12/12/2008

Don’t Leave Stewardship to the Companies

Filed under: library, museum — ryan @ 11:29 am

Via the Powerhouse Museum blog comes the bad news that George Oates has been laid off from Flickr (along with a lot of other people laid off from Yahoo this week). George was the person in charge of Flickr’s much-publicized collaboration with the Library of Congress. That’s bad news for the projects George has been spearheading, but I doubt she will have any problem finding a new position, even in these tough economic times.

What this does spotlight, though, is what I feel has been some magical thinking on the part of the library and museum community regarding collaboration with corporate entities. Blinded by the wealth these companies seem to command, non-profit institutions forget that corporate dominance can be fleeting. In the short term, libraries and museums should definitely be experimenting with publicizing themselves through commercial services. But believing that commercial services like Flickr, or even Google Books, represent long-term solutions to fulfilling library and museum missions is a mistake. In the worst case, it may lead to the non-profit institutions being marginalized without providing any real long-term replacement.

Google may believe it will be around for 300 years. But in a year when we’ve seen some of the best-known and longest-surviving corporations disappear in a matter of days, we should treat such boasts as the ranting of a corporate Ozymandias.

7 Responses to “Don’t Leave Stewardship to the Companies”

  1. Ryan Donahue wrote:

    Ryan,
    While I appreciate your concerns, I would hardly call participating in the Commons “Magical Thinking”, and, in fact, I feel your comments are completely without merit, at least in our case. We weighed the options in terms of participating in The Commons, but being able to show our collection to hundreds of thousands of people is just too great an opportunity to squander.

    All in all, we’ve spent 0$ on The Commons, aside from some meager staff time to write an uploader, and curate our selections.

    In addition, Flickr provides us access (the same access any flickr user has) to grab all the data we want associated with our images via the API.

    If Flickr would close tomorrow, we’d be out a half a week work of data (most collection processes’ are fired weekly here), and we’d be out probably, oh, I’ll estimate it at about 100 hours of staff time.

    And in return, thousands of comments, notes and tags, and almost a million views of our collection.

    Which will be used to make the collection and the associated data richer and more findable.

    Please let me know which part of that was magic.

    -Cordially
    Ryan Donahue
    Webmaster, George Eastman House

  2. ryan wrote:

    My comments weren’t intended as an attack on the institutions that participated in the Flickr Commons. You’ll notice that I wrote that these institutions “should definitely be experimenting with publicizing themselves through commercial services.” What I was warning against was concluding from such experiments that commercial services can provide access to cultural heritage *in lieu of* traditional institutions–a conclusion not uncommon around Silicon Valley. This is particularly true of the Google Books project, which many people believe makes traditional libraries irrelevant in the long term. My point was simply that while commercial services may provide excellent technology and reach in the short-term, they can also disappear overnight.

  3. Ryan Donahue wrote:

    You also wrote:

    “Blinded by the wealth these companies seem to command, non-profit institutions forget that corporate dominance can be fleeting.”

    Yes yes, the point is valid, but its also blindingly obvious.

  4. Michal Migurski wrote:

    Thanks for writing this.

    The nut of what you’re saying is that institutions and companies have different interests. These may support one another when funding is plentiful, but during lean years companies will put obligations to their bottom line before philanthropy or cultural work. Smart institutions treat technology ventures like they do fundraising, cultivating a diverse community of collaborators so that no single layoff would have as disproportionate an effect as George’s has. Flickr is actually quite resilient here, given their API, strong community features, and excellent remaining team.

    Google, on the other hand … it’s an awfully big basket, with an awful lot of eggs inside. I don’t trust them to keep all their adventurous external projects going if their giant pool of money should ever stop growing. Who could possibly pick up the slack of something like Google Books?

  5. ryan wrote:

    Well put, Michael, and much less inflammatorily than I did. You’re right to emphasize the Flickr API and community, which made it possible for institutions to experiment with Flickr without having to invest much time–yet also without having to give up much (or any) control. Contrast this to the typical Google approach, where they approach an institution and say, “Sit back and relax–we’ll handle everything.” While this seems very appealing to underfunded and overworked administrators, it also transfers a lot of power to Google. And if they decide some day that they can no longer justify funding access to obscure books or archival newspapers or photographs that have poor ad revenue…

  6. Michal Migurski wrote:

    I’ve seen the opening moves of this process in action once before, between representatives of Google Earth and the NSF. “It would only take about a billion dollars to do a really good, worldwide bathymetry data set” … “let me talk to some people back at the company about that”. Wide-eyed amazed from the NSF, jedi-like self-composure from Google. The corporate caprice that makes it possible for government and institutional to receive such outsized gifts from companies flush with cash is a double-edged sword: I’m reading the kcoyle Books link above and imagining such a data collection project being squashed flat halfway through when Adwords revenue dips by 0.5%.

    (btw I just had to re-type this comment after some weirdness that I attribute to javascript here - Safari, Mac OS X 10.5 - clicked in text box and the contents *poof* disappeared. Same thing happened with my previous comment, yesterday)

  7. Michal Migurski wrote:

    Speaking of which, http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/12/googlescienceda.html

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