Public sector information (PSI) is often defined as government data, as the majority of organizations in the public sector are government institutions. Such seemingly simplistic definitions seemingly exclude institutions of cultural heritage—universities, museums, and historical societies, among others. A more encompassing definition of PSI would include “all the information that public bodies produce, collect or pay for” (European Commission, n.d.,Open Data). Some examples include: “geographical information, statistics, weather data, data from publicly funded research projects, and digitized books from libraries” (European Commission, n.d., Open Data). This definition offers a more inclusive understanding of PSI, providing a space for public institutions as well as their government counterparts, that generate, collect or purchase information in areas such as social, economic, geographical, weather, tourist and cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage is largely defined as:
the legacy of physical artifacts (cultural property) and intangible attributes of society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. Cultural heritage includes tangible culture (such as buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, works of art, and artifacts), intangible culture (such as folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and natural heritage (including culturally-significant landscapes, and biodiversity) (Dietrich and Pekel, 2012, p. 3).
Cultural heritage institutions, therefore, collect objects to preserve and/or educate future generations. Yet, a question remains: can these objects be classified as PSI?
Distinctions regarding the nature (physical vs. digital) of the object are crucial to understanding its role as PSI. Daniel Dietrich and Joris Pekel state “[i]t is evident that the actual objects and collections held by cultural institutions are not Public Sector Information…”(Dietrich and Pekel, 2012, p. 4). Indeed, many physical objects collected by institutions of cultural heritage are under copyright, which creates challenges for providing access. Those objects, however, that are in the public domain remain freely accessible. For instance, the Historic American Building Surveys (HABS) Collection housed in the Library of Congress is currently in the public domain. These surveys were created by the National Park Service for the preservation of historic buildings in the United States.
Subsequent digitization by the National Park Service, a government institution, has provided greater access to these documents. While these surveys—both physical and digital versions—may not be considered PSI, “cultural institutions produce more and more information that could be considered PSI. This includes the creation and curating of metadata about the objects, aggregation, indexing and semantic tagging of digital copies of cultural heritage objects in databases” (Dietrich and Pekel, 2012, p. 4). Emphasis is placed not on the collection of objects, but on the context in which these objects are placed. This is public sector information. Metadata, aggregation, and indexing is information produced by an institution in order to facilitate description, storage, and retrieval. These elements of information are just as valuable as the objects themselves. Indeed, “the better the metadata is, the more likely it is that the material of the institution can be found and linked to other datasets.” (Dietrich and Pekel, 2012, p. 7)