Open Source Cultural Database

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Tim McCormick
independent consultant

Bibliographic and critical information is of fundamental importance for cultural literacy, research, and creation; yet today it exists only in highly fragmented forms, ranging from proprietary databases (Lexis/Nexis, Books in Print) to the profusion of voluntarily posted bibliographies and catalogues on the Internet. We can imagine a free, public, "universal database" that would be far more complete, and produced with much less duplicated effort; but we need to find the right data model and social organization to enable the creation of such a database.


Building on the principles of Open Source collaborative software development, and inspired by the example of Open Content initiatives such as Nupedia and Slashdot, we propose that such an open critical database could be an invaluable piece of public knowledge infrastructure, and could be built by mobilizing the collective efforts of a global knowledge community.


Reviews, critical articles, indexes, and bibliographic data are what organizes and ties together our cultural system. In this sense, they could be viewed as a vital knowledge infrastructure, i.e. a shared public good built by collective action; in practice, however, this vast mass of cultural meta-data is largely privatized and fragmented.

As Robert Cameron (1997) notes, bibliographic indexing is a major industry supported by large annual expenditures. To take just one segment of the field, he notes that "Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually by research libraries in acquiring literature indexes".

Given the scale of expenditure, and the social importance of the end product, it is interesting to consider whether there is a better and/or more efficient way to assemble this cultural meta-data. In particular, the recent and remarkable successes of the World Wide Web, and the Open Source/Free Software movements, force us to ask whether some system of open standards and collaborative public effort could in fact assemble the type of bibliographic indexes now created only by commercial vendors.

Many such "indexing" or collaborative-knowledge projects have already been organized on the Internet: a particularly applicable example is the Internet Movie Database (, which evolved from a collection of Usenet FAQs into the current, de facto repository for all filmographic data.

IMDB, however, also illustrates the perils of such a project, because while it was built collaboratively by volunteers, it was subsequently taken over by and effectively removed from the public domain. The current IMDB, while useful in a limited capacity, is not a public good that could be utilized in new ways, for instance by being incorporated into a broader, cross-media database.

The case of IMDB also illustrates a broader theme which increasingly [pre]occupies the "cyberlaw", technology, and civil liberties communities: the tension (some say, warfare) between the power of major media corporations, on the one hand, and the rights and freedoms of information users, on the other. New technologies allow unprecedented media "sharing" and collaboration, as with IMDB or Napster, but may also be used to take away users' customary access to information, or may prompt a legal backlash from established interests (e.g. copyright holders) threatened by the new potentials.

An "open source cultural database" engages these issues by deliberately seeking to empower cultural users/consumers, and by allowing open, public participation. Its goal is to bolster the "digital commons", by providing a trustworthy and independent venue for cultural/critical data.


We propose an Internet-based information service called OpenCritic, which would form a universal, public, open, and extensible database of critical information -- reviews, articles, lists, and bibliographic data.

Building on the principles of Open Source collaborative software development, and inspired by the example of Open Content initiatives such as Nupedia and Slashdot, we propose that such an open critical database could be built as public knowledge infrastructure.

To explore these possibilities, the project has been proposed and is being hosted by Openflows (, a Toronto-based organization that supports alternative, collaborative media projects. A rudimentary site has been launched, along with a mailing list for project discussion; in addition, we have designed a unique database schema to support cross-referenced, cross-media, critical/bibliographic data entered by disparate contributors (see the history of for discussion of how to do this).

At this stage of the project, our goal is to explicate and publicize the project goals; continue to map out technical specifications; build a simple, initial working prototype; and assemble a core group of expert contributors.

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