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Category: outreach and US National Archives records

Thanks to Digitization 101‘s recent post “Footnote launches and announces partnership with National Archives” I was made aware of the big news about the digitization of the US National Archives’ records. has gone live with the first of apparently many planned installments of digitized NARA records. My first instinct was one of suspicion. In the shadow of recent historian alarm about the Smithsonian/Showtime deal, I think its valid to be concerned about new agreements between government agencies and private companies.

That said, I am feeling much more positive based on the passage below from the the January 10th National Archives Press Release about the agreement with Footnote (emphasis mine):

This non-exclusive agreement, beginning with the sizeable collection of materials currently on microfilm,will enable researchers and the general public to access millions of newly-digitized images of the National Archives historic records on a subscription basis from the Footnote web site. By February 6, the digitized materials will also be available at no charge in National Archives research rooms in Washington D.C. and regional facilities across the country. After an interval of five years, all images digitized through this agreement will be available at no charge through the National Archives web site .

This sounds like a win-win situation. NARA gets millions of records digitized (4.5 million and counting according to the press release). These records will be highlighed on the Footnote web site. They will have the advantages of Footnote’s search and browse interfaces (which I plan to do an in depth review of in the next week).

When signing up for my free account – I actually read through the entire Footnote Terms of Service including this passage (within the section labeled ‘Our Intellectual Property Rights’ – again, emphasis mine):

Content on the Website is provided to you AS IS for your information and personal use only as permitted through the functionality of the Website and may not be used, copied, reproduced, distributed, transmitted, broadcast, displayed, sold, licensed, or otherwise exploited for any other purposes whatsoever without the prior written consent of the respective owners . reserves all rights not expressly granted in and to the Website and the Content. You agree not to engage in the use, copying, or distribution of any of the Content other than expressly permitted herein, including any use, copying, or distribution of User Submissions of third parties obtained through the Website for any commercial purposes. If you download or print a copy of the Content for personal use, you must retain all copyright and other proprietary notices contained therein.

These terms certainly are no different from that under which most archives operate – but it did give me a moment of wondering how many extra hoops one would need to jump through if you wanted to use any of the NARA records found in Footnote for a major project like a book. A quick experiment with the Pennsylvania Archives (which are available for free with registration) did not show me any copyright information or notices related to rights. I downloaded an image to see what ‘copyright and other proprietary notices’ I might find and found none.

In his post “The Flawed Agreement between the National Archives and Footnote, Inc.“, Dan Cohen expresses his views of the agreement. I had been curious about what percentage of the records being digitized were out of copyright – Dan says they all are. If all of the records are out of copyright – exactly what rights are reserving (in the passage from the terms of service shown above)? I also agree with him in his frustration about the age restriction in place for using (you have to be over 18).

My final opinion about the agreement itself will depend on answers to a few more questions:

1) Were any of the records recently made available on already digitized and available via the website?

2) What percentage of the records that were digitized by Footnote would have been digitized by NARA without this agreement?

3) What roadblocks will truly be set in place for those interested in using records found on

4) What interface will be available to those accessing the records for free in “National Archives research rooms in Washington D.C. and regional facilities across the country” (from the press release above)? Will it be the website interface or via NARA’s own Archival Research Catalog (ARC) or Access to Archival Databases (AAD)?

If the records that Footnote has digitized and made available on would not otherwise have been digitized over the course of the next five years (a big if) then I think this is an interesting solution. Even the full $100 fee for a year subscription is much more reasonable than many other research databases out there (and certainly cheaper than even a single night hotel room within striking distance of National Archives II).

As I mentioned above, I plan to post a review of the search and browse interfaces in the next week. The support folks have given me permission to include screen shots – so if this topic is of interest to you, keep an eye out for it.

Archival Transcriptions: for the public, by the public

There is a recent thread on the archives listserv that talks about transcriptions – specifically for small projects or those that have little financial support. There is even a case in which there is no easy OCR answer due to the state of the digitized microfilm records.
One of the suggestions was to use some combination of human effort to read the documents – either into a program that would transcribe them, or to another human who would do the typing. It made me wonder what it would look like to make a place online where people who wanted to could volunteer their transcription time. In the case where the records are already digitized and viewable, this seems like an interesting approach.

Something like this already exists for the genealogy world over at the USGenWeb Archives Project. They have a long list of different projects listed here. Though the interface is a bit confusing, the spirit of the effort is clear – many hands make light work. Precious genealogical resources can be digitized, transcribed and added to this archive to support the research of many by anyone – anywhere in the world.

Of course in the case of transcribing archival records there are challenges to be overcome. How do you validate what is transcribed? How do you provide guidance and training for people working from anywhere in the world? If I have figured out that a particular shape is a capital S in a specific set of documents, that could help me (or an OCR program) as I progress through the documents, but if I only see one page from a series – I will have to puzzle through that one page without the support of my past experience. Perhaps that would encourage people to keep helping with a specific set of records? Maybe you give people a few sample pages with validated translations to practice with? And many records won’t be that hard to read – easy for a human’s eye but still a challenge for an OCR program.

The optimist in me hopes that it could be a tempting task for those who want to volunteer but don’t have time to come in during the normal working day. Transcribing digitized records can be done in the middle of the night in your pajamas from anywhere in the world. Talk about increasing your pool of possible volunteers! I would think that it could even be an interesting project for high school and college students – a chance to work with primary sources. With careful design, I can even imagine providing an option to select from a preordained set of subjects or tags (or in Folksonomy friendly environment, the option to add any tags that the transcriber deems appropriate) – though that may be another topic worthy of its own exploration independent of transcription.

The initial investment for a project like this would come from building a framework to support a distributed group of volunteers. You would need an easy way to serve up a record or group of records to a volunteer and prevent duplication of effort – but this is an old problem with good solutions from the configuration management world of software development and other collaboration work environments.

It makes a nice picture in my mind – a slow, but steady, team effort to transcribe collections like the Colorado River Bed Case (2,125 pages of digitized microfilm at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library) – mostly done from people’s homes on their personal computers in the middle of the night. A central website for managing digitized archival transcriptions could give the research community the ability to vote on the next collection that warrants attention. Admit it – you would type a page or two yourself, wouldn’t you?