Image Collections and Paywalls

Nothing is free, as we know. Well, comment is - hence this blog. Today's discussion point is the increasing use of paywalls by museums in access to their collection images. This morning, I received the official announcement in my inbox of the opening of the Berg Fashion Library. It's a subscription service that brings access to Berg's publications on the topic, but also includes images from the V&A's collection and that of the Costume Institute at the Met in New York; images, I might point out, which are currently available for free on the museums' own websites. No doubt, it makes sense to collate all these things together, but it makes me wonder how long the free version will stay up, and whether there are images as part of the Fashion Library which are no longer available to the general public because of this paywall? Given that the V&A is a public museum, this would be unethical to say the least.

The V&A is not the only one to have signed such an agreement for distributing its collection. Jstor, my go-to resource for full-text, now includes an image bank, called ARTstor, which distributes the collection images for many museums in the US and UK. It might be described as a "nonprofit digital image library for education and scholarship," but access is by subscription only. If you are not a member of an institution that subscribes (and to my knowledge, the University of Leicester, for example, is not), then you are out of luck and out of pocket. I haven't done the legwork necessary to check, but I simply do not know whether all the collections include their images freely online, or rely solely on ARTstor for access; also, I have no way of knowing whether there are images not available to the general public that are part of ARTstor. This would make sense - what else, apart from the amassing of images, would be ARTstor's value-added contribution?

Don't get me wrong - I am not fear-mongering here. I understand why museums do this. Although access to collections is part of their public responsibility, it costs money. Good images, and a good searchable database, are expensive to produce and maintain; it is, no doubt, tempting to stop reinventing the wheel and to go with a provider who promises an infrastructure and a built-in audience, and will pay you for it, to boot! But does this compromise the ideal of access? Or, is the ideal of access unrealistic in a world that expects digital access to everything? What do you think?


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