Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Expanded access to NARA records

The title read something like "Another Agreement Restricts Free Access to Public Records." I was shocked and disappointed to see such a commentary on the proposed Generations Network (TGN)/NARA agreement. The proposal does nothing of the sort. The proposal expands free access to public records.

  • The contract does not limit access to public records. Access to the original records remains unchanged. Other than your travel costs, you can still freely access these records.
  • The digitized copies of these records become freely accessible at all NARA reading rooms. This expands, not contracts, free access to these public records.
  • The contract is non-exclusive, so should the taxpayer, the government, FamilySearch or a private benefactor decide to allocate money to digitize the records, it can be done as though this agreement didn't exist. This agreement maintains free access to these records; it prevents exclusivity.
  • In all likelihood, these records will be added to the Ancestry collections available at thousands of public institutions. If this happens, it further expands free access to these public records.
  • The contract makes the digitized copies of these records freely available to everyone after five years at no cost to the taxpayer, despite the expenses TGN incurs in digitizing the records.
Illustration from the New York Times

According to the National Archives, at current rates it will take over 2,000 years to digitize all of NARA's holdings. (The New York Times) We need this agreement and the similar agreements with other vendors. This proposed agreement is a definite win for the public. TGN and the other vendors are hoping that during the five years the digitization costs can be recouped. If they can, it will be a win for the vendor as well. I'm hoping it will be a win for these commercial firms or five years from now they will pull out.

Public comments on the proposal must be received by 9-April-2008. If you support the proposal, please visit www.archives.gov/comment/tgn-preamble.html. If you oppose the agreement, please proceed to the end of the Internet ;-).


  1. Insider,

    As both an Ancestry subscriber and taxpayer I agree with you 100%. A vendor charging for digitization efforts while such records remain free and viewable at the depository alone would make it right. But when you add not just the originals, but the digitized copies made by commercial vendors will also be available at the archives, then it is even more right.

    That wrong headline sounds like something from some of those genweb people who are always in a tizzy about something (occasionally correctly but usually over-reacting).

    I will say in fact that I am surprised that Ancestry and other vendors are willing to accept the 5 year stipulation. That seems a hair light and if the vendors can't make a buck then they won't be willing to partner in as many future such projects.

    Also I would like to add, that I hope as others have said here in the past, that one of the first things digitized are the compiled service records and pension files of War of 1812 veterans. They are critical to help bridge the gap on the frontier after the Revolution in a timeframe when many run into brickwalls.


  2. Problem is, NARA is using these agreements to fulfill its legal responsibility to provide "access to" and "use of" the peoples' archives and records. However, the agreement places restrictions both upon access to and use of the resulting digital images. While the agreement may be "nonexclusive" in nature, by entering into it, NARA appears to be addressing its responsibility to provide access and use - hence there's little, if any, likelihood that NARA will ever undertake to produce images that ARE owned by the public and not subject to requisite "permission" for use from a private business. The agreement cleverly circumvents the issue of the uncopyrightable nature of "slavish copies" by inserting Section 3.3: "TGN will own all rights to and have the exclusive and unlimited right to use the Digitized Materials..."

    Concerns about this, and any other NARA digitization agreement, should be brought to the attention your Congressional representatives, and in particular to members of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform :

  3. I am "one of those genweb people" that you appear to hold considerable disdain for.

    This is a sweetheart deal for TGN aka Ancestry.com and if it weren't they would not be doing it. However it places access to our history behind a pay per view situation AND that is NOT a good thing.

    TGN stands to make millions on this so lets not endow them with altruistic behaviors. TGN NOT digitizing these records is NOT THE END OF THE INTERNET as you stated, but it might be the end of free access by "owners" of those documents and that would be you and me and every other citizen of the United States.

    I am not afraid to sign my name either.

    Laverne Tornow

  4. Laverne,

    First of all note I said "one of those", where those denotes only a certain part of genweb folks, whom I mostly hold in high regard. But a minority of same, who are the loudest in being heard often, are indeed "in a tizzy" a lot of the time. While Ancestry has indeed made missteps in action and communication as with the bio collection thing, the exodus of county genweb pages from Rootsweb was ill thought-out. For a very good and balanced view of that situation, you can see Kimberly Powell's article on about.com.

    Now back to this NARA thing where you are asserting doom and gloom and that the evil genealogy empire led by Darth Sullivan. I never said nor did the Insider that this was an altruistic project by Ancestry. Of course they are doing it for the money. How can you insinuate any of us said otherwise?

    And you said, "but it might be the end of free access by "owners" of those documents and that would be you and me and every other citizen of the United States". All you are doing here is making a false allegation that we the people can lose access to these documents by this or other digitization projects by commercial vendors (like the more subtle and evil Footnote whom you don't mention).

    After Ancestry digitizes various records at NARA, they will still be accessible at NARA for *free*. And five years afterward, they will be *free* to the general public online. So if you again assert or insinuate that this will lead to reduced or restricted access, and have no proof to offer of same, then you will be lying.

    I am no fawning acolyte of Ancestry's and if you read the archives of this blog, I have made plenty of criticisms. But they are ones that I believe are grounded in fact and not baseless speculation or the errors repeated ad nauseum by the internet tizzy crowd.


  5. Readers,

    I came across an excellent analysis of the proposed agreement by a former NARA employee at http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=135. If you're interested in this issue, I highly recommend you read it.

    -- The Ancestry Insider

  6. Mike,

    Thank you for your comments. Amen to that request on 1812 records. I'm hoping that will resolve one of my brick walls.

    -- The Ancestry Insider

  7. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments. While you raise a good point about NARA's decreased likelihood of re-digitizing records that it will get for free within five years, if NARA doesn't enter into these private agreements, do you think these records will get digitized during the next 5 years? Every year the White House (under either party) submits a deeply slashed NARA budget, knowing the public will mount a campaign to have Congress restore its funding. Under this environment, NARA's budget suffers enormous downward pressure year after year. In this environment, adding funding for digitization efforts is extremely unlikely.

    Five years from now the digitized records will be free to all. Without these agreements, I think only a small fraction would be digitized. From a practical approach, I applaud these agreements as a faster way at arriving at freely available digitized records.

    -- The Ancestry Insider

  8. Laverne,

    Thank you for your comments. In my article I present six ways in which this agreement expands access to these records. Five are free and one places the access "behind a pay per view situation." You tease us with the thought that this "might be the end of free access by...you and me."

    Can you elaborate on how you think expanding access via several new free avenues plus one paid avenue might end free access?

    You think this is a sweetheart deal and "TGN stands to make millions." I worry more that any tiny incremental increase in revenues will be swamped by the large digitization costs. If you have some ideas that would decrease the enormous costs associated with digitizing and indexing records, please share them. Perhaps your ideas would bring the costs down to a level that NARA could afford to do it.

    Better yet, contact me privately. If you've got the business plan, I've got the startup capital. Forget TGN; you and I can split those millions!

    -- The Ancestry Insider


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