Openness, Special Collections and funding: ethics and access

The open agenda is now widely accepted in Higher Education (HE); REF scores and funding require serious consideration of openness, and movements such as the international Plan S have ensured that public access to the fruits of academic research is firmly on the agenda at institutional level. Further, government rhetoric continues to emphasise the need for publically funded research findings to be available to anyone without extra cost. Independent advice provided for one 2018 Government Report emphasised the importance of ensuring that funding will ‘deliver the maximum value for the public pound’ (Tickell, p.3). Less accepted is the way in which such openness should be funded, with questions about whether the ‘Gold’ OA model is sustainable, and who will end up footing the bill for this access.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Special Collections materials play a key role in many research projects, providing the raw data from which new interpretations and understanding can be extrapolated and shared. These discoveries tend to reflect the concerns of bettering society and furthering knowledge espoused by HE visionaries such as Lord Robbins. As Padma Inala has noted in #OKHE1, librarians tend to embrace the open ethos, sharing within and beyond their communities; when it comes to Special Collections materials, librarians and archivists continue to want to share the materials within their care as widely as they can.

Given the challenges of access to much Special Collections material (which may be fragile, rare, valuable, or housed in difficult to reach locations), physical interaction isn’t always possible for the majority of people. Digitisation has, for some time, been seen as the key to opening up access to these rare and unique materials. This has transformed scholarship, for example Grigory Kessel’s work bringing together materials previously scattered across the world and providing communities with access to materials which form part of their cultural heritage. There are therefore also social benefits to enabling greater access to special collections online, with a 2019 RLUK report suggesting that increasing levels of interaction with special collections materials now take place in the digital, rather than physical, world.

Digitise and they will come

However, simply digitising and putting materials online is not enough to enable real access; the fallacy of ‘digitise and they will come’ was tired even in 2014. Instead, enabling genuine digital access to rare materials requires thought, curation, infrastructure, technical expertise and interpretation. All of these actions come with a cost: while the open ideal is for materials to be free at point of use, there is always an associated cost in reaching that point.

Photo by Christopher Flynn on Unsplash

Cambridge Digital Library (and the recently announced Manchester Digital Collections) is an example of a step change in the way that Special Collections material may be made available to all users, allowing the reuse, remixing, revision and redistribution of content (key components of open, according to Weller). Tools underlying these developments include the use of IIIF compliant images, TEI metadata and implementation of more open Creative Commons licences. Far from providing static and restricted access to key ‘treasures’ in particular collections, the move towards localised, institutional digitisation provides an opportunity to open up research material to the world in a meaningful way. Such initiatives require substantial funding and skill to implement, maintain and develop. This leads to the question: in the brave new world of open access, who should pay for opening these collections to the world?

Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

APCs and subscriptions

Considering how to fund open access to special collections materials leads one down the well-trodden paths of open access journal publications. As Sarah Kember notes, the idea of access for all is a good one, but in reality, will institutions end up paying for this and be faced with issues of prioritisation of material and how to ensure diverse representation? In the world of open access publishing, the sustainability of the ‘Gold’ model (journal publishers charging for making articles open access) has been questioned. Kember points out that the less lucrative Humanities disciplines may miss out when faced with high production costs for publication with relatively low returns, compared with STEM subjects which may generate business partnerships and further income. If digitised special collections materials are only of interest to small communities, will institutions under increasing financial pressures continue to fund access?

Further, as Christopher Pressler has explained (p.10), while the act of digitising material can be considered relatively cheap, the appropriate storage, preservation, cataloguing and support to access are not. These costs are usually borne by the institution, which must increase its storage and enhance its systems regularly in order to maintain access.


Much has been made of successful ‘commercial’ collaborations between collections holders and companies such as Adam Matthew and Gale, through which special collections material is digitised and sold as part of a package to subscribers. Through these arrangements, the institutions which provide content are usually given preferential rates to access the packages, allowed to make a small percentage of digitised material freely available immediately and given the right to make all materials freely available after an agreed time period. This arrangement mirrors the ‘embargo’ arrangement which some journal publishers require, before an article can be made openly available, for example through an institutional repository.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

Such an arrangement can be beneficial by making special collections material available to those researchers who can access the packages, which may increase interest and the likelihood of finding further funding to digitise any remaining material of interest to other researchers over a longer period. However, while commercial agreements rarely fund the digitisation of an entire archive (generally picking items from different repositories to create their resource), these may be key items which would be unavailable to researchers who could not afford to pay for the resource, or further digitisation.

First come….

Some special collections repositories follow the model implemented by the British Library’s Ethos service, which aims to digitise and make available all doctoral theses completed in the UK. This model sees the first requestor paying for the digitisation, which is then available to all others without further financial cost. This offers a more open version of the ‘pay per view’ access suggested by Pressler in his 2014 RLUK report.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

When it comes to special collections materials, this model often provides a scattergun approach: individual researchers may be willing to pay for one or two items to be digitised, but are unlikely to be willing to fund the breadth of digitisation which a commercial agreement might provide. In addition, this practice mirrors the double payment of institutions for access to journals (with many special collections funded by public money, should taxpayers be asked to pay for digital access?). This model does, however, enable relatively quick open access to special collections material which covers the costs of digitisation and may contribute to ongoing support.

Funded researchers associated with HE institutions may request digitisation in this manner, often at larger scale to those without funding. In these cases, the researcher may request a restriction in access to the digitised collection for a short period of time, in order to enable them to carry out their research on hitherto unknown materials. With most special collections strategically aligned to their parent institutions’ goals of supporting research, this specific embargo is often more palatable, providing a promise of open access in a shorter timescale to that normally required by commercial publishers. Further, use in a research publication has the potential to encourage wider use of the digitised materials, once they are available, by other researchers.

Funding bids

Many significant funders in the Humanities sector now require open access outputs, and expect open data to be available where possible. Special collections materials can be a beneficiary of these arrangements, although they may be subject to a short embargo for the duration of the research project, as discussed above. Such bids rarely include consideration of long-term support for any digital resources, so this cost is often passed back to the parent institution once the project is completed. The institution must then find a way to maintain the outputs where it can, potentially requiring changes to infrastructure in order to sustain access to resources.

Larger digitisation opportunities may also come from individual donors, either through the impetus of the institution, or through a third party seeking support for a specific project. Such donors can enable the institution to digitise at scale and make collections material freely available without embargo. However, this avenue comes with challenges of individual preference and interest, which may limit the ability to offer full access to complete collections.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


When it comes to advocating for open access to special collections materials, all of the funding models outlined above are imperfect, with some raising particular ethical problems. Chief of these is the inherent bias in any selection of material for digitisation. If digitised material is the main way in which the majority of people experience special collections, it follows that the material which is digitised will appear, to the majority, to be the complete collection.

In order support of scholarship, repositories must often prioritise materials relevant to research projects; this is particularly true where researchers or larger funding bodies are providing the funding. However, these scholarship needs may not be representative of the complete collection. For example, a funding bid may enable the digitisation of all the medieval manuscripts written in English in a collection, but not for those written in a variety of other languages. Those accessing the digitised collection would then be restricted to English manuscripts unless they could travel to the repository to view other manuscripts physically, or pay for their digitisation. Further, non-specialists, without the knowledge to interrogate available catalogues, may not even be aware of the existence of the non-English material, which would lead to skewed perceptions and perhaps skewed conclusions being drawn from the material.

Academic research and funders are generally regulated by public bodies, with diversity increasingly a consideration when funding applications are submitted. Indeed, the 2019 Educause Horizon Report highlighted that simply having access to digital material is not sufficient: there must be provision for representing a range of voices online (p.18). However, donor financing or commercial companies may not have an overriding interest in providing a balanced picture of collections and may deliberately (perhaps for legitimate reasons) focus upon one particular area of collections to the detriment of others. This will have an impact on the ability to fund digitisation of collections in order to make any of it open, and thus on further research, scholarship and understanding of the materials.

In his advice to the government report on Open Access to Research Publications, Tickell calls for transparency in the outcome of negotiations with journal publishers around subscriptions. It is worth considering such transparency, where possible, around funding for the digitisation of special collections materials, and ensuring that any digitised special collections material includes clear signposting to other areas of the collection.

Public Domain

Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash

A further challenge in debate around open access to special collections materials, is that of public domain access. Many historical materials are in the public domain; either out of copyright, or subject to copyright exemptions. It is fair to question whether the digitisation of such materials really creates a separate entity which is no longer in the public domain: if the original is open to all, shouldn’t the digital surrogate be open, too? It is interesting to note that the EU Directive on open data and reuse of public sector information (adopted by the UK in 2005 and updated in 2015) specifically includes materials in museums, libraries and archives. This Directive allows EU member states to enable partnerships between repositories and commercial companies (paragraph 49) to provide access to digital materials, providing the embargo period is no longer than 10 years. This Directive considers educational and commercial use a key driver in making digital collections openly available, although it notes an exemption in the case of performing arts collections due to complex intellectual property and other rights (paragraph 65).


With these ethical and financial considerations in mind, what is the role of the professionals who support access to these collections, both physical and digital? Should these professionals be empowered to make judgements about which collections are made openly available, and which are not prioritised, as they do when considering issues of copyright and intellectual property? Such professionals are certainly trained to consider issues of bias, diversity and access, but often have limited power to influence financial decisions which enable or inhibit open access to collections. A pragmatic solution would be to ensure that the professionals’ voice is heard, alongside those of researchers, key members of the institution and of the communities which HE aims to serve.

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Does it really matter?

It may seem that digitisation enabling open access to special collections material is a small and insignificant concern, when considering the wider financial, social and political pressures upon HE and the drive to provide open access. But with research reliant upon reinterpreting this material and the increased requirement and ubiquity of open access to researchers’ data, we ignore the inherent challenges of opening up access to special collections at our peril. If the materials which are being used are increasingly those available online (as has been demonstrated in the case of OA published articles) then those which are chosen to be made available online, free at point of use, will surely influence the scholarship of the future.

In an ideal world, all public domain materials in special collections should be available digitally to all, with supporting metadata, infrastructure and support. However, the funding to achieve this is unlikely to materialise, leaving researchers, professionals and institutions to make difficult choices about what can be achieved. A pragmatic mixture of the funding options highlighted above is the most likely way forward; while we cannot, at present, hope to digitise everything, we can hope that these various strategies will see key materials made available and mechanisms to support open access to future areas of interest.

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Further distance from the ‘digitise and they will come’ model is still required: it is incumbent on researchers, professionals and members of the institutions to consider the long-term access and use of special collections materials online. This can be supported by ensuring continued conversations between the wide variety of interested groups. Such conversations would support impact for the academy by increasing the understanding and awareness of special collections materials and their value to different communities.

In order to offer truly open access to special collections, we must think beyond merely making the outputs of research openly available. The building blocks of these outputs (the resources and discussions around them) should also be made accessible to the wider public to support a genuine dialogue about the value of research and learning in society.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store