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Friday, January 19, 2007

Digitized public-domain docs from US history behind access barriers

Dan Cohen, The Flawed Agreement between the National Archives and Footnote, Inc., Dan Cohen's blog, January 19, 2007.  Excerpt:

I suppose it's not breaking news that libraries and archives aren't flush with cash. So it must be hard for a director of such an institution when a large corporation, or even a relatively small one, comes knocking with an offer to digitize one's holdings in exchange for some kind of commercial rights to the contents. But as a historian worried about open access to our cultural heritage, I'm a little concerned about the new agreement between Footnote, Inc. and the United States National Archives. And I'm surprised that somehow this agreement has thus far flown under the radar of all of those who attacked the troublesome Smithsonian/Showtime agreement. Guess what? From now until 2012 it will cost you $100 a year, or even more offensively, $1.99 a page, for online access to critical historical documents such as the Papers of the Continental Congress.

This was the agreement signed by Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and Footnote, Inc., a Utah-based digital archives company, on January 10, 2007. For the next five years, unless you have the time and money to travel to Washington, you'll have to fork over money to Footnote to take a peek at Civil War pension documents or the case files of the early FBI. The National Archives says this agreement is "non-exclusive" —I suppose crossing their fingers that Google will also come along and make a deal— but researchers shouldn't hold their breaths for other options....

Moreover, you'll also be subject to some fairly onerous terms of usage on, especially considering that this is our collective history and that all of these documents are out of copyright. (For a detailed description of the legal issues involved here, please see Chapter 7 of Digital History, "Owning the Past?", especially the section covering the often bogus claims of copyright on scanned archival materials.)...

Comment.  Thanks to Klaus Graf for pointing out Dan Cohen's post and for collecting some other comments on the NARA-Footnote deal.  The new Democratic Congress should look into this problem.  It shouldn't try to undo the Footnote deal, which is better than nothing for readers who can't get to Washington.  But it should try to swing a better deal, perhaps even funding the digitization and OA directly.