NARA’s Digital Partnership Agreements: The Good, the Bad, and let’s hope, not the Ugly

The issue of the terms of NARA’s agreements with their “digitization partners” has come up again lately, inspired by the recent news that, a NARA partner, has digitized and will make available on its site many NARA records relating to the Holocaust. Footnote is generously making those records available to the public during the month of October, but after that people will need to pay to have access to them on the Footnote site.

Earlier this month on the Found History blog Tom Scheinfeldt, the Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, raised concerns around “privatizing Holocaust history” by having public records available online only on a fee-based site. However, NARA’s digitization agreements have been the subject of criticism for some time. (You can see a complete list of the partners with links to the agreements here on the NARA site.) I wrote a post about the controversy generated by the TGN agreement back in April 2008. Dan Cohen, also of the CHNM and GMU wrote posts back in January 2007 and another in January 2009.

I still believe what I wrote in my previous post. At the present time, NARA doesn’t have the resources to do large-scale scanning and hosting of its holdings. In making these agreements, they are making a trade. They grant the partners the right to profit from having the digitized records available on their sites and in exchange NARA receives copies of the images (and metadata) which NARA can do with as it chooses. You can read my earlier post for a lengthier analysis. If a non-profit came forward and wanted to supply similar services and make the documents available for free on their site, I’m sure NARA would sign them up as a partner too, but for now it seems the only groups willing to undertake this kind of large digitization of NARA’s records are commercial ones (except for the EMC Corporation, which is supporting digitization at the Kennedy Library).

In his answers to the pre-hearing questionnaire, the soon-to-be Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero stressed his experience with “fundraising and donor stewardship.” If this is a sign that he will more actively pursue donations, such as that made by EMC, to make collections freely available online, then that will be a wonderful thing. But, let us assume that for the foreseeable future NARA will have to continue these commercial partnerships–or “the privitization of the digitzation of history,” as Footnote co-founder Chris Willis wrote in a comment on the FoundHistory blog. What then? Acting on our behalf, as custodians of our public records, NARA trades a short term “bad” (access to these public documents only via fee-based sites) for a long-term “good”–copies of the digital images and metadata.

This long-term “good” that NARA has traded for is only realized when we get free public access to the documents online. (Although, as I wrote in the previous post, there are other smaller, less obvious “goods” that come along with these deals too. But the big one is free online public access.) What is NARA planning to do when it does get those copies and is legally able to make them available? Rather than speculate, I asked NARA for an official statement about whether or not there were plans to ingest the digital copies into ERA, NARA’s future Web interface for all its archival materials. Here is the pertinent part of their response:

You ask whether ingesting all or part of those digital files is explicitly part of the ERA schedule and supported in the projected ERA budget. The task of adding them to ERA is not part of the current ERA schedule or budget. We have just begun doing analysis relating to cost and other aspects of making these digital surrogates available. As the analysis proceeds, it is quite possible that other viable alternatives besides ERA may emerge. We do regard it as our responsibility to get the best deal we can for the public in terms of both access and cost, and will at the appropriate point reach out to stakeholders and the public for feedback on the various options.

I find this a somewhat curious answer, but perhaps that was because I specifically mentioned access through ERA–the multi-million dollar system NARA has been promising will take over providing access to all its archival descriptions, electronic records, and digital copies. What I don’t see in that answer is a firm commitment by NARA to making the copies freely available online. Based on my understanding of the capabilities of the ERA system, providing access would just be a question of ingesting into ERA the digital files and metadata provided by the partners and associating them with their parent archival descriptions. The only expense I can see might be additional servers or storage for the 130 million pages (so far) of materials. It’s true that NARA’s users would not have access to the additional functionalities provided on the partner sites, or the additional metadata added by the partner sites’ users, but I’m sure most users would be willing to trade those features for free access. It’s possible that NARA did not want to commit to using ERA as the vehicle for providing access, although that seems odd to me given the tremendous amount of funding that has been and will be devoted to building this system for providing access to electronic information.

Although Mr. Ferriero did not specifically call out increased online public access to NARA’s holdings as one of his priorities, his track record at the NYPL demonstrates that he “gets it,” and so I hope that once he is on board at NARA we will see a more confident statement emerge about future plans.

That said, and with hope in our hearts, let’s briefly consider the Ugly–the possibility that after NARA concludes their analysis they decide not to host their own copies of the materials, but to continue public access through the fee-based partner sites (also accessible by visitors to NARA research rooms). What then? Well, even then anyone would be able to request copies of any or all of the digital materials (paying the standard NARA fees for reproduction) and post the copies on their own site. NARA could also expand their existing Affiliated Archives program to explicitly include organizations who stepped forward to make available digital copies. For example, the Holocaust Museum could become the host for the digitized Holocaust-related materials. Or, of course, the Internet Archive could come forward and take copies of everything.

We have no reason to think the Ugly option would ever come to pass, but we have until 2012 (when presumably the first of the materials digitized by Footnote under the terms of their 2007 agreement would be available for NARA to share) to ensure that it does not, and NARA has until 2012 to conduct their decision-making process. And, who knows, by that time perhaps NARA’s commercial partners will have determined that it makes more sense for them to open up the NARA documents to public themselves? A lot of things could happen between now and then, but it seems a wise precaution for all interested parties to monitor the situation and keep reminding NARA that many of its stakeholders are willing to trade a short-term Bad for a long-term Good, but most of us are not willing to put up with a long-term Ugly.

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