THATCamp CAA 2015 Reflections – Day 1

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend THATCamp CAA 2015, the third annual THATCamp organized in conjunction with, and during the lead up to, the annual College Art Association Conference. This was my fourth overall THATCamp, and second THATCamp CAA; my attendance this year, just as it was in 2013, was supported with a generous travel fellowship offered by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for graduate students and early career professionals.

My approach to this year’s unconference was a bit different than when I attended in 2013. Rather than seeking out sessions largely related to the teaching-track and basic digital pedagogy (of which there were fewer this year anyway), I found myself gravitating to broader theoretical subjects, on the use and potential abuse of digital tools in scholarly pursuit. In general, sessions were far more geared toward fine-grained data analysis and visualization techniques. I’m not sure the ideas of APIs and U/X design even came up at THATCamp CAA 2013, yet they were buzzwords throughout both days this year. Granted, the session on APIs was a basic “here’s what an API is” discussion, but that’s the level I was on so I was glad to see it nonetheless.

During the first day of THATCamp 2015 another buzz topic was that morning’s publication of the long-awaited Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts. The Code has been in the works for a long time, and a year ago at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference I heard non-art historians excitedly discussing the Code and saying they expected it to serve as a model for other humanities disciplines.

Although I didn’t get a chance to actually read the Code until Monday night in my hotel room, I still attended a session that afternoon on “Public Domain Reproduction and its Metadata: Access, Dissemination, and Use” led by Ann Goodyear Collins and Christine Sundt, both of whom were involved in the creation of the Code. A publicly-available Google Doc covers the course of the discussion during the session, which explained some of the process behind the Code, discussed some of the finer point details which didn’t make it in the document, and addressed some ideal next steps and ways other organizations might respond to the Code in positive fashion.

I came to the discussion from two perspectives. As a recent graduate student who has grappled with permissions for publications, I’ve been forced to tweak projects in their early stages to avoid potential image access issues, worked with publishers who required detailed permission statements for images 18th century paintings and others who were entirely on board with fair use for material published in the 21st century, and even purchased art objects (in this case, c. 1920 postcards) just so that I could offer full reproduction rights to myself.

In the other instance, I’ve looked at the issue of copyright and fair use from the perspective of the Laurel Historical Society/Laurel Museum where I volunteer, which recently digitized 100+ years of local newspapers and is looking to digitize a collection of hundreds of 1900s amateur photography. There was an interesting negotiation between the desire to make images and files available, and the uncertainty of relinquishing full control of material so important to the institution (not to mention the not-inconsequential cost of scanning, storage space, etc.). It’s one thing for CAA, or an institution with massive resources and other revenue like the National Gallery of Art or Rijksmuseum to put their public domain material out there for free, and a different story for a local institution with little resources and an understandable reticence at losing control over the material they feel truly makes them special.

[Author’s note 3/19/15: I’ve cut out a paragraph here that describes a policy at the Laurel Historical Society, as it had only been tentatively approved as of posting date and has since had to undergo some additional revisions. The point of the rest of the post still remains, even without this description.]

The release of the Code of Best Practices and subsequent discussion was an exciting part of the day, and something I had been looking forward to for some time now. I only hope that it spreads quickly through the discipline of art history and the museum world, and really sees some changes for the working methods of our field.

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