Online access to the moving image collections of the National Archives

On Friday the popular blog BoingBoing published this post from “rogue archivist” Carl Malamud: “Watch America’s public domain video treasures, rescue the public domain from paywalls.” In his post, Malamud announces that he will be testifying on December 16 before the House Oversight Committee at a hearing on “History Museum or Records Access Agency? Defining and Fulfilling the Mission of the National Archives and Records Administration.” He observes that for many of NARA’s film holdings, you can purchase a reproduction on DVD from Amazon, but that there is no free way for the public to access these films. (Hence his title–that public domain films are available only behind a “paywall.”) To help provide evidence to make his case to Congress that we the people want free public access, Malamud purchased 20 of these DVDs from Amazon and has posted the films online (for free, of course). He’s hoping to use the number of hits on the films he’s posted to help make his case. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that NARA has made some films available for free on YouTube–81 archival films, by my count. Some of these have gathered a substantial number of hits. In the “From the Archives to the Moon” playlist, for example, the film “The Eagle Has Landed” has 23,954 hits as of this morning. “The John Glenn Story -1963” has 915 views. The others in the series are less popular, ranging from 399 views to 36.

To gather information to write a post on the issues Malamud raises, I did some digging in NARA’s online catalog, ARC. A search of ARC (within the “digital copies” tab) shows 1406 results for moving images that have digital copies available (meaning that there is a file you can download from the ARC site). Of these, 50 appear to be available on YouTube (again, based on a search of the catalog). A search indicates that 1315 of these are available for purchase from Amazon. (A search of the general catalog for the term “” limited only to moving images returns more than 2000 hits–and you can’t see more than 2000 results at a time, so I can’t say how many items in the catalog are available from Amazon.)

A spot check of these results showed that some of these only have the first two minutes of the film available online (with the complete film available for purchase from Amazon) (see ARC #37624, for example). At least one (ARC #38908) can be downloaded and viewed from the ARC site, in addition to being available via YouTube (and for sale from Amazon). For others you can download and view the entire film from the ARC site (and order it from Amazon) but it is not available on YouTube (see ARC #38941). At least one (ARC #11703) is available on YouTube and for download, but is not listed as being available from Amazon.

What this tells me is that NARA does have many films available for access online at no cost, but that there are (as Malamud observed) many more–perhaps thousands–that can be accessed only by purchasing a reproduction (without visiting a NARA facility). (Amazon lists 1,899 DVDs with NARA as the source. Note that many DVDs publish aggregations of many short films, which would account for the difference in numbers.) It also tells me that it’s not clear what NARA’s policy is for what digital copies of films it posts on its own website, for example, why in some cases they only post the first two minutes and in others the whole film.

Unlike many other digitization agreements, the NARA agreement with Amazon is not available on its website. Therefore, I can’t tell what restrictions it may place on NARA about the reuse of the digital files Amazon created in making the DVDs, or even if NARA was given copies of those files.

I think all archivists understand–as Mr. Malamud does–that archives need to charge fees for the reproduction of materials. I think we are in agreement that there is nothing wrong with NARA using Amazon to fulfill orders for reproductions of these films. What may be problematic here–as in the other relationships with NARA partners that I’ve written about before–is if NARA has access to digital copies of materials that they could be making available to the public for free and they are not doing so.

We all know there are costs associated with digitizing film, as there are with digitizing documents and images. Given the strains on its limited budget, NARA has chosen to make these digitization partnerships one of the central parts of their digitization strategy. I wish everyone, including Mr. Malamud, luck in convincing Congress to give NARA more funds to support their own digitization of their holdings, but I am not optimistic about any budget increases in this environment to fund digitization. As I’ve said before, what I would like to see if a strong public commitment from NARA that all materials digitized by its partners will be made available for free on the NARA website as soon as the legal obligations allow it. Perhaps Mr. Malamud, a “rogue archivist,” will be able to get this kind of commitment made for NARA’s film holdings? I wish him luck at the hearing on the 16th!

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