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A Time of Opportunity and Change

by on February 11, 2014


This is an important time to be in the business of providing access to historical records. More people than ever are connecting with historical documents, searching for and finding them online, using them in new ways, and adding new content. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives is responding to these opportunities with revised grants programs to better serve the American people. But, we need your help with this effort!

The Commission has looked closely at the current state of the nation’s historical records and its own unique mission, expertise, and resources. One result is its forthcoming report, The Digital Citizen and the American Record, to be released later this month.

In addition, the NHPRC is revising its grant programs. The Commission is targeting its funding on outcomes that expand public access to the nation’s documentary resources. Our new and revised programs will:

  •  Expand our support of online publishing to enhance online public access to primary sources;
  •  Emphasize “making access happen” in our support for records processing, arrangement and description;
  • Initiate support for a National Partnership for Digital Government by working with state archives to preserve and provide access to government electronic records holdings;
  • Support public programming undertaken by state historical records advisory boards to better support access to and use of historical records by ordinary citizens and students; and
  • Invest in innovative approaches to improve digital literacy and increase citizen engagement with historical records.

Here in Annotation, we will post overviews of each of our six new programs along with drafts of the new grant announcements. We welcome your comments on the announcements here on the NHPRC blog. In addition, each post will include information on webinars about these new programs that we will hold between February 19-26. These webinars are designed to provide direct contact with the NHPRC staff to ask questions and share your ideas.

We need your feedback by Monday, March 31, 2014 in order to meet the new schedule for the FY 2015 grants cycle.

Thanks to everyone for your interest in the NHPRC and its grants programs. We are looking forward to discussing our new grants programs with you in the coming days!


Comments

Michael Stevens February 20, 2014 at 12:00 pm

As a retired archivist, documentary editor, and public historical agency administrator (and as current independent historian), I would like to add some comments on the NHPRC policy changes. I am concerned about the impact of the new guidelines on the ability of ongoing projects to finish their work, but the project directors can address those issues better than I. Here, I would like to address some additional policy concerns that I have regarding some perhaps unanticipated adverse impacts.

1. Long-term free access to digital editions.

In the analog era, our culture recognized that long-term access is not free and has spent public money to build and maintain research libraries to maintain long-term access to source materials and scholarship. In the US, that responsibility has been assumed by research libraries and explicitly assigned to the Library of Congress and to the National Archives. It was never simply enough for a scholar to prepare an edition, put it on his/her own shelf, and say the work was done. Yet the guidelines, in effect, perversely promote that very thing. Simply placing digital versions of books on a project website is favored over projects that have invested time and money in making volumes available on a well-developed, sophisticated program such as Rotunda. This separate web posting raises the question of ensuring long-term accessibility after the project ends or the scholar dies? In addition, as a scholar who is now using both Rotunda and the free Founding Fathers site, I can testify that my ability to search and find documents is far easier than if I had to search multiple sites.

2. The assumption that free is better.

As much as we hope that our editions will be widely used by the public, the reality is that this work (just like the work of archivists) is fundamentally about laying the foundation for the work of many others, including teachers, filmmakers, and authors. In truth, it is far more likely that the books of Ron Chernow or David McCullough or the films of Ken Burns will tell the history found in the editions to audiences that are unlikely to visit the web versions. We have no problem expecting readers to pay to buy a copy (in paper or digitally) to read Chernow’s book on Hamilton or McCullough’s book on Adams, both of which were heavily based on the editions. Even when a scholar writes a book while on an NEH fellowship, we don’t expect his or her publisher to give the work away, despite federal subsidization of part of the research.

Even our public archives at the federal and state level are not free. As a taxpayer, I have to pay for the work of the archivists who acquire, inventory, arrange, describe, conserve, and digitize public and private records. The question is not simply a matter of free or not free, but rather of when and who pays. Either way, the ultimate user pays, either in the form of a fee or in the form of taxes.

The NHPRC has already rejected the option of free. It would have been possible to distribute NHPRC supported editions by having all editions printed by the GPO and distributed free to all public libraries around the nation. Instead, it opted for a system in which each project located its own publisher who handled distribution.

There is precedent for government support for publication and distribution of scholarly historical materials on the state level. In Wisconsin, the six-volume state-supported History of Wisconsin series was supported by the state legislature providing funding to deposit a set in every public library and college and university library in the state. Others who wanted their own personal copies had to purchase them from the publisher.

Twenty years ago, there was a popular feeling that the Web was free and newspapers and magazines assumed that it was financially viable to give away their content. Today, Americans are becoming accustomed to the idea of paying for digital content when they read The New York Times or the Washington Post. Likewise, genealogical researchers are accustomed to pay for access to digital copies of government records (including federal records) when they subscribe to Ancestry.com.

The insistence on free access is wrong headed and moving in a direction opposite of national trends. “In America, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

3. The role of the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

In the digital era, what is the role of NARA or the LC as the provider of access? In the analog era, NHPRC spent funds to ensure long-term access in the forms of regulating paper standards in exchange for subsidies for publishers. Is it time for NARA or the LC to assume that role for editions and become the digital publisher for editions prepared with government support?

4. Partnership with publishers.

Academic publishers have played an important role in providing access to scholarship and documentary editions. Over the last several decades, university presses and those of other public history institutions have increasingly operated on a cost-recovery basis. Despite the financial pinch, they have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in making ongoing editions available as part of their commitment to scholarship. These costs are not one-time publication costs, but continue long after publication through ongoing inventory, warehousing, and distribution costs. Other publishers, such as the University of Virginia Press through Rotunda, have innovated by investing R & D funds to develop vehicles for providing high quality digital access. The NHPRC has encouraged these kind of partnerships.

The new guidelines sours that relationship by betraying the very institutions that have supported the publication of materials supported by the NHPRC over decades. To what extent has the NHPRC consulted the publishers of ongoing NHPRC supported editions regarding these proposed changes? What do the publishers say about these changes? If the NHPRC has not done so yet, I would urge it to consult with academic publishers that have supported the editions on the impact of these proposed changes. Academic publishers are daily increasing their expertise in digital publishing. It would be unwise to sour the relationship when future long-term partnerships may be needed.

Conclusion

I urge the NHPRC to halt implementation of the new grant categories and develop a team that includes publishers, documentary editors, archivists, and other interested parties to rewrite them in ways that meet today’s realities and avoid unanticipated adverse consequences.

Beverly Wilson Palmer March 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm

I strongly second Michael Stevens’s recommendation.

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