NARA latest digitization agreement: One archivist’s perspective

As regular readers know, I used to work at the National Archives. Since starting this blog, I’ve avoided writing much about NARA because I worried that if was too critical people would think I was trying to get back at someone for something, or that if was too supportive people would think I was just a shill for my old employer. But I read a post a few days ago called “The NARA/TGN contract as a bad precedent” on a blog I admire, Free Government Information, and I felt I needed to write a response.

The authors at FGI are advocates for, clearly, free government information. As an archivist and a former employee of NARA, I am an advocate for the broadest possible public access to NARA’s holdings, as well as for the general welfare of NARA as an institution. I am also keenly aware of the challenges NARA’s mission presents and the limited resources it is being given to carry out its mission. I am also a pragmatist. I am not, however, an expert in digitization. If you’re looking for a technical discussion, you won’t find it here.

Many of you may remember an excellent article published last March in the New York Times, “History, Digitized (and Abridged)“which described the challenges NARA and other repositories face in digitizing their enormous collections. The article estimated that, given the expected annual rate of digitization, it would take 1800 years to digitize all of NARA’s textual holdings and 576 years to digitize all its non-textual holdings. Clearly they have to seek ways to speed up their digitization process. Without a large increase in their budget or a drastic shift in their institutional priorities, they cannot digitize their materials any faster. To make more materials available online more quickly NARA, like many other national archives across the world, has chosen to pursue corporate partnerships. In such partnerships, the corporate partner has to get enough out of the deal to make it worth their while. This leads to agreements, such as the one with The Generations Network (TGN) (available here) that limit free public access to the digitized materials for a given period–in this case five years. It’s a trade off, and it’s one I can live with. I think most archivists, based on their own experience with the challenges of finding money for digitization, would agree.

I will not address all of the concerns raised in the FGI post, but think I will cover most of the substantial ones. Now, let’s get to the specifics of this agreement and FGI’s concerns with them, and I’ll share what I think people should really be worried about.

TGN will be creating digital copies from either original archival materials or from microfilm copies of materials, if available. The most confusing parts of the agreement concern the distribution of the digital copies made from microfilm publications. I’ll discuss those after we look at the basics of the deal. What NARA gets out of this are:

  • Digital copies of high-use, high-demand archival materials
    • After five years, NARA can use these copies without any limitations (except for some restrictions on those created from microfilm–see below). This will mean that users can be required to use the digital copies (similar to requirements when materials have been microfilmed), decreasing the preservation risks to the materials. Note that the terms of the agreement give NARA, after five years, “full and unrestricted rights to use [the digitized materials], including the right to sell, make available for downloading, or otherwise provide in electronic form, the entire contents of the Digitized Materials or segments of them.” FGI latched on to the “sell” in this statement, but the terms don’t prohibit NARA from making the images available for free (except for the ones produced from microfilm).
  • Detailed, often item-level metadata and indexing that would otherwise never be produced and which will be freely available to the public (and searchable by Google, etc) on both NARA’s website and TGN’s
    • This metadata will enable all researchers to identify (at no cost) materials that they never would have known existed. This appears to me to be a significant public service. Yes, if people want access to the digitized copy, they will have to pay a fee, but without this service they might not have ever known about the document or they might have had to go through many many pages of irrelevant documents (in person or by paying for copies) in order to find it.
  • Conservation and preservation activities for materials to be digitized will be paid for by TGN
    • This could be a significant cost savings for NARA. Again, the materials that will be selected for digitization will probably be high-demand and therefore high-use materials, and so in need of treatment.
  • Free access to the digitized materials in all NARA reading rooms and for all NARA employees
    • Is this ideal? No, it would be better if everyone could have free access from everywhere. But TGN is in business to make money and so I respect their right to create conditions that allow them to recoup their investment. Getting access in the reading rooms is helpful to those who can travel to them (and yes, people will be able to hit the print button on the computer in the research room at no charge, as long as they’re not abusing the privilege). Free access for all NARA employees will allow them to use the resources in responding to reference requests and I would guess that this would improve speed and quality of those responses. In FGI’s comments, I think they were not taking into consideration that there is a distinction between access (which will be free in the reading rooms) and reproduction (which, by pre-existing NARA policy, is almost never free).
  • Potentially, increased revenue for producing reproductions
    • NARA collects fees for creating reproductions of its materials–whether they are photocopies, digital copies, or microfilm. Under the terms of the agreement with TGN, NARA will charge the appropriate fee for a reproduction of one of the new digital images. Again, TGN doesn’t want NARA giving away what it (TGN) is charging for. It seems reasonable to me. NARA will charge its standard fee, and so it seems likely that this will result in increased revenue for NARA. I am sure this is not a motivating factor for NARA to enter into this agreement, but I think it might be a nice side affect.
  • TGN will clearly identify all NARA materials on its site as being from NARA and will link back to the appropriate descriptions in NARA’s online catalog.
    • FGI saw the (restricted and limited) ability for TGN to use NARA’s trademarks as a concern. I understand their point, but all uses must be pre-approved and I know NARA will be very careful about this. I see it more as an opportunity to expand public knowledge about NARA’s holdings and bring more people onto the NARA site. Yes, NARA’s online catalog will link out to the TGN site, but again, that doesn’t bother me so much. Maybe I’m just too jaded, but sites link out to each other all time. This is giving users the option to get more information and I think on the whole it’s a net gain for our user community.

Now, about the microfilm issue. I found this very confusing, so I looked into it as best I could, and honestly, I still don’t think I get it. I believe there is general agreement, including within NARA, that this section of the agreement is confusing and the issues need to be explained and clarified. The first issue seems to revolve around giving an unfair competitive advantage. As most of you probably know, NARA has microfilmed over 3,000 series of Federal records and makes these microfilm publications available for purchase. Anyone who purchases microfilm may do anything they want with it–including digitizing it and selling the product. Therefore creating digital copies of the microfilm is a competitive area–many people can do it. This is not true of digitizing archival materials (that is, series of archival materials). Once a group of archival materials has been digitized by NARA or a partner (such as TGN), it will not be digitized again. Therefore, this area is not competitive. If I am following the logic correctly, the rationale for continuing to charge (after the first five years) for digital copies made from microfilm publications is that providing such copies for free would give TGN’s competitors an unfair advantage in a competitive area (since they would not incur the costs of digitization). NARA is not willing to apply this same rationale to the digitized images made from archival materials because no other vendor will ever be given the ability to create their own digital copies, and so the “playing field” is not fair. I believe this to be the logic. I am not sure I agree, but I believe this is the basis for the additional restrictions on these digital copies.

In addition, I believe the agreement does not make clear whether the requirement to continue to charge for reproductions of digitized microfilm materials applies to microfilm publications (meaning the a reproduction of the entire publications) or to any subset of the publication (such as a few pages). Based on my research, I think the intent is that these fees would only be charged for a reproduction of the entire microfilm publication, not for reproductions of small parts of a publication. But, again, this is not clear. If NARA’s intent is what I have described, the agreement needs to make this clear.

So, let us assume that five years have passed (and NARA has resolved the sticky wickets about microfilm). Under the terms the agreement, NARA now has the right to post, without restrictions, on its website all the digital images and metadata that TGN has created and transferred to them. People could download all of it. For free. We would now have the free public access that the FGI blogger wants, and that we all want.

But, here is what I think you should worry about–will NARA be able to do that? The answer is no. Given NARA’s IT infrastructure and (to the best of my knowledge) their plans to supplement that in the future, they will not be able to host anywhere near all the images they will be receiving back from their partners. We the citizens, through NARA, are giving TGN the right to exclude our free access to government records on the web in exchange for TGN’s services in digitizing and describing them. We are making this exchange with the understanding that in five years we will have free public access to all the materials. But we will not have that access unless NARA makes them available to us. I am sure that NARA will make some of these digitized records available, as many as their infrastructure will allow. But it won’t be anything near the total amount digitized. And for the materials that NARA can’t make available, yes, you will still have to pay to access them through the partner’s site, even after the five years is up. That’s what concerns me.

What can be done? Well, if you dislike these partnership agreements, you could encourage NARA to be more aggressive in seeking out donors who will fund digitization (and the infrastructure needed to support access) with no strings. The Library of Congress seems to have been pretty successful with this. NARA has one such arrangement, I believe, with the EMC Corporation to digitize materials at the Kennedy Library. Other than this, I think most of their large corporate contributions have gone to the remodeling of the downtown building, the National Archives Experience and other educational resources.

Given that we probably have to live with these partnership agreements, you could ask some serious questions about NARA’s investments in its IT infrastructure and what those investments will do to support access to these digitized records. If making these records available to the public as soon as legally possible is not a NARA priority, you could start asking some questions about those priorities. If you want free access in five years, you’d better get started now.

That’s my perspective. I’d like to hear yours.

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12 Responses to NARA latest digitization agreement: One archivist’s perspective

  1. Thank you for your analysis and insights. I certainly agree with your kind comments on NARA staff. Over the last couple of decades I have known several people who work at NARA and have relied on their knowledge, expertise, service orientation, and commitment to help me and my library’s users. They are highly skilled, dedicated, and professional. I consider them my friends. I would imagine that the thinking at NARA on deals like this one is driven by just the sort of things you point out: wanting to increase access and making it easier for citizens to find the information they need. Those are honorable, worth-while goals.

    I also think we mostly agree on the impacts of the deal between NARA and TGN. I have some disagreements over your characterization of the need for NARA to impose fees for digitized copies but, in this context, that is a minor point even if the resulting fees are a significant factor in the overall result.

    I think we do differ on whether or not the costs of the deal are worth what we get.

    What are the costs? Clearly, the driving goal is to digitize non-digital information. That leads to the question of how to pay for the digitization. Contracts like the NARA/TGN do accomplish the goal. We could stop there and say, by definition, “goal accomplished” is a good thing. But I believe we should go further and really analyze the cost.

    When we analyze the cost of digitization of this particular contract, we find, I believe, two major problems that should concern us. First, it commodifies content. Second, when viewed over the long-term, the country will almost certainly lose more than it gains.

    How does it commodify the content? It explicitly allows and encourages TGN to make money, not from its service or the value it adds to the content, but from the content itself. This turns the content, which is a public resource and the “property” of the public, into a commodity for sale. The “cost” of this deal is to turn a public resource effectively into a private resource for sale. I believe that it would be wiser to protect public resources from commodification rather than striking deals that explicitly commodify them. The private sector should, I believe, be making money on adding value to the content (access, interface, selection, ease of use, etc.), not on the content itself.

    This is not a radical idea. We have lots of examples of the private sector adding value to public resources without commodifying the resource. Think of companies that republish government documents (in print, microform, or digitally). To use a specific digital example, look at LexisNexis, which repackages publicly available government information. Users of LexisNexis could go elsewhere for Congressional information, for example, but choose to use the company resources when the company makes it easier to find and use the materials. In such cases, the private sector makes money on their repackaging, not on the content itself.

    By examining the consequences of commodification of public information we can see why it is bad. Examples include large sections of court opinion literature and many state laws. Without question these materials are accessible – to those who can pay for them. But the cost of commodification limits access and re-use. Getting such information back into the public domain has taken paying for the information again and hard work by dedicated innovators such as Carl Malamud. (See http://freegovinfo.info/taxonomy/term/530)

    To its credit, the NARA/TGN contract does not give permanent exclusive rights for the digitized material to TGN; and, NARA does get a lot for the cost it pays (see my earlier post http://freegovinfo.info/node/1783).

    But, that brings us to the second point: Over the long-term, we will actually lose more than we will gain. I think you described this long term loss quite accurately. As you note, after five years NARA will have the legal right to make the digitized content available without charge on its web site, but it will probably not do so.

    “We the citizens, through NARA, are giving TGN the right to exclude
    our free access to government records on the web in exchange for
    TGN’s services in digitizing and describing them. We are making
    this exchange with the understanding that in five years we will
    have free public access to all the materials. But we will not have
    that access unless NARA makes them available to us. I am sure that
    NARA will make some of these digitized records available, as many
    as their infrastructure will allow. But it won’t be anything near
    the total amount digitized. And for the materials that NARA can’t
    make available, yes, you will still have to pay to access them
    through the partner’s site, even after the five years is up.
    That’s what concerns me.”

    And why should NARA make the information available for free? It will, as you point out, cost it to do so. In addition, the private sector will always complain when the government “competes” with it and, by commoditizing the information, the government will have essentially conceded that argument to the private sector.

    I would go further. As far as I can tell from the contract, there is nothing that requires TGN to make digital copies that it sells usable or re-usable by those who buy those copies. I think it safe to assume, therefore, that TGN will sell images with a contractual agreement that precludes use or reuse by the buyer, or will wrap digital copies in DRM technologies to prevent their use, or both. TGN will effectively control the information. Citizens will not be able to use this public information, and libraries and archives will not be able to build specialized collections.

    Finally, by deciding that access to the digitized information is worth the cost of signing a contract like this one, the government is defining its mission: It is effectively saying that “access” trumps control; that it is worth providing better access even if the cost is to turn public resources into effectively privatized resources.

    Of course, the contract doesn’t mandate that. It is possible that things will go a different way. But look around. Do we see the government investing in long term permanent public access at the scale necessary to accomplish the job? As you point out, the government’s commitment today is so meager that it would take hundreds and hundreds of years to complete digitization of the NARA holdings. This deal doesn’t reverse that trend; it accepts it, gives up hope of ever changing that, and promotes a future of privatized access to public resources.

  2. I have read both the posting here and FGI with great interest. As a history grad student and someone very interested in making historical documents available online, I am interested in the potential copyright implications of this kind of relationship between NARA and its corporate partners.

    Before I make my own posting bringing up your discussion, I wonder if you can help me understand something. I have been trying to understand how it comes to be that the product of some of these partnerships, whether they be microfilm or digitized documents can result in a copyrighted document (I wrote a posting expressing my frustration with this here: muninn.net/blog/2007/05/copyright-claims-on-us-government-documents.html) when no original content is added. The reproduction, watermarking, or resizing of the original document (to fit on a microfilm) does not constitute the adding of original content.

    Thus, is it safe to at least claim that, whether it is today or five years from now, anyone who purchases or otherwise procures a copy of a digital image of a government document in this collection or others which have been more widely disseminated through some corporate deal like the one described here, that this person will be bound by no restrictions in the reproduction and redistribution of this text?

    If I buy a CD full of government documents, none of which are copyrighted, and I do have the infrastructure (the web space/bandwidth) to host the information online free, am I not free to do so?

    If not, what is the legal restriction which prevents me from doing so and if such a legal restriction exists, isn’t that something very serious for us to be worried about? It will mean the sudden dropping of millions of documents that once resided in a copyright free world into a view-by-license-only world.

  3. SJW says:

    James, I don’t understand your distinction between TGN and Lexis/Nexis. I believe that in both cases value is being added – the values that you list (access, interface, etc. – and I would add searchability). How is this agreement different, and how do you make the argument that TGN is making money solely off the content (which Lexis/Nexis is also doing, by the way) and not off both the content AND the value-added presentation and searchability through digitization? You seem to have countered your own argument, particualrly with the Lexis/Nexis example. Or am I not understanding something unique about the Lexis/Nexis way of making money from public information?

    But the other problem I see with your argument is this idea that information that was publicly available is suddenly ONLY avaialble for a fee. That simply is not true. As before the digitization, anyone who can physically travel to any of the many government document repositories that collect that particular government information can have free access to it. Nothing has changed, except that with the digitization people have a choice on how to access that information. They can spend the money to drive and park (or fly, or take a bus, or train) to the nearest repository that has the government information they seek, or they can spend the money for the convenience of accessing that information electronically.

    Today, of course, most government information is created electronically and available electronically. (So the main problem there is whether or not ERA will ever work – no matter how much money is handed to Lockheed/Martin – and whether NARA will be able to continue to preserve and make that electronic information available through time. Of that I am skeptical.) But we’re talking about all of the information that was previously created in a print-bound world. If left to NARA, this past information will likely never be digitized for the reasons already mentioned. And I think it is unreasonable to expect any institution to retrospectively digitize all of the information it created or maintains. So what is to be done? I’m sure I don’t know, but this imperfect solution is one I can accept as “better than nothing.”

  4. in response to SJW:

    I did not mean to imply that TGN would make money *solely* on content, but that, unlike LN, it would be (evidently) the only network source for digitized copies. It is that effective monopoly on the content that I object to.

    I could be wrong, of course. If TGN is willing to post all the digitized content on an FTP site for downloading without licensing or DRM restrictions so that anyone can use or reuse the content, then I have misinterpreted their intentions. If that is the case, then they are not making money on the content, but only on the value they have added to the content.

    Another possible solution to this problem is if NARA is willing (and contractually able) to give (or even sell at marginal cost) the complete content without restrictions for others to use, reuse, and redistribute. Then other libraries and archives could make the content available without fees, historians could examine whole bodies of content and republish without restrictions.

    A good parallel example is court cases that Carl Malamud has made available. He had to pay for a copy, but after doing so was able to make them freely available. (See http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail3590.html) In other words, Carl’s model was to pay for digitization to free the content as opposed to the NARA/TGN plan that “pays” for the digitization at a cost of locking the content up.

    Also, I did not mean to imply that public information would be available ONLY for a fee. If I did, I was imprecise. In fact it is precisely the inequity and inequality of access, which you describe and which the TGN deal creates, that is one of the problems I have with deals like this. Users who are willing to accept whatever licensing and DRM restrictions TGN imposes (to protect its investment and income) will have “easy” access, but users who want free, unrestricted access will be have to have the time and money to travel to a NARA repository. And even then, it is not clear to me from reading the contract if users will have unlimited unrestricted access to the digitized versions.

    As you note, most government information is created electronically today, but I would ask you to consider if even this “born digital” information is equitably, freely available today (too much is locked into government systems that do not allow unrestricted access; see my other post http://freegovinfo.info/node/1783) and if it will always be available for historians? I think that we, as a society, face the same long-term problem for born digital and newly-digitized information.

    For each digitization project, there will be costs. My argument is that we can pay those costs up front and make the information freely available, or we can construct deals in which we pay the cost of digitization by restricting access and control in the long run. I prefer the first.

    in response to Konrad

    I agree that there is a big problem of losing public domain information, particularly government information. I worry most these days about licensing restrictions and DRM locks that prevent use and reuse but avoid the copyright issue. I worry that they will, essentially, side step copyright law — including fair use. As noted in my comments here, that is one of the problems I find with the NARA/TGN deal

  5. Hi this is the other James from FGI (yes there are 2 of us!). My problem with this whole contract issue is why NARA didn’t just contract for digitization/metadata creation? Why did they have to give TGN control of the content at all? There are plenty of companies who’d do that, and NARA’s hands wouldn’t be tied for 5+ years.

    If NARA infrastructure is the issue with future access, there’s a simple solution: contract hosting with the Internet Archive. The IA has worked with several governments on crawls of their domains (UK Archives comes to mind). They’ve collaborated with the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. In other words, they have the interest and the expertise to deal with free access to large amounts of content, long-term preservation of that content, and they’re a *library*! So have TGN digitize the content and then host it at the IA. Problem solved :-)

    I’m still mulling about Konrad’s copyright comment. I think in the print world, publishers had a leg to stand on because their microfilm/bound volumes were seen as adding value to the content. There was nothing stopping publishers from putting out their products in the public domain, it was just legal and economic protection of their investment. For more on copyright in the digital age, readers should go visit Question Copyright (disclosure: I’m on the board of Question Copyright).

    I don’t think that Konrad would have any problem legally if he wanted to put up a bunch of govt documents on the Web. There is in fact precedent for doing just that. Carl Malamud has been doing it for years, as have projects like Outraged Moderates as well as one-off “ransoms” of USGS map data by Jared Benedict. The 1000 flowers blooming is wonderful IMHO, but I hope that some non-profit organizations (like libraries!) would take it upon themselves to create systems for the long-term access and preservation of digital government information. Yes it’ll be expensive and ongoing, but wouldn’t it be better all around if libraries and other cultural institutions undertook this in a collaborative manner rather than leaving it to private companies to do it?

    I’m glad we’re having this discussion, and believe that we all agree that access to and preservation of digital govt information is of the utmost priority. Let’s hope NARA is reading this and it’ll have a positive affect on future digitization projects.

  6. ArchivesNext says:

    I really want to reply to the issues raised in these comments–including the question about copyright–but there’s a lot going on with the NARA web harvest issue and I’ve got to write another post on that. So, I haven’t forgotten about this thread, and I hope you haven’t either. I’ll get back to it in a couple of days, I hope.

  7. No problem, I’m following the thread and look forward to hearing your thoughts when you find the time.

  8. Items in the Public Domain should remain the Public Domain and this means that Open Access is the only way to making archival items available.

  9. Peter Hirtle says:

    On copyright: thanks to the Bridgeman v. Corel decision, it is unlikely that TGN (or any other company) that digitizes or microfilms the pubic domain documents at NARA gains a copyright in their reproduction. They may have a copyright in any value-added features they may contribute to the documents, but not in the content itself.

    TGN can, however, limit via contract what is done with the images that they reproduce. That means that they could sue Carl Malamud if he should download all of the images in violation of the license terms and put them on his web site. They could not, however, sue anyone who might take the images from Malamud’s web site and use them some place else (since there is no contract with that 3rd party).

    The big plus of the TGN contract, and why it should serve as a model for all public/private digitization partnerships, is that the exclusive rights granted to TGN are limited in time, at which point NARA can make the material freely available on its web site or give it to the Internet Archive. And this, BTW, is no different than the agreement that NARA used to sign with commercial microfilmers (except that my recollection is that the period of exclusivity was longer).

    If NARA had to give TGN perpetual exclusive rights, or if it had to prevent anyone else from digitizing the contents, then there might be a problem. But as far as the contract terms are concerned, it is a win/win for everyone – so long as NARA acts responsibly at the end of the 5 year term. The issue is not with the contract – but with whether we trust NARA to act in the public’s behalf.

    FYI, I had other issues with the NARA contract that I submitted. First, I was disappointed to see that TGN was not required to follow the standards for digitization that NARA has established. If NARA is going to commit resources to make this happen, they should make sure that they get a quality product that they want to use and preserve at the end. Second, proposed agreement states that “NARA represents and warrants that all selections of the Archival Materials will be reviewed for privacy before they are made available to TGN for digitization.” This can be very difficult and expensive to do. It would be very helpful to the archival community, therefore, if NARA would release publicly its protocols for doing this so that others may learn from NARA’s experience. Third, while materials created by the Federal Government are in the public domain, materials received by the government are still copyrighted (for example, a letter sent by an individual to an agency). There are exemptions to copyright that allow NARA to copy and distribute these copyrighted works, but it is unclear to me if they would extend to TGN (or any other contractor).

    Overall, however, this is better than any of the Google contracts that have been made publicly available. It is not as good as OCA’s contract with the Boston Public Library – but the level of investment that TGN is making is orders of magnitude greater than what OCA is doing. It seems like a fair trade.

  10. Merrilee says:

    Peter has pretty clearly stated the good things about the NARA contact. In our paper, Good Terms (http://dlib.org/dlib/november07/kaufman/11kaufman.html) the NARA model for contracts with third parties actually comes out looking pretty good.

    I share Peter’s wish that NARA share protocols for reviewing for privacy. This would be useful information for those institutions interested in either doing scanning on their own or with partners.

    I am less concerned about paper-based works not being digitized according to standards that were developed (digitally speaking!) some time ago. I don’t think any of us imagined (or did the math) on what it would cost to preserve these access copies in their full blown TIFF glory. See “Preservation in the Era of Large Scale Digitization” for a thoughtful discussion (http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub141/pub141.pdf).

    I think we have a lot more to worry about with born-digital materials, many of which will ironically be of lesser quality than the access scans we are making of paper-based materials. (Think of the “originals” from many digital camera, and hold those images up against the standards for scanning and you’ll see what I am talking about.)

  11. ArchivesNext says:

    People following this discussion should take a look at the recent post over at FGI, “A comment on government contracts and harvesting” at:

    http://freegovinfo.info/node/1799

  12. In 2002, my company launched a massive digital initiative called the Lincolnarchives digital project. We are systematically going through every record group, entry, etc. to locate all documents dated between March 4, 1861 through April 15, 1865. These documents are digitized in color at 600 dpi, following the same criteria as other major digital projects. All documents are being transcribed to enable full search capabilities. We will only digitize from the original documents. Handwritten documents during the Civil War used different colored inks to specifiy information. The finding aids even point out the explanation for the different colors. Then they turn around and microfilm in grayscale. Makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, NARA refuses to provide access to the original documents that have been microfilmed stating that the microfilm is an acceptable reference copy. Microfilm is NOT acceptable to scholars and researchers. What happens to history if something happens to the original and we are left with bad grayscale microfilm? We have already seen what has happened as a result of fire, flood, and theft at the Archives.

    When we launched the project, we offered to give NARA copies of the scans completely free, as well as free access from within the Archives facilities. We were told by Archives administration that they were not interested and they would not provide access to the documents we needed because we were charging a subscription. (We charge $15 per month for full access)

    Talking about these contracts that NARA has partnered with, Footnote, Family Search, etc. the finished product is “poor” barely useable now, let alone in five years time. No one wants to look at microfilm on a viewer let alone on a computer screen. Scanning microfilm at 300 dpi, and then putting it online does absolutely nothing to preserve the document in its original format. And yes, projects like this do take money. Equipment, labor, etc. Since NARA is not willing to endeavor to digitize the material, then it is up to private industry to do the work and provide the access. And you are right in the fact that NARA has absolutely no desire to get servers that will hold the vast digital images necessary for public access. Those cost money as well. So until the Federal government contracts with private industry to digitize the material, and pay them for their work, to make the material available online free, subscriptions are the only way to recoup costs.

    The current partnership with Family Search to digitize the Civil War Widow pension records is another example of poor standards. History happened in color and the color in documents is there for a reason. Family Search is digitizing the Civil War pension records with B & W digital cameras, doing 300 dpi, which is barely acceptable for OCR today. Instead of requiring that the material be digitized right the first time, with current standards, that of 600 dpi, full color, the Archives is once again barely meeting the criteria, which will make the project a waste of time. And once the project is done, the original documents will not be accessible to anyone, for the Archives will claim that they are accessible online.

    These contracts are not non exclusionary. They are removing the original documents from scholars and researchers who will be left with bad microfilmed images. Oh, and NARA will offer to provide a digital scan of the original for $35 and higher. So what is the difference between a private sector company making the money, or a federal agency milking the American public who owns the documents from paying double jeopardy to gain access to what they should already have.

    The Lincolnarchives project has received no federal funding nor grants. We currently have over 5000 documents online, with 100 per week being added, and 3000 per month being scanned. The cost for hosting is currently $135 per month. We have over 20 years experience with technology and work with the records at the National Archives and Library of Congress. But we are a small company and NARA seems to be only interested in forming digital partnerships with big names who are putting out poor quality products. Quick and dirty is not the answer to preserving these documents, but NARA just doesn’t seem to be interested.

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