Over a four year period in the mid-1990s a team of scholars centred on the Du Bois institute at Harvard compiled a comprehensive database of transatlantic slave-trading voyages. Over 27,000 individual journeys were recorded for the period 1650-1867 covering more than 2/3 of all voyages that took place. The data includes extensive demographic (and mortality) information for the African slaves as well as similar information for the crew, details of the ship and durations of the voyages. This was an amazing feat of collaborative scholarly effort resulting in a dataset of immense value in furthering our understanding of an incredibly important (and terrible) historical episode.
So what happened to this data, was it made open, free for all, scholars and public alike, to use and reuse? Sadly not. Instead it was published on CD-ROM by Cambridge University Press priced at $250.00 (150GBP + VAT in the UK) — a rather tidy sum that one would imagine puts it out of reach, not only of the average interested citizen, but also of many schools.
Apart from the simple cost of access, publication in this form raises questions regarding reuse and redistribution. What happens if I want to reproduce some part of the dataset on my website, or I modify the dataset, perhaps by combining it with some other data sources? A quick call to CUP gives me the answer: apparently they have, and assert, copyright and database rights in the CDROM and I’d need to get in touch with their ‘Permissions Manager’ to see what I would or would not be allowed to do. I’ve no doubt that CUP are probably quite reasonable about this sort of thing but that’s beside the point: (a) there will still be a whole set of activities which are not permitted (including, I imagine, publishing data on a website) (b) whether I got permission or not there’d be significant ‘transaction costs’, that is time and effort simply spent checking what I can or can’t do.
Fortunately, change seems to be in sight. A look at the database’s home page on the Du Bois Institute’s website reveals that
The project directors are now working to make the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database part of an open-access web site. Their goal is to create a dual-tier interface to accommodate a range of aptitudes for the internet, and, in addition to the open access feature, it offers the novel prospect of being constantly up to date in perpetuity.
No dates are given as to when exactly the database will be made ‘open access’ and one wonders why a straight database dump can’t be made available immediately but this does mark a great advance over a $250.00 CDROM and the Du Bois Institute should be commended for realising that the the data’s as important as the paper.
: It should be mentioned that the CUP package does include more than the data alone, for example there’s a teacher’s manual and additional software but this does not materially alter the point being made.
: The whole raw data issue is a major one and it came up repeatedly at the recent civic information forum but I won’t discuss if further here as I plan to return to it in greater detail in a future post.
: Even if they do publish it we will still need to keep our fingers crossed that they attach a suitable open license.