Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, June 30, 2008

More on the plan for OA to the Founders' papers

Peter Hirtle, Free the Founding Fathers! LibraryLaw Blog, June 29, 2008.  Excerpt:

...NARA’s report, “The Founders Online: Open Access to the Papers of the America’s Founding Era,” was sent to Congress in April, but it has received little notice or discussion. This is unfortunate because it is an important work on an important issue. There is much to admire in the report, but overall it demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand what open access means or how technology can make scholarship more productive. It seems more interested in protecting existing partnerships and editorial practices than in breaking new ground and fostering public access. Let’s hope that Congress recognizes how unsound the recommended approach is and pushes NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] to do more....

In addition, while Congress directed the Archivist "to develop a comprehensive plan for the online publication, within a reasonable timeframe, of the papers of the Founding Fathers," the report has elected to speak of "open access" (rather than just online access). There are problems with the report's vision of open access, as I outline below, but NARA is to be commended for in theory at least making open access its goal....

In spite of these positive steps, the overall report is incredibly disappointing, both for what it says and what it leaves out. Here are just a few examples:

[1] The report sets up as an option, which it then rejects, scanning published volumes as they are finished. No one would even consider the idea of scanning published volumes that have been produced from electronic files....There is no discussion of how to provide open access to previously published volumes....

[2] What about copyright you might ask (as Allen Weinstein did at the Congressional hearing)? There is no discussion of the extent of copyright ownership in the product produced by the projects. It would be a scandal if over $17 million dollars in NHPRC funding had been used to allow 3rd parties to commercialize and control the words of the Founding Fathers. Fortunately, under the regulations governing grants to higher education institutions and non-profit organizations (OMB Circular No. A-110, section 36), Federal awarding agencies are required to "reserve a royalty-free, nonexclusive and irrevocable right to reproduce, publish, or otherwise use the work for Federal purposes, and to authorize others to do so." NARA can therefore do what it wants with the volumes produced to date. Nevertheless, the absence of any discussion of copyright in the report is appalling....

[5] Perhaps the most problematic issues in the report surround its use of the term "open access." For some, open access means "digital, online, and free of charge." The report, while saying it wants to provide open access to the material, appears to recommend that all material be given to UVA's Rotunda system for delivery. Rotunda follows a subscription model - not open access - that is remarkably expensive considering that citizens have already paid for all of the editorial work on these volumes. How could this be open access? Apparently Rotunda might be willing to give up its subscription approach if a foundation were willing to pay for all of its costs. Unless such a commitment is in place, I find it disingenuous to describe a Rotunda delivery option as "open access." There is no discussion of other, free, delivery options, such as the willingness expressed by Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress at the Senate Hearing to make all of the Founding Fathers papers accessible through LC (which already has a good site pointing to currently accessible papers).

[6] Others argue that for true open access, information must be accessible outside of specific delivery systems (such as Rotunda) and made available in bulk. Open data and open interfaces allow for all sorts of interesting uses of material. For example, someone might want to mashup George Washington's papers to Google Maps in order to be able to easily visual geographically the spread of information. Others might want to mesh manuscript material with published secondary literature. Rather than anticipating the widespread dispersal and re-use of the Founding Fathers papers, however, and hence the need for harvestable data, open APIs, distributed access, etc., the report calls instead for "a single, unified, and sustainable Web site" - apparently the locked-down Rotunda system....

Congress needs to reject this report and tell the NHPRC [National Historical Publications and Records Commission] to get it right.


  • Peter H is right on both sides of his nuanced judgment.  NARA's intention to produce an OA edition of these papers is admirable.  Its understanding of OA and plan for delivering it are deplorable. 
  • It's hard to distinguish incompetence from deliberate compromise.  Take the example of producing an "OA" edition by scanning a printout of a digital edition.  Either that's a clueless kludge or a deliberate attempt to limit the usefulness of the result by blocking cutting/pasting by users and indexing by search engines.  (Why even consider the latter?  The next example may provide an answer.)  Or take the delivery through UVA's subscription-based Rotunda system.  Either that's a deep misunderstanding of OA or it's a deliberate attempt to let a university press generate revenue from the project (and still use the rhetoric of OA).  The desire for UP revenue, even at the expense of public access for publicly-funded research, was at the basis of some of the protests against the policy of the NEH Scholarly Editions program to favor grant proposals that promised OA for their results.  Could NARA have been lobbied by the same interests that protested the NEH policy?
  • But it doesn't matter much.  Incompetence and deliberate compromise both fail to serve the public.  Congress ought to notice and say so.