5.1 Open GLAM: Open Access to Cultural Heritage

The concept of “open” has served different purposes in a variety of fields, from software to scholarly communications, to research and education, to science and culture. Generally speaking, the notion of “open” in these fields often refers to “making something accessible” without financial, technological, or legal restrictions that limit reuse. The cultural heritage sector currently lacks consensus around a clear open GLAM definition, but there is general agreement that GLAMs should provide as open access as possible to their collections in the digital environment. In particular, a central tenet of open GLAM is that digital reproductions of public domain works should be made available for free and without restrictions. Open GLAM harnesses digital technologies, the web, open licensing, and the public domain to provide free and open access to cultural heritage and enable its reuse.

Learning Outcomes

  • Define “open” in the context of cultural heritage and other open movements
  • Understand the role of public policy and institutional practices in promoting openness

The Big Question / Why It Matters

Concepts and terminology from other open movements might need to be adapted to actually reflect the practices of the open GLAM space. CC licenses and public domain tools provide a global standard for making copyright works openly available, but the definition of “open” in the cultural heritage sector is not just about open licenses. Different levels of policies that support open GLAM are important to grant the public the ability to reuse works in an easy way.

Open GLAM Logo (black and white)

Logo of the Open GLAM initiative.

Personal Reflection / Why it Matters To You

What is your institution’s mission and how might openness support this mission? What has been your understanding of openness so far? Have you ever been unable to access or reuse a work in your research or public engagement or for your own enjoyment? How do you think legal and policy frameworks and institutional practices might shape openness?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

What is Open?

For the cultural heritage sector, Open, or “Open Access”, is still an evolving definition. The cultural heritage sector has developed different approaches to open.

Douglas McCarthy and Andrea Wallace, authors of the Open GLAM survey, refer to this challenge in their Medium post “Uncovering the global picture of Open GLAM,” noting: “The precise meaning of ‘open’ sometimes lacks consensus; it’s often self-designated and rather opaque.” GLAMs engage with considerably different forms of content and contexts, so it is not always clear what open should mean.

Generally, open GLAM may be understood as the online sharing of digital cultural heritage material with as few copyright restrictions as possible.

For GLAMs and other entities working with cultural heritage, there are generally four types of content that can be made available under open access:

  • Digitized works stewarded by GLAMs whose rights have expired (works in the public domain), for example, the works by 19th century French impressionist painter Claude Monet;
  • Works and other original content currently under copyright and created by other people (e.g. artists, researchers, or members of the public) who have given their permission to share the works with as few copyright restrictions as possible. For example, a researcher that donates her manuscripts to an archive or an artist who donates her work to a museum; each providing the permission to release these materials as open access;
  • Works and other original content to which the GLAM institution owns the rights, for example, original research produced by employees or contractors of the GLAM institution in the context of an exhibit;
  • Any type of metadata[1] produced by the GLAM institution.

A narrow definition of Open Access for GLAM generally refers to the dedication of digital reproductions of works into the public domain. This means that the digitized versions of these works are free of copyright restrictions and can be used for any purpose, free of charge, without permission. We will see more of what this means in Section 5.3.

Having a working definition of “open” makes it easier for users to understand what they can do with GLAMs’ digital reproductions. Open Knowledge International’s explanation of open data, open content and open knowledge in the “Open Definition” has become the recognized definition in the field. The Open Definition is summarized as:

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose.” The Open Definition also has a set of conformant licenses that abide by this definition, including CC0, CC BY, and CC BY-SA.

This means that the release of digitized versions of public domain works and other original content can also be done under conformant licenses and tools that are included in the Open Definition. In addition to those mentioned above, these include CC’s Public Domain Mark (PDM), and Rights Statements[2] that clearly indicates that there is no underlying copyright on the work. This affirmation of open and free access and reuse of works is what commonly constitutes “open access” in open GLAM.

Additionally, GLAM institutions and projects might make available copyrighted content that they steward under copyright limitations or exceptions, such as fair use.

black and white photo of wedding in the Netherlands

Archief Alkmaar Commons by Westfries bruiloft, Public Domain

This picture of a wedding in the Netherlands is in the public domain and has been made available by the Regional Archive Alkmaar, Netherlands. The archive digitized and uploaded this picture to its Flickr account with a Public Domain Mark (PDM). This means that the work is labelled as being in the public domain. When someone sees this picture, they can, for example:

  • include the picture in a book they are writing about weddings during the first half of the 20th century in the Netherlands;
  • include the work in a larger work, like a collage about great pictures of weddings;
  • print the picture as a postcard and send it to a friend for their wedding;
  • and much more as far as the imagination stretches!

Open Access practices and policies for cultural heritage

Digitization initiatives need financial and political support to be sustainable. For that financial and political support to exist, it is important to demonstrate the impact and value that digitization provides for the institutions, their users and the public. Open access policies[3] ensure that the public gets to reuse the content. Open access policies require institutions to be as consistent as possible regarding their approaches to copyright management and reuse options for their collections.

Legal and Policy Frameworks

Private and public funding is fundamental to support digital cultural heritage initiatives, such as digitization projects and content aggregators. Public policies and laws can clarify the role that  GLAMs play in making content available, particularly for publicly funded institutions. These might be state-created rules that likely apply to the whole sector.

Public policy and legal instruments, such as treaties, conventions, declarations, recommendations, laws, decrees, regulations or policies can be adopted at the international, regional or national level. The UNESCO Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form, published in 2015, makes a recommendation for UNESCO Member states to support open access policies:

Member States are invited to enhance the visibility and accessibility of their documentary heritage through the outreach activities and publications of the Memory of the World Programme as appropriate, with investment in digitization of content for access purposes now being one of its key components. Member States should support and promote public domain access, and wherever possible, encourage the use of public licensing and open access solutions.

Policies can also operate at the regional level. The European Commission Recommendation 2011/711/EU on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation includes important considerations on the need to maintain reproductions of public domain works in the public domain. A report published in 2019 confirmed the soundness of this recommendation.[4]

In other cases, a national policy can be interpreted to foster access, even when the GLAM space might not be directly targeted by the policy. Such is the case with the 2013 US Executive Order on Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, which states that government data in the United States should be made freely and openly accessible.

State or private sector funders can help shape open access practices and policies. Increasingly, funders require that the digitized materials created with the funding they provided be released and available open access. Some funders require that the GLAM does a part of the copyright clearance work prior to applying for a digitization fund, which may signal funders’ priority for open access (and they want to avoid the risk of copyright infringement). For example, in 2020 the UK National Heritage Fund published its policy on licensing requirements, which asks for CC BY 4.0 to be applied to original content created in the context of funded projects and CC0 or the Public Domain Mark to digital reproductions of public domain works.

Institutional policies

Policy development can occur at an institutional level. These are policies created by institutions themselves that will only apply to the institution and their users. Cultural heritage institutions affiliated with or part of universities, for example, rely on how their university policies define open access and push for open access initiatives. For these cultural heritage institutions, it is important that they align with the broader mandate for openness of their host institution.

Policies established by portals, platforms, aggregators, associations, and consortium initiatives are also important drivers for change inside institutions. For example, the policies established by Europeana in its publishing framework help institutions think about their own copyright management practices, their licensing decisions, and how they can increase their visibility in Europeana. The publishing framework gives more prominence to collections that are openly available.

Not-for-profit organizations and content-hosting business platforms can also devise their own policy. For example, Wikimedia Commons, the free multimedia repository of Wikipedia, only allows digitized works that can be freely used, modified and shared; as such they follow the licenses that are compliant with the open definition. Other platforms might encourage clear usage policies, such as Flickr Commons.

Consortium initiatives allow very different institutions to come together in a dialogue and share and review their own practices, skills and knowledge. In some cases, these consortium initiatives are powerful leverages among small institutions that do not necessarily have the resources available to put together a website to host and share their collection. The work of the Connecticut Digital Archive is a good example.

These various approaches to copyright management and open access often get consolidated into institutional policies. Institutional policies include assessment processes to determine the copyright status of objects in collections as well as decision-making processes around what works and collections to release and under which conditions to release them. Policies end up varying greatly among institutions, depending on their size and resources. A small institution might not need its own written policy on its website to release its public domain collections on a third-party platform, such as Flickr. They might not have a website, yet they can still develop open GLAM practices. Such an institution ideally will reach internal agreement about the process and decision making around copyright and open access.

The open access policies that the institution establishes has to be consistent with its mission and the legal framework in which it operates. Decision makers must understand how their institution’s mission aligns with open access principles. How will the institution’s mission be enhanced by openness? And does the institution’s mission support an open and inclusive ecosystem? The answers to these questions depend on each institution and are therefore unique, but the work of institutionalizing open access principles with policies, agreements and practices has commonalities across different GLAMs, as we will explore in the next section.

Final remarks

The cultural heritage sector has an evolving definition of “open”. Efforts like the conversations taking place within the CC Open GLAM platform aim to find a convergence. There are many different types of works by different stakeholders that can be made open. However, an important baseline for “open” among these differences is that reproductions of public domain works should remain in the public domain. Policies at different levels support and help guide open access practices in the cultural heritage sector. It is fundamental that these practices and policies reflect and speak to the institution’s mission.


  1. For a definition of metadata, see the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metadata.
  2. Labelling tools such as Rights Statements did not exist when the Open Definition was crafted, but according to Douglas McCarthy and Andrea Wallace’s Open GLAM survey, Rights Statements include at least two options that align with the Open Definition: NO COPYRIGHT - UNITED STATES NO KNOWN COPYRIGHT
  3. An “open access policy," in this case, may refer to internal agreements and decision making around how the institution releases collections or works they steward or produce under open licenses and tools.
  4. Read CC’s public comments on the review of the Recommendation here: https://wiki.creativecommons.org/images/a/a4/Creative_Commons_position_paper_on_the_EC_consultation_on_digital_cultural_heritage.pdf