NARA’s Digital Partnership Agreements: The Good, the Bad, and let’s hope, not the Ugly

The issue of the terms of NARA’s agreements with their “digitization partners” has come up again lately, inspired by the recent news that, a NARA partner, has digitized and will make available on its site many NARA records relating to the Holocaust. Footnote is generously making those records available to the public during the month of October, but after that people will need to pay to have access to them on the Footnote site.

Earlier this month on the Found History blog Tom Scheinfeldt, the Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, raised concerns around “privatizing Holocaust history” by having public records available online only on a fee-based site. However, NARA’s digitization agreements have been the subject of criticism for some time. (You can see a complete list of the partners with links to the agreements here on the NARA site.) I wrote a post about the controversy generated by the TGN agreement back in April 2008. Dan Cohen, also of the CHNM and GMU wrote posts back in January 2007 and another in January 2009.

I still believe what I wrote in my previous post. At the present time, NARA doesn’t have the resources to do large-scale scanning and hosting of its holdings. In making these agreements, they are making a trade. They grant the partners the right to profit from having the digitized records available on their sites and in exchange NARA receives copies of the images (and metadata) which NARA can do with as it chooses. You can read my earlier post for a lengthier analysis. If a non-profit came forward and wanted to supply similar services and make the documents available for free on their site, I’m sure NARA would sign them up as a partner too, but for now it seems the only groups willing to undertake this kind of large digitization of NARA’s records are commercial ones (except for the EMC Corporation, which is supporting digitization at the Kennedy Library).

In his answers to the pre-hearing questionnaire, the soon-to-be Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero stressed his experience with “fundraising and donor stewardship.” If this is a sign that he will more actively pursue donations, such as that made by EMC, to make collections freely available online, then that will be a wonderful thing. But, let us assume that for the foreseeable future NARA will have to continue these commercial partnerships–or “the privitization of the digitzation of history,” as Footnote co-founder Chris Willis wrote in a comment on the FoundHistory blog. What then? Acting on our behalf, as custodians of our public records, NARA trades a short term “bad” (access to these public documents only via fee-based sites) for a long-term “good”–copies of the digital images and metadata.

This long-term “good” that NARA has traded for is only realized when we get free public access to the documents online. (Although, as I wrote in the previous post, there are other smaller, less obvious “goods” that come along with these deals too. But the big one is free online public access.) What is NARA planning to do when it does get those copies and is legally able to make them available? Rather than speculate, I asked NARA for an official statement about whether or not there were plans to ingest the digital copies into ERA, NARA’s future Web interface for all its archival materials. Here is the pertinent part of their response:

You ask whether ingesting all or part of those digital files is explicitly part of the ERA schedule and supported in the projected ERA budget. The task of adding them to ERA is not part of the current ERA schedule or budget. We have just begun doing analysis relating to cost and other aspects of making these digital surrogates available. As the analysis proceeds, it is quite possible that other viable alternatives besides ERA may emerge. We do regard it as our responsibility to get the best deal we can for the public in terms of both access and cost, and will at the appropriate point reach out to stakeholders and the public for feedback on the various options.

I find this a somewhat curious answer, but perhaps that was because I specifically mentioned access through ERA–the multi-million dollar system NARA has been promising will take over providing access to all its archival descriptions, electronic records, and digital copies. What I don’t see in that answer is a firm commitment by NARA to making the copies freely available online. Based on my understanding of the capabilities of the ERA system, providing access would just be a question of ingesting into ERA the digital files and metadata provided by the partners and associating them with their parent archival descriptions. The only expense I can see might be additional servers or storage for the 130 million pages (so far) of materials. It’s true that NARA’s users would not have access to the additional functionalities provided on the partner sites, or the additional metadata added by the partner sites’ users, but I’m sure most users would be willing to trade those features for free access. It’s possible that NARA did not want to commit to using ERA as the vehicle for providing access, although that seems odd to me given the tremendous amount of funding that has been and will be devoted to building this system for providing access to electronic information.

Although Mr. Ferriero did not specifically call out increased online public access to NARA’s holdings as one of his priorities, his track record at the NYPL demonstrates that he “gets it,” and so I hope that once he is on board at NARA we will see a more confident statement emerge about future plans.

That said, and with hope in our hearts, let’s briefly consider the Ugly–the possibility that after NARA concludes their analysis they decide not to host their own copies of the materials, but to continue public access through the fee-based partner sites (also accessible by visitors to NARA research rooms). What then? Well, even then anyone would be able to request copies of any or all of the digital materials (paying the standard NARA fees for reproduction) and post the copies on their own site. NARA could also expand their existing Affiliated Archives program to explicitly include organizations who stepped forward to make available digital copies. For example, the Holocaust Museum could become the host for the digitized Holocaust-related materials. Or, of course, the Internet Archive could come forward and take copies of everything.

We have no reason to think the Ugly option would ever come to pass, but we have until 2012 (when presumably the first of the materials digitized by Footnote under the terms of their 2007 agreement would be available for NARA to share) to ensure that it does not, and NARA has until 2012 to conduct their decision-making process. And, who knows, by that time perhaps NARA’s commercial partners will have determined that it makes more sense for them to open up the NARA documents to public themselves? A lot of things could happen between now and then, but it seems a wise precaution for all interested parties to monitor the situation and keep reminding NARA that many of its stakeholders are willing to trade a short-term Bad for a long-term Good, but most of us are not willing to put up with a long-term Ugly.

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11 thoughts on “NARA’s Digital Partnership Agreements: The Good, the Bad, and let’s hope, not the Ugly”

  1. Excellent work K.–v. helpful info. especially as I have to say something about ERA in every course.

  2. I’m not really sure I see what all the fuss is about. It’s not like the records themselves have been handed over to Footnote. The records are still avaliable at NARA, just as they always have been. All that’s happening now is that Footnote is making copies of them easier to view. Sounds like a bunch of lazy people whining about not getting something they want for free. Don’t want to pay for a Footnote subscription? Buy a plane ticket, rent a hotel room, and visit the collections at NARA personally. Oh, wait–that would be far more expensive, wouldn’t it? Why is this any different than the millions of microfilmed documents the LDS has? Unless your local branch of the FHL happens to have the one you want, you have to pay for those, even if they just call it a shipping and handling fee. People are getting spoiled by all the free content that’s available now.

  3. Good post, Kate. Keep us updated on anything you hear on this going forward. I have a question and a comment. What are you hearing about NARA’s overall budget outlook? The Washington Post reported yesterday that “the gap between federal spending and tax collections is the largest on record since the end of World War II.” According to the Post, the Office of Management and Budget “has already instructed federal agencies to identify spending cuts for next year’s budget.” Although ERA has received substantial funding in recent years, you’re right in pointing out that NARA lacks the resources to do massive dititizing using available resources.

    The other thing NARA has to consider is optics. Remember the outcry in 1989 when NARA accepted $600,000. from Phillip Morris to underwrite an exhibition of the Bill of Rights? In return, Phillip Morris got the right to mention NARA in some of its specialized advertising. Susan Cooper then said “‘We think it is very appropriate to stretch the taxpayers’ dollars this way.” Not everyone saw it that way. The New York Times reported that “Congressional staff aides said they knew of no other agreement in which a company has paid a Federal agency and gotten to use its name.” Some people objected to the move on lega grounds. “Laurence Tribe, a constitutional expert at Harvard University, said the National Archives action is offensive and violates the spirit of two clauses in the Constitution, Article I, Section 9, and Article II, Section 1, which he said make it clear that the Government is not for sale.” The flap eventually blew over but NARA got some adverse publicity due to the deal.

    A very different type of private-public partnership, I raise it merely to show that NARA sometimes does things for which it seems to anticipate no public relations downside only to be surprised at criticism. Thanks again for keeping a good eye on these matters.

  4. Thanks for bringing this back into discussion. At the National Genealogical Society conference earlier this year, I asked some NARA folks about the agreement — particularly the implications of a private-public partnership. Immediately I was reminded that the partnership (and its restrictions on free, public access) was temporary and that it remains a mutually beneficial partnership. There seemed to be a hinting at “hey, we should feel lucky that this stuff will be free in a few years.” Most genealogists (not librarians/archivists) that I spoke to did not appear affected by the temporary period of paid access and were grateful that the materials were being digitized, even if for a fee (I think this might have something to do with the socioeconomic status of full-time or hobby genealogists, but that’s another story). I am concerned that this might become the normal way to think about access to government records. Thus far I agree that a temporary bad is payment enough for a long-term good, though the restriction on those who cannot afford access remains a bitter side effect of these partnerships. Looking forward to 2012…

  5. Public records should be publicly available, and to all. That’s why I went into public service in archives and why I have stayed in government archives throughout my career. I will not try to tailgun decisions by NARA because there may be extenuating circumstances or compelling arguments they could offer of which I am unaware. However….

    I think we should set the bar with vendors on arrangements that ensure free access to online resources. We have had exactly NO trouble doing that in our arrangements between the NY State Archives and vendors. We stated that as our baseline requirement for any discussion that our records be made freely available to our NY constituents, for whom we work, and who already support our organization through their tax money. Each vendor with whom we’ve discussed a relationship have all agreed they could accomplish that and those with whom we have a contract are doing that.

    Vendors’ online resources are enhanced substantially when they incorporate our records into the larger database/resource. The value of integrating resources in one location is what the vendors can sell, and they can create special tools or “hot” resources for which they can charge. The basic records from government archives, in my opinion, should be accessible at no cost. There are ways to do that and still make considerable profit for the vendor. It’s not whining or fussing, it is ensuring that we meet an essential right of access to the record of the American people.

    And the more people have access to the essential records they need for a range of purposes, the more they will come to value those records and the uses that can be made of them. Then maybe it won’t be so hard to advocate for resources, for programs, for support for archives. Archives are still a largely untapped resource for many, many people and many, many uses. Let’s get the “stuff” out there so we can facilitate the availability of these essential resources. And let’s do it without charging people.

  6. This may sound ignorant, but how is profiting from archival materials in this case different from charging use fees in addition to reproduction fees for public domain and government produced photographs?

  7. Thanks Kate T. for voicing my feelings as well concerning NARA and its partners. Footnote has gone from $7.95/month to $11.95 for subscribers to view “premium” material.Premium means the actual viewing of the digitized material taken from NARA’s microfilm. These “partners” are making a killing from the public on material which ought to be accessible to anyone for free! Granted, there is some material that can viewed for free, but it is limited.
    Since my only financial means is a government check once a month, I can’t afford to FLY to D.C. or College Park, MD for viewing of specific files which I need to see in getting a book published.
    This is March 2010 – why is it so difficult for the American public to be able to access records, and then for a fee, which are part and parcel of history?

  8. I have been reading over these comments, and believe it or not, unless you have ever worked on a digital project, you would not believe the amount of time and money that it takes for labor, equipment, a user-friendly system that people can use. One way or the other, the taxpayer is going to pay for it. NARA would have to hire additional staff to digitize the records and put the material online. We have already seen what they have done with ARC and ERA (God help us!)Both are not useable, and over $270 million tax dollars have been spent so far.
    I have been working for eight years on digitizing the federal records created during the Lincoln administration. These are being scanned in color at 600 dpi. The material that Footnote and Ancestry are digitizing is bad microfilm which is being scanned at 300 dpi, and is so bad now, it won’t be worth anything in 5 years. And these partnerships are doing nothing to preserve these documents in their original format. In color, which provides important historical information. I am charging a small subscription fee for the luxury of being able to stay at home and search through thousands of records(inventoried down to the box level), vs. coming to D.C. paying for travel and lodging and coming to the Archives to look through boxes that have no index or inventory.
    Nothing is free. There is a cost somewhere. Digital images require server space, and you are talking about petabytes of data, not the hard drive on your computer.
    The Archives doesn’t have the structure or the staff necessary to house the billions of records from its stack area. What I would hope the folk on this blog would be complaining about is that these “non-exclusionary” contracts that NARA has with Footnote and Ancestry are in fact exclusionary. If they, by chance, are digitizing from original documents, they are only doing them in grayscale. Once these are done, the orignals are taken out of access. So the scholars out there who need the vital information from the original documents are out of luck. History is being dumbed down for the general public who only seems to be interested in seeing if grandpa is listed on the document. If you want a copy of the original document, it will cost you $50 per page to get it in color. So who is making the money here? There are staff at the Archives who have decided that they are going to make money off of these documents one way or the other. And it is the taxpayer in the end who will foot the bill, no matter who does the work.

  9. This is 2015 and the “ugly” is now a reality. The digital partnerships with Ancestry and Fold3, which once was Footnote, which were supposed to be non-exclusionary contracts, are now exclusive contracts. The National Archives is removing the original records, denying access to researchers and other companies, even non profits. They are told they have to go to Ancestry or Fold3’s website to view the records. NARA has created a “monopoly” with Ancestry. Here we are 5 years down the road, and the images that have been provided to NARA via Ancestry, poor in quality, and most in black and white instead of in color, are on hard drives stacked somewhere within the building, and they aren’t going online.
    When the Inspector General asked NARA why there weren’t more digital partners, NARA replied that no one else was interested.
    Small companies, who have been seeking digital partnerships, offering to provide better digital images than Ancestry, who are providing these resources online without a subscription, are being ignored.
    Two years ago, the Lincoln Archives Digital Project started its journey to gain a digital partnership, with the goal to digitize the Assassination records and have them online for everyone to view “freely” by the middle of April 2015 for the 150th commemoration. Here it is April 2, and still no contract. One person claims that it is in General Council, another says that it is in the hands of the “Office of Innovation”, while the office of Innovation says that it is in the hands of the Research Services Director.
    NARA has sold our records to Ancestry, Fold3, and Family Search, which by the way, Ancestry and Fold3 were sold to a European Company for billions of dollars. So now NARA is outsourcing our history.
    And if you haven’t heard, an Ancestry employee in St. Louis was caught throwing away attachments on records they were scanning.
    Something has to be done, and it is going to take a large group effort going to Congress to get things changed. That, or a class action suit against NARA for their questionable contracts with public domain records.

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