Inching Towards Open at California College of the Arts

Eric Phetteplace is a fellow from our first Institute for Open Leadership, held in San Francisco in January 2015. He is a librarian at California College of the Arts. 


I was a member of the inaugural Institute for Open Leadership in 2015. I’m the Systems Librarian at California College of the Arts (CCA), and my IOL project centered around VAULT, the school’s digital archive, which I maintain. To quote from my original proposal:

While the college has an excellent resource in its digital repository, VAULT, items are often visible only within a department; faculty hesitate to share even with the college community as a whole. What is more, this protective attitude trickles down to students in the form of assignment instructions. Faculty train the next generation of artists to lock down their creations rather than embrace sharing and remixing via the Creative Commons suite of licenses.

It has been two years since the IOL, and it is an ideal time to reflect on my project, what was accomplished, and what work remains to be done.

Progress, Slow but Sure

The prime takeaway from the Institute for Open Leadership for me related to increasing the understanding of open licenses and their benefits. As a librarian, most of my colleagues are not only aware of how important open content is, they actively advocate for it in the form of open educational resources and open access research. Librarians are inclined to sympathize with “open” as a concept, and are liable to have produced content licensed under a Creative Commons license or deposited materials in an open repository. But not everyone shares a nuanced knowledge of and appreciation for openness. The IOL, first and foremost, taught me how to clearly articulate what open means, and the tangible benefits it offers. This is evident in a presentation I gave to college administrators where I devote a great deal of time to contrasting Creative Commons licenses and dispelling myths about them. Providing examples and a space to clear up confusions was invaluable, even if my instincts told me to focus on the implementation and policy details at hand.

Secondly, the IOL helped me to identify allies and stakeholders. Obviously, as mentioned above, the libraries were a natural place to build support. However, I was also able to identify individual faculty members who were already utilizing and promoting Creative Commons content within their classes. I could better articulate the benefits of permissive licensing by putting myself in administrators’, students’, or faculty members’ shoes, and framing the conversation around their needs. While my own stance tends towards “a healthy intellectual commons produces a healthy society”, that’s often not the most persuasive point to others. Students, for instance, are intrigued by the prospect of selling their Creative Commons works, or exploring the ways in which readily shareable works are better for self-promotion.

While the IOL helped me develop a strategy for spreading open content on campus, the progress has been rather slow. When I listed the barriers to my IOL project, a few were:

  • Misunderstanding or mistrust of open licenses
  • FERPA and concerns around student privacy
  • Personal lack of time/capacity

We’ve made substantial progress on the first two items. People I talk to on campus are likely to have a positive opinion about Creative Commons and similar efforts, and view FERPA more as a limitation than an insurmountable obstacle. However, the final hurdle has been the most challenging: on top of my other obligations, which included a couple major system implementations recently, I’ve struggled to find time to advocate for open policies. It takes a continual fight to see improvements, yet since my initial presentation there’s been relatively little change to the student and faculty work in our repository.

CC-Licensed Archives

VAULT library collection screenshot
Screenshot of the library’s collection within VAULT. The assets are licensed CC BY-NC.

One of the areas where the library has more control over the licensing and distribution of content is the college’s archives. The archives include both physical documents but also digital objects inside VAULT. The Libraries’ collections in VAULT totals over a thousand records, representing everything from historical photos of students from the 1960s to an accreditation report from this October. Since we are in charge of the acquisition and preservation of this content, it was relatively easy to discuss the implications of CC licenses with my library director, who was incredibly supportive of my IOL attendance. We promptly designed a licensing policy and added CC BY-NC licenses to all our public archives content.

Furthermore, I worked to increase the exposure of our archival content by ensuring our metadata records could be harvested and reused by other platforms. By configuring VAULT to publish data using the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) standard, our content now appears in Calisphere—a digital library culled from many archives, libraries, and museums located in the state of California—as well as OCLC’s tremendous Worldcat database that collects the holdings of libraries worldwide. These external search engines increase the exposure of our resources and make it easier for people who never heard of California College of the Arts, much less VAULT, to discover our archives. After all, open content isn’t really that valuable if no one knows of its existence. Even if all of VAULT was openly licensed, we would still need to increase its exposure such that it’s not merely a school-wide secret.

A Culture of Open

Art+Feminism edit-a-thon at California College of the Arts
Art+Feminism edit-a-thon at California College of the Arts, by Eric Phetteplace, CC BY

While my primary project of loosening the licensing restrictions of VAULT has only affected archival works, as an institution California College of the Arts has been improving its understanding of and support for openness. The libraries have started a few projects which relate to Creative Commons and open access to research. For instance, in each of the past two years we hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon at a campus library. Wikipedia is one of the most prominent examples of Creative Commons content; it’s ubiquitous, a great topic for information literacy discussions, and the perfect place for students to add to the commons for the very first time. Unfortunately, Wikipedia also suffers from the topical biases that plague other encyclopedias and much of the Western academic canon: male historical figures and Anglo-European subjects are disproportionately represented. Thankfully, events like Art+Feminism exist to train new editors and to encourage people to contribute Wikipedia articles relating to female artists and feminism. We’re not only helping to balance Wikipedia’s topical coverage, but we’re also developing new, open content.

On a related note, the CCA Libraries have made a habit of participating in Open Access Week. Open Access Week is a week devoted to raising awareness around the open access movement that promotes free access to scholarly content online. As part of our participation, we’ve posted informative notices around campus and on our website, created a study guide, and run small contests to encourage faculty to engage with open access. But what’s more: we’ve gone beyond simply advocating for open access content and informing our stakeholders about its value; we’re  actually distributing open content ourselves. Now we have a small but growing Faculty Research collection in VAULT which provides a place for faculty and staff to post open access versions of their research works.

While these feats are modest, they signal a wider change around campus. Open has moved from being a subject of conversation to a subject of action. Each year, the CCA libraries’ activism expands gradually: we license more archival objects under Creative Commons licenses, we host more events surrounding open access scholarship and open content, and we see growing attendance and awareness. It will continue to be difficult to find the time the cause deserves, but we’re committed to participating in the open movement and improving our institution one step at a time.