Towards an Open Archive: UC CEISMIC

UC CEISMIC is a federated archive of materials from the Canterbury earthquakes, hosted by the University of Canterbury, which launched in November 2011. With content provided by major New Zealand cultural institutions, like Te Papa and the National Library, as well as ordinary New Zealanders, the archive is an extraordinary—and extraordinarily open—digital resource.

The idea for the archive began when Associate Professor Paul Millar from the Department of English at the University of Canterbury approached Dr James Smithies, then working at the Ministry of Health, about what he could do in response to the February earthquakes.

James pointed Paul to the 9/11 archive, organised by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. They also considered the Hurricane Memory Bank, a project designed to collect and preserve stories from hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Paul pitched the idea to the university’s Senior Management team and received a very positive response. He immediately began tireless work to get James down to Christchurch and turn the idea into reality.

With these projects in mind, James and Paul considered how they might build something similar for the Canterbury earthquakes. As James put it, the team soon decided that they “would just go out and collect everything.”

Dr Christopher Thomson, Programme Office Manager for UC CEISMIC, outlined the steps James and Paul had to take to get the archive online.

“They put a proposal to the university and got some funding to set something up. From there, they started have conversations with people across the cultural heritage sector, and saw that lots of people were asking the same kinds of questions about an archive for the Canterbury earthquakes.

“They then decided to set up the UC CEISMIC consortium.”

The UC CEISMIC consortium is led by the University of Canterbury and made up of organisations from across the cultural heritage sector, including Archives New Zealand, the National Library of New Zealand, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch City Libraries, NZ OnScreen, the Ngai Tahu Research Centre, CERATe Papa and the New Zealand Film Archive.

As Christopher puts it, “the idea was that each of the consortium members would collect their own material and archive it according to their own policies, and then use DigitalNZ to surface it in one place, so that users could search for earthquake-related content at ceismic.org.nz.”

So where does Creative Commons come in? Given the ambitions of the project, in these early stages “Creative Commons wasn’t in the mix.” Later, though, James began to introduce the idea of open licensing.

James had been a Creative Commons supporter for years, had strong support from Paul to investigate CC licenses, and was offered excellent advice from Jason Darwin at CWA New Media (later Learning Media Limited). He understood the problems ‘All Rights Reserved’ copyright can pose for heritage projects, though, and soon found there were issues having multiple licensing agreements across different sections of the project.

The problem was handed to Christopher Thomson when he arrived in the team. However, little progress could be made, despite his best efforts and those of a range of stakeholders. The problem was worst with research–oriented data, which had specific issues related to ethics and privacy.

We don’t really know how people are going to use our content… We want to leave that open as far as possible, for the future.

In the end, when approaching potential depositors, the UC CEISMIC team recommended the use of Creative Commons licences, though remained open to more restrictive licensing agreements, according to the specific needs of content providers.

The archive launched in November 2011, with ten thousand items, and continues to grow.

The University of Canterbury’s specific contribution to the consortium is called UC QuakeStudies, and includes materials from Fairfax Media, Environment Canterbury and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. While much of this content remains All Rights Reserved, the archive has recently added a collection by Murray Quartly, who runs focus360.co.nz.

After the earthquakes, Murray took a series of 360 degree panorama photographs of central Christchurch, producing what Christopher describes as a “virtual tour of the Red Zone.” After meeting with the UC CEISMIC team, Quartly decided to release the photos under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives licence.

Several more collections are ready to go live, and dozens more planned. Creative Commons will be used as much as possible, and it is hoped that a full review can be undertaken in years to come that assess opportunities to migrate targeted collections to CC licenses.

Another significant part of the consortium is QuakeStories, which is run by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. This archive contains stories and photos from the earthquake from ordinary New Zealanders, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike licence.

Both Christopher and James suggest that the biggest hurdles to using Creative Commons licences have come from researchers—especially those working through the University’s ethics committee, which is already a complex process.

The UC CEISMIC team continue to encourage their partners to use open licensing, wherever possible, and Creative Commons licences remain a core part of the UC CEISMIC programme.

As Christopher points out, “We don’t really know how people are going to use our content. It makes sense to make it open wherever possible, because we don’t know what research questions and methods will be like in 100 years’ time. We want to leave that open as far as possible, for the future.”

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