when public goes private: access to US National Archives costs $

The U.S. National Archive struck a deal with footnote.com. The good news? Lots and lots of historic documents wil be “available” in digital format for researchers, hobbyists and nerds like you and me. The bad news? For five years you are going to have to pay to access these documents online, or travel to Washington DC to view them for free. The documents also have terms of use that are onerous, annoying or just plain bizarre. More ananlysis and links about this deal at Dan Cohen’s blog.

What I am not certain of is how users accessed these documents in the pre-footnote era? Did Archive staff photocopy them and send people copies for a small fee? I’m also not entirely clear if these documents will be OCRed and available as text, or just locked up in proprietary formats and barely keyword indexed. In any case, while I understand why the Archives sees this as a savvy move, it’s bad news for citizens and sets a bad example of shifting public documents into the private sphere because we’re too broke to do the work ourselves. [del]

7 thoughts on “when public goes private: access to US National Archives costs $

  1. You might want to proofread your headline again…

    Thanks for the very informative blog.

  2. I once was looking for a document that wasn’t available online, and someone at the National Archive found it for me and made me color copies and mailed them to me for free. It was only a few pages–I think I remember them saying they’d need to charge if it were more than 10 or somesuch–but I didn’t pay a cent. I remember them saying that the only way to get a higher-resolution copy would be to actually go there with a hand-scanner. Luckily the color copy was clear enough. Very helpful.

  3. The fee depends on the type of record you’re requesting. I’ve ordered military and land records from the NARA for my genealogy research, and they were definitely not in color or free! It really didn’t matter if they were in color, though, since they were just written documents without any pictures or anything

    See this page for fees: http://www.archives.gov/research/order/fees.html

  4. A couple of things:
    1) You should also be able to get at these records at “regional facilities across the country” (according to the press release you linked to above).

    2) I do not believe that the text has been OCRd.

    3) An interesting side effect of the ability of others to add comments to records is the chance that someone else will help you find something you are looking for.

    4) I have a full post about this at: http://www.spellboundblog.com/2007/01/17/footnotecom-and-us-national-archives-records/

    Finally – I guess maybe I am either too optimistic or too practical, but doesn’t the government have a long history of farming out jobs they don’t have the staff to perform? True – we usually pay cash for this sort of contracting, but what if we looked upon this as more of a ‘barter’ situation. Footnote gets to make money by providing easy access to records that they are digitizing – and NARA gets lots of records digitized without an outlay of money or personpower.

    The one point I will give you is that the rights issues need to be made more clear. Footnote.com should not require you to get permission to use a record that is already in the public domain.

  5. It’s interesting to read concerns about Footnote.com, as MPOW is considering a partnership with them. I had a long conversation with some of their reps at ALA Midwinter, and I was favorably impressed in general with both their ethical stance and their software. Viewed purely as a participatory software venture, this is pretty neat stuff (and, sorry Dan, but more appealing to the mass market than Zotero!).

    They aren’t doing OCR because the majority of documents they’re working on are handwritten. If there is an existing index, they are using it and adding links to appropriate pages, but they aren’t doing indexing themselves. Instead, their software allows users to “tag” areas of pages, entering in the appropriate text and giving it an attribute such as name, date, place, etc. Given enough editors, this approach would work.

    We shouldn’t be comparing this to institutional digitization projects, IMO. It’s much more an alternative to the approach being developed by the FamilySearch folks (LDS). I spoke with them at Midwinter, too, and they’re close to releasing their distributed indexing tool, which will harness the power of their volunteer organization to index documents they and others are digitizing. Their tool, however, will be free. I’m not too optimistic about the ability of Footnote.com and other paid genealogy sites to compete against the LDS once they get organized!

  6. One observation — it looks as though their (probably automated) data processor reverses surname and personal name in the Revolutionary War Pension record “free” example. At least I suspect that it’s more likely that the pensioner’s name was John Alverson rather than Alverson John and that the name is inverted in the (microfilm) index for ease of access. Of course, I can’t check this without paying ~$2.00 to view the actual image. 8-) But if this is the case generally, it’s going to be very hard to find people via their digital access….. I e-mailed them and I await their response.

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