Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

Information Entrepreneurs

by Russell Brown

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We saw an even more striking change in the relationship between the community and the media with last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami and this year’s terrorist bombings in London. Personal accounts of the tsunami – in blogs and emails – formed such an important part of the coverage that the British National Library moved to harvest and preserve them.

In London on July 7, the major London newspapers appealed for eyewitness accounts as soon as the news broke, and published them on receipt. To a remarkable degree, people seemed to know what was required of them: their accounts were concise and relevant.

Blog traffic worldwide was estimated to have jumped 30% on July 7. As it had done in the wake of the tsunami, Wikipedia spawned a page for the bombings as the news broke. That page became a resource of breadth and depth - and, most remarkably, it probably kept abreast of events better than any single media organisation. That is how much things have changed: an encyclopaedia does breaking new better than the news media.

By the end of that day, the BBC had received 30 mobile phone videos of events and more than 300 digital images from the public. Its head of news talked of a “gear shift” in the broadcaster’s relationship with its audience.

The BBC, which I think is leading the way now, just as it exemplified the vision of Lord Reith in another era, has acknowledged that relationship in another way: BBC Backstage. This is a part of its website, where the BBC says: perhaps you know a better way to harness our information than we do.

Programmers are given full access to the BBC site’s feeds to use in new ways. Among the most useful hacks have been blends of the news feed and the equally open geographical mapping service provided by Google. (Those without programming skills are invited to simply contribute ideas for things they’ like to see.)

Similarly, in drawing up a schedule for release of material under its Creative Archive policy, the BBC asked the public what they would like to see first. It turned out to be nature and science programmes.

And further, the first release under the Creative Archive project is explicitly intended for derivative use: a series of clips for VJs who mix live video images to accompany music.

Can libraries accommodate this kind of shift? They have, many times. When libraries as we know them first appeared in classical Greece, only a select few could see the books, and they were never allowed to wander among the stacks. The Romans established libraries as public facilities. But for many centuries, books were far too expensive to be actually allowed out the door. They were literally chained to the shelves.

As Robin Hyde noted in 'The Singers of Loneliness', her lyrical observation of an emerging culture, in the 1930s, many New Zealand libraries did not permit the copying of manuscripts - by anyone. This would seem indefensible now.

At this point, I should declare an interest: the group blog site I run, Public Address, attracts between five and six thousand visits a day. I think our authors all make a useful contribution to the national conversation, and that some of what is said there will become part of our cultural history.

Last year, I introduced a new feature to Public Address: a "historical blog" called Great New Zealand Argument. I had become aware that there was great writing of argument that had direct relevance to the kinds of contemporary issues debated daily on our website. I wanted that writing to be seen.

Our first post was the transcript of David Lange's 1985 Oxford Union debate speech. It turned out to be the first published transcript of this iconic speech. It was read 10,000 times in its first week and a half online. It took only three days for it to rise to the top of Google rankings for the relevant search strings. No one had to make that so: it happened because that is how Google works.

The second work posted was Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' - an essay accorded great significance in the study of New Zealand literature, but out of print and unavailable to the public. Five thousand people read that in a week: more than had accessed it via the Turnbull Library in a decade.

This year, that historical blog became a book: 'Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves'. Just before I travelled to Wellington, we - I formed a publishing company too - agreed that it should go into a second printing, meaning it has covered its costs. I should note that the book has sold well despite nearly everything in it having already been made available on the Internet.

I have been able to offer compensation in cash or kind to those who took the original leap of faith and let me put their work online. Indeed, perhaps the nicest thing about the project was being able to buy old Bob Gormack a good bottle of whisky for a poem even he had forgotten he had written! The book has also afforded me the pleasure of meeting one of its contributors: the former head of the Turnbull, Jim Traue. It has also been a delight to make the acquaintance of the Turnbull’s Philip Rainer.

I am not an expert on New Zealand literature, or any literature. I am an ignoramus. But I know what I like and I am motivated, and there is value in that. As, effectively, a modern pamphleteer, I am excited by the knowledge that the original Turnbull bequest includes more than 6000 pamphlets.

I was recently able to bring this part of the project to a kind of closure when I liberated the Lange speech itself. And I say "liberated" advisedly. I was only able to gain "listening access" to the recording from Sound Archives, in order to transcribe it. I negotiated for months to try and get the recording released online, with the approval of Mr Lange. But, the day before he died, I got the final word from Radio New Zealand. I could use the recording, but not make it available in any form that could actually be downloaded.

This wasn't good enough for me: not only would it have an adverse bearing on quality, it also precluded derivative uses. I quite liked the idea of those ringing words being sampled and worked into a dance record. And so, might I say, did David Lange. Eventually, a last-minute plea to TVNZ bore fruit. The recording can be downloaded by anyone, and 3000 people have. It is linked to, along with the transcript, from Wikipedia and the website of the Economist. And that dance record is in the works. Finally, I fulfilled the expectation of actuality.

I must emphasise that I don't blame any individual for the difficulties of the process. Archive organisations need policies - and on a more practical level, funding - for this kind of project. It's my fervent hope that in the next few years, both the policies and the funding will be forthcoming.

It is truly exciting to see the National Content Strategy take shape. And if I could have one wish, it is that the strategy will admit New Zealanders. The blessing and the curse of libraries and archives is their sheer breadth. Having decided to disseminate, what to disseminate first?

The answer, at least in part, is to disseminate what people want. I imagine a modest, simple fund to digitise works on request from the public. Perhaps someone wants a work to illustrate an argument, to enhance a Wikipedia entry, or simply for the pleasure of making it available. Once it is published, like those old RFCs, it can never be unpublished.

My point is this: that the keepers of knowledge can either operate a command economy, with five-year plans, or they can let in the information entrepreneurs. They can be the benevolent dictators who started it all.

I would hope that it will soon be possible for motivated individuals to make their own paths through our great common heritage; for our great archives to be adorned and enhanced with Wikis, web projects and blogs. That our online encyclopaedias can harness the power of community. And that there will be a flowering so broad and so fast-growing that it will be hard to count its blooms.

And if it does prove hard to draw all this activity together? You may anticipate my answer: start a blog.

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