RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why you have to pay for free government documents

The subject of subscription or pay for use genealogy websites is rather controversial. There is apparently a substantial number of genealogists feel that access to all records should be free. There are those who justify charging for access to records by reason of the cost of maintaining a website, cataloging or indexing and other overhead items. Back in 2006, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration developed a strategic plan for making all of the government records in the Archives available online to the public. As the NARA acknowledges, "Our archival holdings number more than 10 billion pages of unique documents, many of them handwritten, and include formats such as maps, charts, aerial and still photographs, artifacts, and motion picture, sound, and video recordings. The records we hold belong to the public and our mission is to ensure the public can discover, use, and learn from the records of their Government." So how is it that you have to pay some online subscription service to view the records you own as a member of the public?

Rather than do the digitizing itself, the NARA implemented a plan to allow third parties to digitize the records. Here is the statement about the projects from the strategic plan, entitled "Preserving the Past to Protect the Future: The Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration, 2006-2016.

That plan contains objectives for the National Archives, summarized on the NARA website as follows:
NARA has identified the following objectives for digitizing our holdings for public access:
  • Provide online access to an increased number of our holdings.
  • Enhance preservation of records by reducing wear and tear on the originals for reference and reproduction. While digitizing for access has some preservation benefits, it is not the same as preservation digitizing. We will not destroy or de-accession any originals that are digitized for access.
  • Provide access to those materials that can no longer be accessed in their original format.
  • Enhance users' understanding of records authenticity and archival context (e.g., who created the records; why were they created; how were they used).
  • Use resources effectively. For example, original records that have been digitized may be relocated to less expensive archival storage locations. Partnerships, where the partner provides resources for digitizing, would expand the scale of digitizing beyond what NARA itself can do.
  • Improve our service to customers consistent with their evolving expectations and with consideration of NARA's available resources and customers' willingness to pay for value-added or convenience services.
  • Promote equitable access to Government information by the public. 
Here is the key to the answer to the question about why you have to pay for free government documents is in the phrase, Partnerships, where the partner provides resources for digitizing, would expand the scale of digitizing beyond what NARA itself can do." and the next statement, "Improve our service to customers consistent with their evolving expectations and with consideration of NARA's available resources and customers' willingness to pay for value-added or convenience services.(emphasis added).

There is the answer. Form partnerships and allow private companies to charge whatever the traffic will bear to see the NARA's free, publicly owned documents online. This whole plan is excused by the NARA by virtue of the fact that the online databases are all free at the NARA buildings. Here is the justification,
NARA will establish partnerships with organizations from a variety of sectors (private, public, non-profit, educational, Government) to digitize and make available holdings. Partnerships present an opportunity for increased access to historical Government information through the increased availability of information technology products and services. Partnerships will enable NARA to make more digitized holdings available than we could on our own, because the partner will bear most of the expense of digitizing.
The products of these digitizing partnership efforts may also include value-added services and features provided by the partner, such as searchable text and detailed indexing, and, as such, are not considered NARA Government electronic information dissemination products. However, partners may not claim copyright on the digital images.
Note that these partnership entities "may not claim copyright on the digital images." Have you ever seen a notice by any of the partners that they do not claim a copyright to the images? Have you seen a copyright notice at the bottom of every page of the subscription databases?  Have you noticed that the search pages showing the documents, like the U.S. Census records for example, is missing any copyright notice? Did you ever see a statement made by any online service calling attention to the fact that they do not claim a copyright in the federal documents?

So now you can see why you have to pay to see some of the digitized copies of the free, publicly owned U.S. documents.

Does any of this make sense? Wouldn't you like to get your product free from the government so you could sell it to the public? If I were a builder, wouldn't it be nice to get all of my raw materials, wood, dry wall, pipes, fixtures etc. free from the government so I could build houses and so the material owned by the public would be equitably accessible?



2 comments:

  1. Wouldn't it be even better if lawyers, who get their raw materials free, did not charge?
    Think about it the raw material used by attorneys is the law of the land. That is supplied free of charge to all, therefore according to your suggestion attorneys should not charge their clients for their input.
    Just as one pays an attorney for their effort one should pay the company who digitises and hosts the records for their efforts.
    Perhaps we may even see free databases hosted by lawyers and attorneys in the coming weeks, months and years, but then again we will probably see a few flying pigs first.
    Cheers
    Guy

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  2. I would like to get all genealogical information free, but that is not the way it is. Companies have to cover costs and still make a profit. We are paying for their services.

    The same applies to health care, people expect Cadillac cover and expect it to be free.

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