(by Peter Hirtle)
A little over two years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Free the Founding Fathers!”. In it, I urged the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to take aggressive steps to make the papers of the Founding Fathers, which had already been heavily supported with Federal support, freely accessible online rather than only through costly subscription models.
It may have taken awhile, but NARA has finally taken some positive steps. Last week NARA and the University of Virginia Press, which has been selling access to the papers of the Founding Fathers via its Rotunda publishing platform, announced that in a year’s time a new web site that will offer the general public free access to some of the papers will be made available, with full access to all papers by June 2012. You can read NARA’s announcement here, and UVA’s companion announcement here.
This is overall good news. In this case, something is better than nothing. Of course, the press releases leaves me wanting to know more:
- Why has the decision been made to create a separate web site for the general public rather than just purchasing a national site license for the existing American Founding Era collection in Rotunda?
- Will this web site be fully open, both technically and in terms of rights, thus allowing scholars, students, and other businesses to engage in creative mash-ups of the material?
- What will be the differences between the NARA-sponsored web site and UVA’s Rotunda product? While not mentioned in the NARA or UVA releases, the Rotunda web site states that “Rotunda will continue to add new editions not included in the National Archives version to our Founding Era collections.” If one looks at the list of existing digital collections, it would seem that NARA has defined “Founding Fathers” narrowly. Neither the Dolley Madison papers, the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, the John Marshall Papers, or the John Jay Papers, all of which are or will be part of Rotunda, are mentioned as being part of the new NARA web site.
- Will non-UVA sponsored publications be allowed to be part of the NARA web site? I’d like to see things like Johns Hopkins’s Documentary History of the First Federal Congress also be included in the site.
Fortunately Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero has appointed a high-powered external advisory group to work on the project. Mary Beth Norton and David Hackett Fisher know colonial history, and Edward L. Ayers knows how digital technologies enable radically new ways of working with historical materials. Progress has been made, and their is the hope of more in the future.