5.2 Opportunities and Challenges of Open GLAM

Open GLAM presents both opportunities and challenges. Understanding them is crucial to making an informed decision on opening collections. This understanding will allow you to take advantage of the positive outcomes and work around the negative ones. Being able to explain the opportunities and plan for the challenges will help you build a strong argument for open access at your institution or community digitization group.

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the opportunities and challenges of Open GLAM
  • Learn practical ways in which various institutions are seizing the opportunities and facing the challenges of open GLAM

Big Question / Why It Matters

A crucial mission of cultural heritage institutions is to provide access to knowledge and culture to help broaden the understanding that people have about themselves and the world. In doing so, institutions embark on a variety of projects, from on-site educational programs to digitization of works to increase access.

How well prepared are these institutions to reap the benefits of releasing their content? And how will they face the challenges that might appear along the way? How can institutions better support their missions, as well as scholarship and education, while mitigating the negative outcomes of giving away control?

This section will explore the benefits and challenges of open GLAM and look at how a broad understanding can support institutions in implementing open access practices and policies.

Personal Reflection / Why it Matters To You

Have you ever engaged in a conversation about why you think open access is important or how it can be challenging for GLAMs? Ever wonder what institutional case studies might help to build your case for opening access to a collection?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

What are the opportunities of Open GLAM?

In Unit 1, Section 1.3, we provided a short summary of the benefits of open GLAM. Here, we take a deeper dive into some of these, based on over a decade’s worth of GLAM experiences.

One of the best reports that summarizes these benefits is “The Impact of open access on Galleries, Libraries, Museums, & Archives” (2016) written by Effie Kapsalis, Senior Digital Officer at the Smithsonian. She also created a video overview of the report, for a presentation at SXSW 2016 ( CC BY 3.0):

This report served as a resource for internal advocacy and promotion of open access at the Smithsonian Institution. Kapsalis also identified partners and allies that were showing the value of opening their collection to help her build her case. In February 2020, the Smithsonian launched their open access initiative, placing more than 2 million items in the public domain. Imagine trying to display 2 million items in an in-person physical exhibit!

GLAMs have amazing collections, and it is impossible to show all those items in one physical space at one time. When Lizzy Jongma joined the Rijksmuseum as a Data Manager for the Collections Information Department in 2011, the museum was closed and undergoing renovations to extend its space. But she had a moment of insight. As Lizzy explained for this profile made for the book “Made with Creative Commons,” even with the renovated and larger space, the museum would still not be able to show more than one percent of their collection—8000 out of over one million works.

Increasing the visibility of the collection can be easily achieved by using CC tools and licenses. Using such standardized tools to communicate the copyright status as well as use permissions for different works enables search engines to include more multimedia files, including images, from GLAMs into search results. Educators, researchers, artists and general users that are looking for free and open images and content, are more inclined to use the high-quality, openly available content provided by GLAMs.

Benefit: Enhanced mission and relevance to 21st century audiences

In Section 5.1 we discussed the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form. The Implementation Guidelines in the Recommendations affirm:

The provision of public access is the visible evidence of a memory institution’s validity and usefulness to society. It is the justification of public expenditure on preservation, because preservation without the intent of accessibility is pointless.

Several GLAMs decided to implement and expand open access policies to better serve their missions to connect and share with their contemporary audiences. Sharing and dissemination information in digital form is becoming the default mode.

In his Medium article, “Do we still need a Collections Online.” Adam Moriarty, Head of Information and Library at the Auckland Museum, New Zealand, describes how open access serves the museum’s mission:

“At the Auckland Museum we have a pretty solid mission and vision statement: To enrich lives and inspire discoveries + connect through sharing stories of people, lands and seas. . (…) We went open as a rule, closed open only in exception, released one million records, applied a CC-BY licence to 350,000 images, created an API that follows the principles of linked open data. (…) And we would amplify the Collections through collaboration, partnering with like-minded organisations who shared our passion for open access and already served an audience on a quest for knowledge or creativity.” 

By going open, the Auckland Museum engaged with a range of platforms and websites as diverse as Pinterest, Digital New Zealand, GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), Biodiversity Heritage Library and Wikipedia, which increased the presence and reuse of their collection. Auckland Museum’s experiment also  increased traffic to their digital objects. This, in turn, lead to increased visibility of their collection.

GLAMs are often called upon to justify the value of their collections and the impact that they are making. Making collections openly available and thus highly discoverable and usable can justify a GLAM institution’s value — better positioning the institution for continued funding by communicating stakeholder value, their digital collections’ impact, and more.

Think about the mission of your own institution: how would you try to connect it to an open access policy? What language does your institution’s mission use that might advocate for releasing a small collection?

The institution’s mission statements can sometimes feel far away from daily activities, but they are crucial to propose big changes like releasing collections.

Benefit: Foster education through the creation of high quality Open Educational Resources (OER) by allowing the reuse of digital heritage

GLAMs have educational programs that help to make collections accessible to different types of audiences and educate them about different aspects of society. Integrating open GLAM collections into education efforts can inform  users about GLAM collections and practices, increasing primary source literacy. Importantly, resources built upon works and collections shared by GLAMs can be shared under open licenses as OER (Open Educational Resources). These OER and educational strategies can take different forms.

Cover of El archivo en el aula

For example, the project “El archivo en el aula” (“The archive in the classroom”) by Wikimedia Argentina in partnership with the UNESCO Associated Schools Network and the Comisión Nacional Argentina de Cooperación con la Unesco demonstrates what OER anyone can create with released collections.

Benefit: Increased research around collections and collaborations between researchers and institutions

As noted in the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage including in Digital Form:

In the “digital age,” avenues for access are multiplying. Catalogues and finding aids are essential, but they are supplemented now by a host of digital options: searchable on-line content, downloads, social media. It is crucial for memory institutions to have a web presence, including a portal to their own collections. As researchers increasingly seek instant responses, it is easy for some to assume that if content isn’t on the internet, it does not exist. Catalogues and finding aids, whether analogue or digital, should be structured to international standards so they can be machine readable, globally searchable and linkable. 

The digitization of cultural heritage offers obvious advantages to researchers, but there are also some important implications for cultural heritage institutions that also conduct research using their collections. For example, in her article “What Can Data Teach Us About Museum Collections?,” Diana Greenwald recalls her experience with working with data while she was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in 2018 at the National Gallery of Art in the United States. She was able to explore its collections through a different lens just by using the data available about the collections.

Making collections openly available creates new possibilities for research, discoverability, reuse and interpretation. Making collections’ data available also helps building trust and collaboration with outside researchers. Offering your collection in this way also allows researchers to do bulk discovery, exploration and download of data through data dumps. This can bring more value and attention to the collection.

If research is at the core of your institutional mission, but you are unsure where to start, the following might be of interest to you: in 2017 the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, and Creative Commons Polska had a set of workshops to discuss “How to Facilitate Cooperation between Humanities Researchers and Cultural Heritage Institutions.” As a result, they produced a set of guidelines with very illustrative examples of what can be done when institutions and researchers collaborate together through openly available collections. While their focus was on Humanities, some of their conclusions can be applied to other fields.

Benefit: Increased traffic to digital properties and interactions on social media

For many GLAMs, social media engagement offers a relevant measurement of their impact. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Getty Museum launched The Getty Museum Challenge, as a way to incentivize people to stay connected to art and engage with the museum, while keeping physical distance. The challenge was simple: people were encouraged to create their own version of famous public domain works using household items. The results of the challenge were later published in a book, with all the profits going to charity. The Getty Museum’s open access policy unleashed unfounded creativity and possibilities for the public to engage with institutions remotely. This challenge exemplifies how public domain works can increase social interactions.

Another example is the GIF It Up! contest, organized by Europeana, DPLA, Digital NZ and Trove. In 2020, The Heritage Lab organized GIF It Up! India for the first time, with the DAG Museums being the first institution to take part in it. Watch this video with Medhavi Gandhi from The Heritage Lab explaining the importance of social media presence for some institutions, and how the contest helped highlight the importance of open access collections:

And even more benefits…

We will explore additional benefits in upcoming units related to citizen science, crowdsourcing and public engagement with the collections. Below are additional benefits of releasing collections:

  • Bringing works in the periphery into focus. When collections and works are made openly available, these works get highlighted in different ways, bringing the attention of different users and the general public. Detailed metadata and machine readable copyright statements can increase the discoverability of these works.
  • Generation of new narratives around collections in meaningful ways and critical exploration of existing narratives. Open access allows for these new narratives and critical explorations to adopt a variety of formats that bring into question traditional ways of producing knowledge. Remix culture allows for new media to interrogate works in different, meaningful ways. For a practical example, see this remix of “Mona Lisa vs. David.” For a more theoretical approach, explore Rick Prelinger’s ideas of remix in “On the virtues of pre-existing material.”
  • More transparency and visibility of the collections.
  • Relieving “copyright anxiety.” Users have the certainty that they can use collections without fear of legal action against them. This applies both to the general public but also to the professionals working inside the institution that might not be directly responsible for rights & reproductions questions.

What are the challenges of Open GLAM?

There are many benefits to releasing a collection openly. But, of course, there are also challenges. There are several reasons why institutions may not be ready to open access to their collections.

By talking to institutions all over the world, Creative Commons has learned a great deal about some of the challenges and fears that institutions face when trying to release their collections under an open license or tool. We could summarize the challenges that many institutions face as concerns over money, attribution or credit[1] and quality.

A more detailed summary includes:

    • Funding, losing revenues and business models. Institutions sometimes are afraid that releasing collections might end up affecting some business models, such as selling photographs, or might negatively impact on revenue streams from other funding sources.
    • Liability and risk aversion. Copyright law can be complicated, and understanding how it applies to specific works or across jurisdictions can create uncertainty that might lead to overly conservative approaches when releasing public domain works.
    • Bad resolution copies and selling copies of public domain works. Third-party services can use public domain works for commercial purposes, and some institutions might fear that lesser quality versions could end up in the hands of users because of the inability to find the original source in which the digital reproduction of the work was first published.
    • Uses of public domain works that may cause intentional or unintentional harm. Some uses of public domain works may create societal harm, whether intentional or unintentional, for example, when works are used to convey racist messages.
    • Wrong, messy or inaccurate metadata or information. Information and metadata experience changes over time: in the amount of data that is available about works at a given point, in the way in which data about works was represented in previous eras, and in the data input and technologies used to represent it. Some institutions fear that wrong or inaccurate information might represent visions of the world that are not aligned with the values that the institution currently holds.

Alternatively, if an institution is not ready to fully “open” its collections, there are intermediary options available. Anne Young, Director of Legal Affairs and Intellectual Property at Newfields, refers to one option as “Semi Open Access,” which consists of releasing only small portions of the collection to test the waters and assess how comfortable the institution feels with these initial steps. And, as Anne points out, it is also more attainable for a lot of GLAMs. This is important to acknowledge because the resources that institutions have vary greatly.

Challenge: Funding, losing revenues and business models

Depending on what type of collections your institution holds, the process of digitizing materials and maintaining a digital presence can be relatively cheap to very expensive. If you decide to have your own content management system or platform (which does not have to be the case, as some of the examples we have provided show), then it might become more burdensome to maintain.

Funding, both public and private, is crucial for sustaining digitization projects. The funding situation of the GLAM space varies immensely across geographies, with some GLAMs relying mostly on public funding, and others strongly dependent on private funding. Oftentimes, funding comes attached to the results of the digitization being made available under open access policies. Digitization can be an expensive process, and institutions need to have funding for it as the demands of the general public and specific users pivot towards requiring more digital presence.

Institutions that receive public funding might have less pressure to diversify revenue streams. Their main concern will be to fulfill their mission in the best possible way. The question about the importance of revenue streams for publicly funded institutions was explored early on by Europeana in a 2011 workshop. There, they analyzed the fears of revenue loss among European institutions, and one of the recommendations that came out in an after-workshop report “The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid: A Business Model Perspective on Open Metadata” reads:

“Opening up data should be seen as an important part of the responsibility of our public cultural sector. Instead of measuring success by the amount of commercial revenue that institutions are able to secure from the market, new metrics should be developed that measure the amount of business generated (spill-over) based on data made openly available to the creative industries. This requires a change in evaluation metrics on a policy level.”  

However, public funding often does not cover all the costs of digital projects. And for those institutions that do not rely on public money to support costly digital projects, there are legitimate concerns around revenue loss. Revenue loss can express itself as various concerns:

  • concerns around losing revenue from licensing reproduction rights;
  • concerns related to losing footfall in the physical space, which impacts the sale of tickets as well as sales in related facilities, like the gift shop or cafeteria;
  • concerns around the willingness of funders to support projects that are not as immediately visible or impressive as, for example, building or renovating a facility;
  • concerns around private sector partners not securing intellectual property rights over digitized or digital versions of works that could be later exploited.

Let us start with the first argument. Several studies and experiences have demonstrated that there are actually cost savings associated with rights and reproduction overhead.

  • Rights & permissions requests cost money. In his seminal study, “Reproduction charging models & rights policy for digital images in American art museums: A Mellon Foundation funded study Simon Tanner found that sometimes the Rights & permissions requests are actually more expensive to maintain than the overall revenue that they bring to the institution.
  • Open access can make the institution more efficient. Reducing the amount of Rights & Permissions requests increases efficiency. The Te Papa museum was able to reduce around 14,000 image requests just by adding copyright status statements on their collections. “We’ve built a robust, cost efficient, centralised system that users have said they find easy to use.“ (Reusing Te Papa’s collections images, by the numbers).
  • Clear policies and self-service delivery reduces burden on staff. Staff is able to spend more time on clearing the rights of works that are not yet digitized rather than attending requests of works that are already digitized. It also allows for other departments, like social media and education, to be able to self-serve and work with material that they can trust as being cleared, rather than having to only use a small batch of pre-selected content. For an in-depth exploration on this argument, read Karin Glasemann’s reflection on how openness transformed the Nationalmuseum.

There are also new business models to explore. First, making collections available does not mean that you need to stop charging for producing copies, or that you cannot explore different business models for those digital copies. Indeed, digitization costs money and in certain cases those costs can still be transferred to the users making specific digitization requests, like many archives currently do. Importantly, those costs need to be transparent for the user. What is not recommended practice under open access principles is to charge licensing fees over works that are in the public domain. In those cases, copyright claims are dubious at best, and it goes against the institution’s mission to provide access to the public.

An increase in brand licensing is also possible. For example, after The Metropolitan Museum of Art did their major open access release, new branding opportunities arose for them. The same was true for the Rijksmuseum, which had the opportunity to do a co-branding campaign with the Dutch brewing company Heineken. Of course, these are major museums with very well known brands, but these are some examples that can also help think differently about how public recognition of the work that institutions do through providing online access to the collection can have an impact. A pilot study conducted by academics: “Reaping the benefits of digitisation: Pilot study exploring revenue generation from digitised collections through technological Innovation” explored other possibilities for smaller institutions.

Finally, foot traffic is of major importance for several GLAMs. COVID-19 demonstrated both the importance of these visitors, but also the crucial role that the digital environment played for GLAMs while people were isolated due to public health measures. People actually feel a stronger connection with the institution if it does not set artificial barriers to the content. An increase in the discoverability of the collection also makes people more aware of the existence of GLAM institutions and helps raise awareness of the need to support them.

Challenge: Liability and risk aversion

GLAMs face an inherent tension in dealing with works, irrespective of their nature. This tension arises between their roles as stewards of the physical objects embodying the works in their collection and the fact that most often copyright in the works belongs to someone outside the institution.[2] In particular, copyright’s strict rules and long term of protection impact GLAMs’ ability to manage objects and openly release their collections (in part or entirely).

Additionally, mistakes in releasing collections, such as infringing copyright (even if accidental), can be costly. In some cases, when GLAM communities make works available online, there might be some collaborators that feel that such a use infringes on an implicit social agreement. This is what Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi have called the “permissions culture” in the visual arts (it is applicable to other sectors beyond visual arts). It is important to be aware of how limitations and exceptions protect your institution, but also to offer ways to fix mistakes.

Copyright infringement is one of several factors that can result in institutions’ understandable risk aversion and fear of liability. However, decision-making based solely on risk aversion also impacts an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission. Here are some ideas on developing a risk assessment strategy.

  • Have a clear, proper risk assessment. Ideally, a proper risk assessment will help assess undue liabilities in the institutions’ decision-making processes. It will also guide staff when making copyright-related decisions. If you or your institution lack experience with risk assessments, we will explore some examples in Section 5.4. For doing these risk assessments, you can rely on your awareness (or access to information about) local laws and court cases.
  • Offer clear ways to fix mistakes. This is a solution typically used in the case of orphan works, where some institutions have taken their chance to upload and make available some works (even when not necessarily as open access) by offering ways to potential rightsholders to remove those works from the Internet. In any case, it is good practice to have mechanisms in place to solve copyright complaints.
  • Find a balance between the institution’s needs and the public’s needs. Finding the balance of risk-taking in collections management is up to the individual institutions, their context and knowledge. Being overly conservative in labeling works with accurate copyright information, including indicators that a work is in the public domain out of fear of unknown legal risk, also has impacts. Overly conservative labeling and uncertainty creates a chilling effect over reuse of works, undermining the potential of public domain content to create a thriving commons.

Challenge: Selling bad resolution copies of public domain works

There are websites that offer “stock photo” services with some of the public domain works released by institutions, and charge a fee for them. It is important to note that these services are legal, unless the service is infringing on a trademark or patent right of the institution; because the underlying work is in the public domain, there is no copyright infringement even if the site decides to apply a watermark over the digital reproduction of the work. When a GLAM institution decides to apply a CC0 to a digitized work, it releases any and all copyright claims that it might have over the digital surrogate.

Of course, this is a frustrating experience for many institutions that have decided to share these works out of their mission to share their collection with the public. It is also problematic from the perspective of quality: some of these services offer poor quality reproductions with watermarks all over them, or even with Technological Protection Measures (TPMs) designed to prevent future reuse.

There may not be a way to avoid these challenges, however, they are outweighed by the many other benefits of releasing a collection.

Also, it is important to note that both people seeking images and search engines will prioritize the good quality websites that offer the free, high resolution, high detailed images, with supporting materials and no watermarks on them. More likely than not, GLAM websites will also offer additional features (from better search capabilities to list-generating capabilities, or the generation of data dumps), which stock photo websites do not provide.

A good approach to addressing the stock photo site challenges lies not with legal recourse necessarily, but in appealing to social norms. Suggestions include:

  • Raise users’ awareness by explaining the nature of these “stock photo” websites. If they find images available to purchase that are part of your collections, let them know they have free, high-quality, and legitimate download options at your own institutional website. You could also include a warning to alert people from scams.
  • Trust your brand. These websites are of dubious quality, while a cultural heritage institution has a brand that can be easily recognized and trusted by the public.
  • Emphasize the value added you provide. Your institution is not just offering “stock photos,” but also providing context and background to the works that it stewards. That’s a value added.
  • Keep in mind that charging for digital images is likely not profitable for GLAMs. There is likely a negligible shortfall, if any, for the institution if a stock photo site charges for their photographs.

As a general principle, unless a user is searching for a specific artwork, she will default to using risk-free and cost-free images.

Challenge: Uses of public domain works that may cause intentional or unintentional harm

The misuse of public domain works is a great concern for GLAMs, especially when it comes to works that embody or represent culturally-sensitive content. There are actors that might use works in ways that you do not intend or that you or others find offensive.

This “misuse” does not refer to works that for a variety of reasons might not be sensible to release. Indeed, there are some reproductions of works that even while being in the public domain might not be appropriate to release. Such works range from digital copies of photos of human remains to digital reproductions of objects of Indigenous people. We will further discuss the ethical considerations later in the Unit, but a general approach is “open to the extent possible.” There are indeed some ethical considerations to take into account when doing open access releases.

Let us briefly explore some of the use cases that can cause intentional or unintentional harm. One of the most prominent, harmful use cases was that of a public domain work stewarded by the Clark Art Institute, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Slave Market” (1866), by the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). While the Clark Art Institute disapproved the use of the public domain image, several months afterward the museum still enacted an Open Access policy, allowing for any reproduction of a public domain work to be downloaded high-resolution for free, as expressed in their FAQ.

The Clark Art Institute example highlights challenges that are not actually about (or within the realm of) copyright. Because the work is in the public domain, copyright is not the right legal mechanism for policing offensive or harmful behavior.

Even if copyright was claimed over the work, copyright protection is not absolute; limitations and exceptions might apply. In other words, even if copyright could be claimed, it may not protect against the particular harm in question.

This case exemplifies that copyright law is not always the best approach to solving challenges of reuse. As in the case of plagiarism, social sanctions and community norms might work better than legal action.

Some social sanctions and community norms to consider:

    • Publicly disagreeing with the way in which the work was used: if the story is being elevated by the media, the institution can always remind people that although they do not control the use of the work since it’s in the public domain, the institution finds the use harmful, out of context or inaccurate. This strategy however can be counterproductive in some situations, especially if the institution ends up being dragged into a low-brow debate.
    • Educate audiences about the work: the institution can also use the opportunity to educate its audience about the work. In general, newsflashes might increase the views of certain objects or works; when a public conversation is happening, it is more likely that people will look for that information on the web.[3] That offers the opportunity to bring people’s attention to the context of the work or object, either on the institution’s website or through third-party websites, news outlets, etc.
    • Offer non-mandatory guidelines or protocols: building community norms is also a good way to encourage good reuse of works. There are different ways in which you can encourage this behaviour, from FAQ sections to buttons and reminders when people download a work that serve as a gentle nudge.

These are just some examples of social sanctions and community norms, to initiate further thought.

Challenge: Wrong, messy or inaccurate metadata or information

Another of GLAMs’ common concerns relates to releasing inaccurate metadata or information about the collection. In some cases, there are historical reasons that explain the inappropriate representation of different groups in metadata. This is a legitimate concern, and there are many workarounds to solve some of the underlying elements.

  • One way is to make a disclaimer. In your release, you can explain that some data might actually be inaccurate. This is for example what the Smithsonian did in their release, by adding a question to their FAQ around “What is the Smithsonian’s commitment to cultural responsibility with open access?”

Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research.“

  • Offer ways for improving metadata upon feedback. Releases can actually help improve metadata and information about the collections. Look at this small example of the Swedish Heritage Board collection on Flickr Commons. They uploaded a photo signaling that it was a “monastery,” but a user pointed out that the building depicted was indeed a castle, allowing them to correct a mistake in their records.
  • Explore how collaboration and crowd-sourcing can improve your metadata. Other projects also focus on improving or adding metadata through crowdsourcing, like the trailblazing example of the United States Library of Congress: they uploaded part of their collections to Flickr Commons to improve their information about these historical pictures.

Of course, ensuring metadata is usable requires work. But fear of inaccuracies should not prevent this very relevant information from being shared. And last but not least, it is important to remember that “perfect is the enemy of done.” The interaction with users and the public can actually help to improve substantive parts of the information about the collection.

Final remarks

Open access to collections is an integral part of many institutions’ missions to engage contemporary audiences. There are many benefits to releasing collections, and it is important to choose benefits that resonate with your institution, your institution’s mission, and the audiences your institution serves. But there are also challenges to assess. Luckily, awareness of the challenges helps institutions plan ahead and design creative solutions to overcome them.


  1. We will address the element of credit in Section 5.4, when describing different options for an institution to help users provide proper provenance of the works.
  2. Having ownership over the physical object does not mean that the institution is the copyright holder. Physical ownership and copyright ownership are separated and distinctive types of ownership. We will explore this distinction further in Section 5.3.
  3. A good example is to measure the relationship between page views on Wikipedia and events related to celebrities: https://pudding.cool/2018/08/wiki-death/