After Uploading 28,000 Historical Images, Wikimedia Signs Deal With National Library of Israel

The archivists initially accused Wikimedia of acting 'violently' and like 'thieves in the night' for uploading trove of historical photos

A textile worker in British mandate Palestine, 1946.
Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives

Israelis will enjoy greater access to material stored in Israeli archives under an agreement signed Monday by three organizations. The signatories are Wikimedia Israel, which runs the Hebrew Wikipedia site; the Association of Israeli Archivists, which represents hundreds of archivists; and the National Library of Israel.

The agreement came two months after a well-publicized battle erupted between Wikimedia and the archivists association over the ownership of tens of thousands of historic photographs. In November, Wikimedia “broke into” the databases of several major archives and “liberated” some 28,000 pictures it said the archives were legally obligated to make accessible to the public.

Many of these photos had been officially defined as public property, meaning the public was supposed to have unrestricted use of them. Some were already available on the internet. Nevertheless, the archives managed to restrict their use in various ways, including by watermarking them, charging fees and posting them at low resolutions.

Cataloging digital images in Tel Aviv’s Beit Ariela Library, November 2018.
Moti Milrod

The new agreement states that the signatories will try to make as much material as possible “freely and readily available” to the public.

Specifically, the archives agreed to post as much new material as possible on the internet with an open license, which means anyone can use the images without restrictions.

Wikimedia agreed to help the archives digitize the material. It will also help make the material accessible, including by integrating some of it into its popular online encyclopedia.

The National Library will work on making expanding public access to its own collections through the Archive Network Israel, a government-sponsored website that includes material from dozens of Israeli archives.

Pictures from before the creation of Israel as a state.
Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives

When Wikimedia “liberated” the photographs in November, the archives from which they were taken were furious. These included the Central Zionist Archives, the Israel State Archives, the Government Press Office, the Palmach Archive and and the archives of the Jewish National Fund, also known by its Hebrew name, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. In a statement, the archivists accused Wikimedia of acting “violently” and like “thieves in the night.”

As part of Monday’s agreement, Wikimedia issued an apology.
“We regret the situation that was created due to the lack of communications between the archives and Wikimedia Israel,” it said in a statement. “Different worldviews and organizational cultures hindered dialogue and created misunderstandings about the intentions of both the archives and Wikimedia Israel. This isn’t how things are supposed to be handled. [...] We want to apologize to anyone who was hurt by this.”

The organization also promised not to take any further unilateral measures to make archival material available to the public.

Some of the pictures published as part of the accessibility project.
Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives

The archivists association issued an apology as well, saying it “regrets the archives’ poor response to requests by Wikimedia staff to make their material available to all.”

The new agreement states that though archival material will be made accessible to the public, this will be done “while respecting the rights of those entrusted with the material and Israeli law, and with respect for the great effort involved in collecting this material, preserving it and making it accessible.” The signatories also expressed hope that as many archives as possible will cooperate with the accessibility project, “out of an understanding of its benefits to the public both in Israel and abroad.”

Both sides said they want to “turn over a new leaf” in their relationship.

Michal Lester, executive director of Wikimedia Israel, said she very much hopes the new spirit of cooperation will bear fruit. “The archives themselves want to change their outlook and promote this issue, in order to create greater exposures to items preserved in their archives,” she said.

David Amitai, chairman of the archivists association, agreed. “The trend will be to increase exposure and make material available to the public,” he said.

Nevertheless, he added, the archives will first have to solve a few technical and legal problems, including copyright issues. Additionally, some of the archives will have to overcome their suspicions of the joint venture, he said, given that it is rooted in “a break-in to photo databases.”