RootsTech 2014


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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Locked behind University Walls -- The Database Quandry

Genealogical research depends to a great extent on the ability of the researchers to gain access to copies of important documents that provide source material pertinent to establishing ancestral relationships. When those materials are kept locked away without public access our ability to find our ancestors is directly diminished in proportion to the degree of restriction placed upon access to the records. There are a number of ways that researchers are limited from obtaining documents that should be freely accessible.

One of the most obvious problems and one that I have written about previously, is the propensity of recent publishers to claim copyright in old public domain documents. I will use as an example a book written and published in 1731. Another edition of the book was republished in 1838. Here is the reference to the book:
Trow, John Fowler, and William Sever Lincoln. Alton Trials: Of Winthrop S. Gilman, Who Was Indicted with Enoch Long, Amos B. Roff, George H. Walworth, George H. Whitney, William Harned, John S. Noble, James Morss, Jr., Henry Tanner, Royal Weller, Reuben Gerry, and Thaddeus B. Hurlbut; for the Crime of Riot, Committed on the Night of the 7th of November, 1837, While Engaged in Defending a Printing Press, from an Attack Made on It at That Time, by an Armed Mob. New York: J.F. Trow, 1838.
A quick search in Google books shows dozens of different editions containing the exact same material as originally published. Most of these books are "copyrighted" so there is no way that Google can show the content of the book and all that is available is a "Preview." In the case of this particular book, which I will refer to as the "Alton Trials" book to shorten the title, there are also quite a few digitized copies of the book in the public domain and completely readable and downloadable online. I chose a book that had both public domain and copyright copies to illustrate the issue of access. If you would like to see a copy of this book in the complete version see the Internet Archive version. This particular version is downloadable as follows:
So, I could merely take this public domain book that the Internet Archive has so conveniently provided to me in PDF format and incorporate it into a new binding, write a brief introduction and then sell the same book as a copyrighted work. Here is a screenshot of one of those many copies being sold as a copyrighted book on

But this is only the beginning of the issue. What is even more problematic is that this same book is offered as book at the American Antiquarian Society website as a book in their collection but you cannot look at the book unless you are a member of the Society. What is wrong with this? Isn't that the same as or whatever? Actually, it is the same. All of these organizations, take public domain documents and make them only available if you join their organization and pay for the privilege. This is not necessarily bad or good. If we take this example one more step, you can see the heart of the issue.

Where else would this particular book be available? The easiest way to find out is to go to and check the book and see who has a copy of the book. It is in quite a few university libraries across the country. I chose the University of Utah as an example, since I used to work at the library there. So now I want to look at the book. There is a notation that the book has "online access."
When I click on that link, I get the following notation:
Important User Information: Remote access to Cengage Learning databases is permitted to patrons of subscribing institutions who access from remote locations. Such remote access is limited to non-commercial purposes. Remote access from a non-subscribing institution is not permitted if done for cost reduction or avoidance at that institution. For additional information, please reference the Copyright and Terms of Use link below.
Voila! I can only access this book if I am a student or faculty at the University of Utah and have a password to this particular database. Here is a book that is very obviously in the public domain and yet that particular book is locked up in a database that goes beyond et al. and limits access to a particular class of people I cannot easily join, that is, being a student at the University of Utah or some other university.

Here is the referenced copyright notice:

Copyright Notices

© 2012 Cengage Learning, Inc. All rights reserved.
Republication, reproduction or redistribution of Cengage Learning, Inc. ("Cengage Learning") content, including by framing or similar means, is prohibited without the prior written consent of Cengage Learning. To request permission to photocopy, duplicate, republish or otherwise reuse Cengage Learning material, or for efiles for students with disabilities, go
I left this in the format from the website. In essence, this company is selling public domain books, that are otherwise freely available, to universities for a fee, obviously, and then the university is limiting access to that same database to only enrolled students and faculty.

Here is the big question. How many limited edition public domain books are locked up in this sort of scheme? In the case of the book I chose, I could easily find another digitized copy. But what if that were not the case? Why is copyright being used to make money from books that are not subject to copyright? I guess I know the answer but this is not a political blog. By the way, if you live in Utah, your taxes are supporting the University of Utah so they can keep you from seeing and reading the public domain book. I chose this book because apparently, not all of the universities listed by have actual copies of the books. What they apparently have, is a subscription to services that have the book but they put the book in their own catalogs as available. 


  1. This happens quite often. It also happens to regular folks as well as Universities, too. Many of the "historical book sellers" on eBay are taking public domain books from Google, the Internet Archive, and other public domain sources and putting them up for sale as part of disks or printed copies. I can't tell you how many people that I've had to tell "Always, always, always check the public domain sources before BUYING anything."

    I actually tried contacting eBay and Google when I was taken by one of these sellers and both admitted that they can't do anything about it. I suspect the universities are in the same boat - they got taken by one of these sellers but can't do anything about this now.

  2. Many of the digital copies of books were originally micorform sets, which libraries purchased. Now most have turned around and purchased a digital version of the microform set. One example in the genealogy world is the old UMI (now ProQuest) set of Genealogies and Local Histories. People almost never use the microfilm anymore; they access the digital version through Heritage Quest -- assuming they have access to a library that pays to subscribe to HQ. Libraries aren't paying for or providing content through these subscriptions -- they have that in book or microfilm. They are paying for access; users can now readily identify, search and view the book in a matter of minutes, often from home. The providers of this access -- who microfilmed, scanned, OCR'd and set up readers for the books -- are charging for the service, not the book itself. And of course libraries are bound by the contracts these content providers require.

    On the other side of the coin, libraries are working together to get as much out of copyright material as possible scanned and made publicly and freely available. They have partnered with Google to do this, put material in the Hathi Trust, on Internet Archive and created their own digital collections. These results lack the ease of use provided by the subscription services, but there IS an effort to get as much out of copyright material as possible freely available to everyone.

    1. You make some interesting points. Thanks for the comment. But my point is not that the service exists, but that they are claiming copyright ownership of the public domain documents.