Scotland must not be left behind as a new digital revolution releases free culture, science, and knowledge to the world – Catherine Stihler

The Edinburgh festivals are an extraordinary blend of entertainment and culture, which also serve the vital purpose of sharing knowledge.

The Smithsonian in Washington DC has released more than 2.8 million digital images and nearly two centuries of data into the public domain (Picture: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)
The Smithsonian in Washington DC has released more than 2.8 million digital images and nearly two centuries of data into the public domain (Picture: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

Whether it’s a hard-hitting play that exposes a hidden truth, a revealing lecture from an author or TV personality, or a science workshop for children, the myriad of events and exhibitions broaden our horizons.

While many people associate the festivals with street performers and dimly lit Fringe venues, the capital’s museums, galleries and libraries have long been an integral part of the programme.

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But this year’s smaller and more intimate festival season – while undoubtedly necessary amid an ongoing pandemic – means there will be fewer visitors to Edinburgh and the footfall in the city’s museums and galleries will be far lower than usual. And that, in turn, means fewer opportunities to share knowledge.

So it’s time to deliver more open knowledge through better sharing.

At Creative Commons, a global non-profit organisation, our mission is to enable the global sharing of knowledge and creativity.

Primarily we do this through Creative Commons (CC) licences which give everyone from individual creators to large institutions a way to grant the public permission to use their creative work under copyright law.

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You will have seen the impact this has many more times than you perhaps realise – for example all Wikipedia content in every language is under a CC licence.

But our work also extends to what is known as ‘Open Glam’ – Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

At the heart of this is collaboration, innovation and creativity so that we can open up access to our cultural heritage.

This is more important than ever at a time when opportunities to visit galleries and museums are so restricted.

And there could be a long-lasting impact from the pandemic.

As Covid took hold across the globe, the International Council on Museums (Icom) found that “nearly one-third of [Glam institutions] will reduce staff, and more than one-tenth may be forced to close permanently” due to temporary closures and the reduction in ticket sales.

Closures have particularly affected institutions in Africa and Asia, while many institutions across the world have since been forced to lay off large swathes of their staff and cut programmes.

This risks restricting access to cultural heritage, amplifying existing inequalities and inequities, with a ripple effect that will last for years, if not decades.

But while the pandemic may have closed physical doors, the past year has also opened online doors around the world.

Digital communication activities increased for at least 15 per cent of museums surveyed by Icom, and those that were already committed to open access were able to respond quickly and creatively to the challenge presented by the pandemic.

After years of collaborative efforts from members of the Creative Commons team, the Wikimedia Foundation, and more, the Smithsonian in Washington DC released more than 2.8 million digital 2D and 3D images and nearly two centuries of data into the public domain.

It’s an incredible treasure trove of human history, now available to all – wherever you are in the world.

Along with the Paris Musées, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Auckland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art and others, nearly five million digital open images have been released using Creative Commons tools in recent years.

And many more institutions adopted open access policies during the pandemic, releasing millions of cultural artefacts to the public in Canada, France, Germany and Spain.

While many Glam institutions have been implementing and benefiting from open access policies for over a decade, the pandemic has shown how vital it is that institutions become open. This has set a new norm for Glam.

It is vital that the UK and Scotland, home to so much knowledge, is not left behind in this digital revolution.

We’re working to help organisations across the world open their archives by, for example, launching a Glam certificate course and stewarding a sustainable social, technical and legal infrastructure. The charitable fund Arcadia is a key partner in this, awarding a US $5 million grant to us to advance open access.

But this is not just about sharing cultural heritage; it’s about doing it more responsibly, collaboratively, and equitably.

For example, the majority of the Glam workforce is still predominantly white, and issues of racial justice and equity are still hard to bring to the table.

One of the key themes of our 20th anniversary celebrations this year is better sharing.

So while we’ve come a long way in increasing access to valuable information, historic images, scientific articles, educational resources, cultural artefacts, and so much more, there is still work to do to put the tools to share and re-share content in the hands of everyone, everywhere.

Greater access to information means a stronger global community, more innovation, and increased capacity to solve key challenges the world faces today.

We’re hoping to raise millions of pounds through our anniversary campaign to ensure we can build a more accessible, equitable and open infrastructure that truly responds to community needs.

We’ll be doubling down on our efforts to develop clear licensing and legal tools that are easy to understand and available in many languages; ensure access for all to open information and materials, not only those with privilege; and empower easy-to-use platforms, where free content can be accessed by anyone regardless of their skill level with technology.

And we’ll be launching new ventures in open science to remove unnecessary barriers to addressing key issues like future public health crises and the climate emergency.

Through better sharing that serves the public interest we can create the world the internet promised – one where everyone has access to culture, science, and knowledge.

Catherine Stihler is chief executive of Creative Commons and a former MEP for Scotland

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