Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Audubon's Birds, Digitally

It is an absolutely beautiful early spring morning in Boston today: my walk to work was filled with the sounds of birdsong, the sight of plants started to poke through the leaf litter and that wonderful, elusive smell that only wafts in on a warm spring breeze. (Of course, true to New England form, it's going to rain this afternoon, but hey, we'll take what we can get).

Mornings like this usually make me feel a little bit guilty that I didn't get up much earlier and go out birding - I can do some by ear on my walk in, but not at the leisurely pace I'd prefer. So I was absolutely delighted to learn this morning from a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the University of Pittsburgh's Darlington Digital Library has mounted the first complete digital version of John James Audubon's Birds of America: all 435 plates plus the accompanying text from the five-volume Ornithological Biographies.

I like the layout and design of the site, and I especially like that they have retained Audubon's original order of the birds (they were released to subscribers in batches of five, with each batch generally containing one large bird, one medium-sized bird, and three small birds).


Bookn3rd said...

This is so cool.

But how am I supposed to get any work done now?

peacay said...

Hm. Yeah, it is a good thing for sure. I'm just disappointed that you can't download decent sized images and one must rely on the zoomify shenanigans. Not to mention those bloody pop-ups. 5.5 out of 10 (I'm a hard scorer).

JBD said...

I'm not a huge fan of the use of "Flash-y" elements here either, and I wish the large-sized images on the site were larger, but the zoom feature is pretty nifty - check out the details of the feathers, or the turkey's eyeball. I didn't get any popups when I was using it. I understand wanting to download the images, but they're protecting their reproduction rights this way (and selling prints for $300 a pop). I know we all want good-quality, free images all the time, but institutions need to recoup the costs of mounting these digital exhibitions somehow. Can't blame them for that.

peacay said...

I'm definitely not unsympathetic to the commercial side of things although I remain on the fence overall (self).

I don't expect poster size downloads but 1-2Mb pictures ought to enhance the attractiveness to visitors leading to more sales t'would think. And persons such as myself would go to great lengths in those circumstances to plug the site. And of course my comment was from a self-serving point of view, more or less - I acknowledge that.

I only had a quick squizz using the thumbnail view which is where the pop-ups come from. You're also right - the zoom is amazing; it's an improvement on the other complete version online (which is also very good for different reasons).
more thought...a little later.
institutions need to recoup the costs of mounting these digital exhibitions somehow. Can't blame them for that.

Why can't we? Did they used to charge the public for purchasing new books? Was access to rare materials ever subject to fees? We are told that the commercial model with user pays mentality is the way to go for all our sakes but I'm not convinced. Why couldn't they recoup digi-exhibition investment capital via site advertising? There is little in the way of innovation shown by the majority of digital repositories.
But it's equally obvious not all of them approach things in the same way. The University of Wisconsin, for example, make huge images available of their rare materials. They see it as a duty. There are many like it.

I'm never really sure where I stand in this debate but I suspect that it's a battle that requires political will. The problem is that my digital desires are not very often within my regional neighbourhood - by this I mean that the boards of institutions don't really have a large local constituency pushing for changes or reforms or policy shift in relation to their digital stocks.

I'm hamfisted with my words here but this is a debate that remains very open to my mind.

JBD said...

The debate is certainly open - and I think we'll continue to see various models come and go. In a perfect world, free high-quality digital images for everyone would be great, but institutions have to pay for all the "stuff" that goes into planning, mounting and maintaining these sites. Advertising is an option for sure, but is rarely a route taken by libraries or museums (for better or worse, depending on your view - I am not a fan, to put it mildly, of site advertising).

As for charging in general - of course it depended on the institution, but there were and still are libraries which charge use fees or collect membership dues. And particularly for smaller institutions, image use fees and reproduction rights are one of the major sources of revenue. Are there better models? Possibly. But inertia's a tough thing to overcome. That doesn't mean it should be blithely accepted, and I do think some places go a bit overboard with their fees and restrictions. It'll be very interesting to see how all this shakes out, if it ever does.

Your point about political will is a good one too - indeed, especially with digital projects where the end users aren't pounding down the physical doors, feedback and suggestions are probably given much less credence and weight than they should be or otherwise would be.

Fascinating stuff.