October 3, 2009

Privatizing Holocaust History?

For the past few years, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has undertaken a series of public-private digitization partnerships, especially with a company called Footnote.com. These partnerships provide NARA with free digitization services, and visitors to NARA’s reading rooms with access to the products, but allow Footnote.com and NARA’s other private partners to charge offsite users for online access public documents. I have never been particularly thrilled with this arrangement—charging the American people for access to their own records and all that—but in the past the projects have focused mainly on older document collections of mainly genealogical interest. Now NARA announces that online access to its collection of Holocaust-related material is being made available through Footnote.com, free for the month of October, but presumably for a fee afterwards. Something about this doesn’t sit right with me: should we really be limiting access to a history we desperately don’t want to repeat?

Another concern is Footnote.com’s extensive use of social media. Web 2.0 technologies provide tremendous opportunities for knowledge sharing and creating community around cultural heritage. But when dealing with topics as difficult as genocide, the values of sharing and openness need to be tempered by caution and sensitivity towards victims and their memory. For topics like the Holocaust, public tagging, spontaneous tweets, and YouTube mash-ups may not be the most appropriate or productive vehicles for public discussion and reflection. Indeed, this difficult question of how best to implement social media around topics of conscience is the premise behind CHNM and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s upcoming event, The Conscience Un-Conference, which remains open for applications until October 13, 2009.


  1. Couple of items. It is too bad that NARA does not have the resources to digitize large section of it’s holdings. Perhaps it is bad resource management, perhaps it’s a result of a bigger picture of 30 years of an oligarchal system of 1 political party masquerading as 2, a national government stripped of resources except for defense,. Which is to say, you are missing the big picture.
    Secondly- Footnote charges $79.95 per year to use all of the resources. It charges $11.95 per month to use all its’ resources. The yearly fee is about equal to a couple of months of basic cable tv. In addition, all of the digitized records (by the way, digitized at an archival 300-400 bpi) revert back to NARA after 5 years.
    Is this ideal? Maybe not. It is the times, see above. But the national patrimony is not being permanently removed from us by a robber baron corporation at a price too steep for any but the richest.
    Finally – it seems that this post is insisting upon being the arbitrar of what is 2.0, and what is not.
    This is a good debate go have. I would say that the dead have no rights, there is opportunity for many throughout the world to bring to closure questions of the fate of their loved ones, and there is a chance for restitution of objects to families from which they were stolen, and which in fact, our current establishment seem reluctant to return.
    You gotta have perspective.

  2. Thanks for sharing your concerns.

    As a co-founder of Footnote, I’d like to add my perspective to the issues raised.

    Are we actually privatizing history?

    No. If anything we are part of a growing privatization of the digitization of history.

    In our agreement with The National Archives, we pay a fee for the film, build the tools and pay our people to transcribe important information from those documents to make them searchable. All of this is done to NARA’s stringent standards (300-400 dpi scans, metadata specs) and any issues are addressed during regular reviews with NARA staff.

    As mentioned in the comment earlier, within 5 years NARA can post Footnote.com’s work to their site.

    Of course, anyone visiting a NARA facility can access the documents today for free.

    We do charge a fee to access every historic document from both NARA and non-NARA sources directly from our site. But we don’t think this fee is unreasonable. In fact, our fee has dropped 20% since we launched 3 years ago while the number of documents has increased 12-fold.

    Since we are contractually bound to deliver this work back to NARA, I don’t agree that we are “charging the American for access to their own records.” I do think we are doing our best to give historians and institutions convenient an low-cost access to high-quality content.

    The concerns about social media do not fall on deaf ears. One glance at comments left on a YouTube video or news story leave many of us scratching our heads.

    But at Footnote, we believed – from the beginning – that each document needed to be open to discovery and discussion. To date we’ve seen member participation skyrocket and abuse diminish.

    The Holocaust Collection, which is accessible by everyone this month, has not proven to be any more of a magnet for inappropriate comments than any other collection.

    See real-time Member discoveries: http://www.footnote.com/discoveries/

  3. Back in April 2008, I posted some thoughts in response to criticisms of the NARA digitization agreement with The Generations Network (TGN). Many of the issues people are raising now, in response to the publicity associated with the opening of the NARA Holocaust records on Footnote are the same. Here’s a link to that post, which is rather lengthy: http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=135

    Jim and Mr. Willis are correct that after a specified period of time NARA gets copies of the material Footnote has produced. As I wrote more than a year ago about the TGN deal, my concern is whether or not NARA is committed to making those copies freely and publicly available on its own Web site. As I wrote then:

    “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.”

    I would be happy to hear from any NARA official that the planning and budget for IT are in place so that once NARA passes the limitations of the agreements it will begin posting their copies of “partner” materials on NARA’s Web site where they will be freely available to all with no restrictions. I suspect that there are no such plans. That, as I said, is what concerns me.

    As for the issues raised about using social media with these kinds of documents in particular, I’m planning to share my thoughts in an upcoming post on ArchivesNext.


  4. Look guys, NARA is never going to do this. Not ever. They are not going to scan their own documents, they are not going to put them online (let alone with as slick and useable an interface as Footnote.com), they aren’t going to do it. And when Footnote does give them digital copies of the scanned docs on a silver platter, NARA is not going to do anything with those either. This is just the fact of the matter.

    So in this imperfect world, Footnote is doing a vast perfect service by scanning these documents, putting them online in a terrific usable interface, and charging a fairly modest fee for access. (I would like to see more modest institutional pricing however.)

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Though I’m always going to be partial to open access projects, I take Chris’s point that Footnote’s efforts are offering access to these documents to many, many more people than have ever had it before. That is undoubtedly a good thing. At the same time, like Kate, I’m unconvinced that NARA will do anything to provide expanded, truly open access to these materials when they are finally able to do so. It could be, as Larry says, NARA wasn’t going to do anything with them anyway. But as ever in times of tight budgets, having the excuse of saying “well, they’re already up at Footnote.com” makes that an unfortunate fait accompli.

    As for the social media issue, I didn’t mean to suggest Footnote was being cavalier in its strategy and I’m glad to see there haven’t been any abuses. But it only takes one ugly remark with an issue as sensitive as this, and so I’d love to hear about Footnote’s plans to deal with it if it happens. I certainly don’t want to add to anybody’s busy travel schedule, but maybe Footnote would want to send someone to the Conscience Un-conference to discuss the tensions between open and appropriate discussion around issues of conscience in the social media space. With its unique public face, Footnote would undoubtedly have important insights to bring the event. I’m also looking forward to Kate’s additional thoughts on the matter at ArchivesNext.

  6. I look forward to participating in the conference and sharing what we’ve learned about how people behave and interact with the millions of documents we’ve put up so far.

  7. Although I am one to use declaratory sentences without any regards for factual accuracy myself from time to time, I think the remarks by Larry are a major league example (Go Twins). Given the ongoing millions being spent on ERA, with the resulting technical infrastructure, I would not be too cynical about NARA’s ability to host publically much of what is on the .com’s, and something like images of the 1940 census schedules.

  8. I apologize if I am perhaps belaboring this discussion. I really do not need to have anything added. But there is some slight possibility that concerned citizens might approve the placing of NARA records about the Holocaust on Footnote.com. http://tinyurl.com/yg8bmxm – just saying.

  9. Sorry for the delay, but I just put up a post that responds, in part, to Tom’s concerns about the possibility of the posted Holocaust documents becoming the target of abuse: http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=533

    Also, in the next few days I should have a post up on the general topic of NARA’s digitization partnerships, including an official statement from NARA about their plans. Hoping to get that one up soon!


  10. Why try to “temper” sharing and tagging with the pretext of “caution and sensitivity towards victims and their memory”?
    60 years after WWII, abusive comments, rather than being offensive to the memory of the victims, tell more about the person that posts.
    Imagine the mash-up quality of such comments for the historian studying, say, the geography of hatred today (but then I guess, one would be accused of being racist)…
    Looking forward to the un-conference at USHMM.


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