A healthy and robust Public Domain needs libraries and archives

Elliott Bledsoe
4 min readJan 15, 2024

Preservation and digitisation are crucial to the continued importance of the Public Domain and libraries and archives are important players in the Public Domain.

Cross-posted from the Australian Libraries and Archives Copyright Coalition (ALACC) blog.

A postcard featuring a coloured black and white photo of Queen Street, Brisbane, circa 1908. It includes a number of historic buildings, including the post office with a large clock in view.
A postcard featuring a coloured black and white photo of Queen Street, Brisbane, circa 1908. Public Domain. Full attribution information is available at the end of this blog post.

As a new year starts books, music, visual art, films and other content move into the Public Domain. New Year’s Day is also Public Domain Day. 1 January each year is when these cultural objects join the countless volumes of content no longer protected by copyright that is available for everyone to share, use and adapt. Yet, for a lot of material in the Public Domain the biggest barrier to its productive reuse is obscurity. After all, you can’t make use of things you don’t know exist.

All copyright-protected material ultimately becomes part of the Public Domain, but a lot of the artefacts in it are held by libraries, archives, museums, galleries and cultural collections. Libraries, archives and other cultural institutions are charged with collecting, curating and preserving important cultural items so that future generations have access to their cultural heritage and can learn from them. These tangible links to the past provide insights into political and societal changes and the evolution of ideas.

Yet, knowing what is in a collection is the first hurdle. Historically, the second hurdle was getting to the collection’s premises. You were beholden to proximity; to access cultural heritage materials you needed to be privileged enough to be able to spend the time and money to travel to the collection’s physical location and arrange to see the material. With the digital age came the ability to make copies of collections material in digital formats that can easily be shared online. While online access is not a panacea, it makes a significant contribution to providing more equitable and convenient access to cultural heritage.

The journey cultural artefacts go through to become viewable online is often a complicated one. First, it must fall within the scope of what a cultural institution collects, and align with the institution’s current curatorial interpretation of their mandate. Then, the material must be able to be collected. The library, archive or collecting body may not…