UC Berkeley Library makes it easier to digitize collections responsibly with novel workflows and bold policy

If you’ve spent any time stoking your curiosity with the UC Berkeley Library’s new online Digital Collections website, you’ve likely discovered all types of treasures digitized from the Library’s collections. The Library has already scanned and made available a virtual mountain of materials, from a photo of folk icon Joan Baez singing in front of Sproul Hall in 1964, to (almost) the entire run of the Daily Californian student newspaper.

The effort is part of the Library’s moonshot goal of wanting to make its estimated 200 million items from its special collections (rare books, manuscripts, photographs, archives, and ephemera) available online for the world to discover and use. But there’s a catch: Before institutions can reproduce materials and publish them online for worldwide access, they have to sort out complicated legal and ethical questions — ones that often stop libraries and other cultural heritage organizations from being able to move forward in setting these treasures free.

The good news? It just got easier to navigate these challenges, thanks to newly released responsible access workflows developed by the Library, which stand to benefit not only UC Berkeley’s digitization efforts, but also those of cultural heritage institutions such as museums, archives, and libraries throughout the nation.

Unveiling the responsible access workflows

Implementing digitization services requires cultural heritage institutions to navigate four key law and policy issues for which, until now, there has not been broadly available systematic guidance. For instance:

• Copyright: Are the materials protected by copyright, or have they entered the public domain? If they are protected by copyright, does the University of California own the copyright? If not, does a relevant copyright exception apply that would permit the Library to create and distribute digital copies anyway?

• Contracts: Do acquisition agreements limit how or whether the Library can digitize materials or provide online access? For instance, does an agreement restrict access only to the Library’s reading rooms, or for a certain number of years, or to registered researchers?

• Privacy: Do the items reveal information that could infringe upon the privacy rights of the subjects under federal and state laws?

• Ethics: Are there social and religious customs, or other circumstances (threats of personal or legal harm, or risks of exploitation of people, natural or cultural resources, or indigenous knowledge) that could impact the digitization or use of the materials?

Not only must institutions navigate these complex areas of law and policy, but also they need to make their own determinations about how to proceed when uncertainty arises — such as instances in which underlying information about a collection (such as rights ownership) is lacking from collection files or is difficult to resolve.

Having to develop expertise in these complex areas of law and policy can easily deter cultural heritage organizations from engaging in digitization efforts. The Library recognized an opportunity to provide public-facing support through the release of responsible access workflows, out today. The workflows — developed by the Library, with initial input from staff from The Bancroft Library and subject libraries at Berkeley — are shared under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC 4.0) so they can be customized by other institutions to suit local decision-making practices.

“We’re thrilled to bring the responsible access workflows to life so we can diligently expand public access to our collections,” said Rachael Samberg, the Library’s scholarly communication officer, who led the team that developed the workflows.

The real work in applying the workflows, Samberg said, will come down to an individual institution’s determinations about how to proceed at junctures where decisions could be made at scale (represented by the boxes highlighted in yellow in the workflows).

“That’s also what makes the workflows adaptable,” she continued. “Every institution can answer those questions in accordance with their own local policies.”

Take these pictures from American World War II photographer (and UC Berkeley alumna) Thérèse Bonney — among the many images from her collection of stirring photographs at The Bancroft Library. Applying the new workflows confirms that the Library can move forward with making this valuable collection available online, Samberg said.

Bonney images
These images by Thérèse Bonney are among the stirring photos in her collection at The Bancroft Library. Applying the UC Berkeley Library’s new responsible access workflows, released today, confirms that the Library can indeed make the collection available online. (Left to right: BANC PIC 1982.111--NNEG box 92 [item 083]; BANC PIC 1982.111--NNEG box 92 [item 025]; BANC PIC 1982.111.06.1218--NNEG)

The Library is now beginning the next important task of creating extensive supporting documentation explaining how to answer each step or question in the workflows — what information one needs, what the terminology means, and where to look to find the answers. This will allow Library staff at Berkeley and elsewhere to confidently apply the workflow steps in accordance with local practice.

Community engagement policy

The workflows also serve an important second purpose: a framework for applying the accompanying community engagement policy.

“The Library really wants to hear from community members about our collections, and answer questions people may have about why some of our content is made available online,” said Salwa Ismail, associate university librarian for digital initiatives and information technology, who oversees the Digital Collections website. “The community engagement policy is our way of doing that.”

Users who wish to make requests to restrict, limit, update, or remove access to digital content can reach out to the Library through the community engagement policy. The Library will assess the merits of a request within a specified timeframe.

Ismail said the policy also includes a statement of four principles that mirror the law and policy set forth in the workflows. This way, content that has gone through the workflows and has been given a green light for digitization and online access will remain online unless users provide additional information that leads to a different workflow result, she said.

This statement of principles incorporates a bold stance to help account for and safeguard community interests — one that distinguishes the Library’s policy from those of many other academic libraries. In developing the principles, the Library took direction from the handful of leading institutions and public organizations that have adopted these kinds of principle statements, with one key distinction: the inclusion of ethical considerations such as social and religious customs, and other circumstances that may impact the use of materials.

Michael Lange, the Library’s copyright and information policy specialist, who worked on the development of the workflows and policy, said these ethical considerations were “particularly critical on the UC Berkeley campus and with our collections, given the breadth and depth of materials the Library stewards regarding cultural communities who historically have been disadvantaged by Western power structures.”

Ethics best practices and next steps

Much more work still needs to be done to fully realize the vision of the workflows and community engagement policy, Samberg said. In addition to overseeing the creation of implementation documentation, Samberg is leading a team working on the development of local best practices for the ethics workflow.

“Right now,” she said, “the ethics workflow requires application of local best practices when digitization could lead to harm or exploitation.”

But how are harm and exploitation evaluated? And what are the local ethical best practices that will be applied? Look forward to more on that this fall, Samberg said.

Other next steps include the assignment of rights statements to the digitized content, which will allow users to easily spot what legal protections (if any) apply to a given item.

Ismail is optimistic and invigorated by what lies ahead. “It is our hope,” she said, “that these principles and these types of policies inspire even more academic libraries to consider and more confidently navigate these challenges in the provision of digital access to research-rich collections.”

Top photo from Ammerschwihr, France, captioned "At Meyer's House,” most likely a family with castor oil made in 1944 to 1946. (Thérèse Bonney photograph collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, BANC PIC 1982.111.06.1220--NNEG)