than £500,000 which is well outside our available budget.

The work to identify rights owners in all the content offered was not in vain, as we now have a very clear view of what would be involved in making independent press material available for research. The assessment of rights was conducted by Naomi Korn Associates, a specialist consultancy in rights clearance for cultural heritage content. Each of the submitting archives and libraries was visited by an associate and the proposed content was examined in some detail to evaluate the layers of rights in each publication, and the likely numbers of people who would need to be identified and traced.

We had originally anticipated digitising a lot of material from one of two or the submitting organisations. For example, one institution proposed the digitisation of 11 independent press titles amounting to approximately 8,000 pages. As it was not possible to review the whole collection in the two allocated days we sampled about 30% or 140 issues across the 11 titles. The associate searched for named authors and other copyright related information.

With smaller proposals we evaluated the full set of materials to gain a very accurate understanding of the rights clearance task. In each instance there were layers of rights to clear; in the publication, in photographs, in illustrations, adverts and authors or articles and letters.

As we couldn’t proceed to clear multiple publications due to budget constraints, we decided to investigate if we could digitise one with a complete run. The feminist publication Outwrite Women’s Newspaper fitted both of our selection categories, second wave feminism and the struggle for racial equality in Britain. It had a complete run in one of the libraries and in one archive. Additionally, it has an international perspective, potentially making it attractive to a wider audience. Furthermore, digitising a single title would get us away from a fragmented curated approach in which we would digitise a few titles with very short runs.

The cost of clearing Outwrite would still cost £75,000 for approximately 1,100 pages of content. We proposed this to the 13 member institutions which are supporting this open access digitisation effort (they each paid a fee for early access to the US collection Independent Voices, 50% of which we assigned to digitisation of UK publications). A number of those participating have come back to say they like the idea of digitising a single publication with a multidisciplinary perspective but some have questioned if it provides value for money. We too have been examining this and have consulted with Jisc’s Digital Archival Collections advisory group (a subgroup of the Jisc Collections Content Strategy Group) about this aspect of the proposal.

The cost per page of clearing Outwrite may well be in excess of £70.00 per page. This made the proposal extremely poor value for money and digitising one publication also does very little for scholarly endeavour. We have, after our consultation and weighing the risks, decided to re-allocate the available budget to the digitisation of material which, whilst most likely still in copyright, would not require the same scale of rights clearance.

It’s not just about rights clearance though. In addition to the technical aspect of clearing rights we were aware that there would be an associated need to engage directly with the communities from which these publications originated. This is of equal importance to the legal clearance when working with independent press material. We had started to have conversations with some of the community archives about an approach to this. We were given clear warning that we would have to be doing the work with, rather than to, the communities of interest.

This indicated that there would be a significant workload in addition to the legal work to engage with the originators of the publications; those with a stake in the issues which the publications seek to address. Some of these protagonists will still be involved in activism related to the issue which the publication was aimed at. In some instances, they may no longer wish to be associated with that activism. We now have new legislation to consider (GDPR) as people have the right to erasure (to be forgotten).

If we were to proceed with clearing Outwrite (or for any other publication which was proposed) we would have first to agree with the archives and communities of interest how to proceed. The moral rights of the publishers, authors, photographers and any other participants would have been right at the heart of the project.  From our point of view, the whole piece must be seen from benefit vs risk. The benefits of clearing a small number of pages are a limited and the cost and labour of clearing rights, engaging communities and digitising the content would be high.

So, in the end, we believe we should go back to the drawing board to see if there is other material we could digitise. We would still like to address the stated objective of digitising in-copyright material which documents the evolution of radical movements.

The material we are considering is of an earlier chronological span, thus minimising copyright clearance costs and potentially offering substantially more material for teaching, learning and research. We still want to focus on the struggle for equality and socio-political movements, probably in the earlier part of the 20th century.  Such material will continue to pose a challenge and is likely to need a level of rights clearance, but we anticipate it to be a more manageable task.


By Peter Findlay

Subject Matter Expert, Digital Scholarship, Content and Discovery, Jisc

Working with Jisc's Higher Education members to improve access to to their special collections in the age of data-centric arts, humanities and social science research.

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