The Cultural Commons: ‘Think big, start small, but act fast!’

Author: Harry Verwayen
8 November 2012 Comment

On 29 October, the Europeana Network hosted a strategic briefing on the ‘cultural commons' in Cyprus. Yes, the weather was great, as was the hospitality of the Cypriots who are leading the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from July-December 2012.

Our event ran alongside Euromed 2012 so we were in good company and had many fruitful side-discussions with colleagues from all over Europe.

Cyprus meeting

But our meeting was concerned with one thing only: ‘The Commons, from Concept to Action’. So, what is the cultural commons? My favourite definition comes from David Bollier:

'There is no such thing as ‘the’ cultural commons. A commons follows certain design principles that govern the collective, sharable goods. It is a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. Therefore, the commons is not merely a resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources'.

Over the past year we have had many conversations about the 'commons' as a way of better harnessing the potential of our digital cultural heritage. Most people think it’s a very good thing, but there is also confusion about what it means in practice.

Charlotte Hess, one of the leading thinkers about the commons and an advisor in our Task Force expressed the potential as follows:

‘A commons provides... a new way of looking at what is shared or should be shared in the world around us. It focuses on collective action and the importance of understanding who shares what, how we share it and how we sustain commons for future generations.’ (Hess, 2008)

This captures the imagination but is not quite sufficient for action. A very inspiring keynote video by Michael Edson, one of the most thought-provoking speakers on the subject, and Web and Strategy Director at the Smithonian Institution in the US, gave us more to think about.

Michael introduced 5 important concepts for constructing a commons:

  1. The web is a giant copying machine, and an immensely powerful tool in making heritage as accessible as possible so make it work for you and your institution.
  2. Be wary of looking at Europeana as the 'mother of all websites'. Europeana is only as strong as its Network – it’s a node in an ever-expanding community of partners with common goals.
  3. There is no ready-made recipe to make a commons work. Every situation we are trying to solve is different, so don't look for the ultimate definition.
  4. Don’t assume everyone understands what we mean by 'Culture', 'Audience', 'Access' or 'Engagement'. These words may mean something quite different to others so we must express ourselves clearly.
  5. We should train ourselves to think like investors: is a commons the best investment for our time/digital objects/energy?

With this in mind, we set to work discussing 3 topics:

  1. Vision: Do we agree on the vision as laid out in the discussion paper? While the general vision was agreed on by all participants, the concept of the commons still needs to be clarified so that it is completely transparent and clear. Nick Poole, Chair of the Europeana Network pointed out that,

     

    ‘We should be careful not to build something that ends up ‘commons-like’, but really isn’t. A commons is a fundamental design principle that we need to build together, as a community.’
  2. Principles: What are the principles of the commons, in the context of the Europeana Network? Nick Poole gave us the rules of engagement of other commons, such as Flickr, Wikimedia and water suppliers, in his presentation . This provoked discussion on the subject of mutuality and the (free) re-use of content in a commons. We hope the Task Force can advise us so that we may define our rules of engagement together during the Europeana Network Annual General Meeting in Berlin on 27 November.
  3. Projects: Commons thrive on concrete action - what are the most promising projects to apply commons principles to? Merete Sanderhoff told us how she applied principles of the commons within the Danish Museums network , which helped us to see how we could apply this in future Europeana projects. We also discussed a 'Research Commons' as presented by Louise Edwards.

The group concluded that it is a good idea to test our ideas out in real life and we’ll start with three pilots: Europeana Research, Europeana Tourism, and infrastructure.

We made real progress in Cyprus and we’re eager to discuss it with you in Berlin. In the meantime, if you have any questions or remarks, please leave a comment below.