January 1, 2019 is Public Domain Day. This means that all copyrighted works published in the year 1923 will suddenly become available for anyone to publish, distribute, or reuse in their own derivative creations. To seize the moment, our Praxis cohort will spend the next nine months constructing a “public domain toolkit.” Since the project is still in the conceptual phase when all doors are open and no one knows exactly where it’s headed, now seems like a good time to reflect on what it means to work […?] the public domain.
You can see that I’m struggling with the prepositions. Our work will most likely derive from the 1923 materials and their metadata, and it will certainly feed back in to the public domain as a publicly-available resource. But what would a project for the public domain look like? Who is “the public”? And should we be working with the public as we move forward?
So far I have used the term “public domain” to mean the negative space outside of intellectual property laws; works in this zone are owned by the public, as James Boyle explains in his excellent book. But “domain” does not always refer to a property relationship. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that it can also signify “realm,” “sphere of activity,” or “a sphere of thought or action.” These other meanings make it possible to recast “public domain” as “public sphere” and consider how our project might interface with the public’s “sphere of thought or action.” Insights from the public humanities might help us think through how we want our work as digital humanists to engage with this field.
I’m hardly the first person to propose a public-digital humanities mash-up. It’s something we’ve discussed as a team and tried to reflect in our cohort charter (coming soon!) Wendy Hsu and Shelia Brennan have theorized the public dimensions of digital humanities, and Will Fenton directly calls on digital humanists to “own their role as public humanists.” From their writings, I have gleaned that practicing public digital humanities entails working with and for people outside of the academy. It also involves identifying who the public is, and seeing them as “real people” rather than as an “unidentified other” (Brennan). Making a project available online is not enough for it to be public digital humanities; scholars must consider the community’s needs in order to design meaningful tools and accessible user interfaces. If the target audience lacks reliable internet connectivity, uses outdated machinery or has some other unique technical situation, it might make sense to take a minimal computing approach.
Circling back to our embryonic public domain toolkit, if we want to get texts off the bookshelf and into people’s lives in meaningful ways, we need to a). decide who our intended public(s) is (are), and b). consult members of these communities to determine how we can develop a constructive intervention together. As Steven Lubar asserts in his Seven Rules for Public Humanists, “It’s not ‘We’re from the university, and we’re here to help,’ but ‘What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?” Rather than guess how public domain works might be useful to people and imposing a socially-engaged project from our perch at the University, we can think about practicing what Wendy Hsu calls “collective ideation” by collaborating with community members from the beginning. At the very least, we can be mindful about defining who we are trying to reach and researching the best ways to design tools for their benefit.
It’s exciting to be at this stage in the process, when all doors are open and we can really think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why. I look forward to delving into the public dimensions of our project as it takes shape over the next few months. Stay tuned!