National Archives and Footnote Put Paper Records Online

Business Week 29 September 2009
By Stephen Wildstrom 

The Obama Administration has won kudos for making much of the government’s wealth of data and current publications available to all via the Web. But what about the billions of pieces of information that predate the digital era and exist only in paper form? It’s going to take a while, because digitizing this information is a tedious and expensive chore,but it is gradually happening. 

The Library of Congress has been aggressive in getting its assets online. Now the National Archives & Records Administration has partnerships with Google,, and to create and make available a growing part of its vast collection. The most recent fruit of these efforts: A large collection of holocaust-related documents just made available through Footnote. Full access to Footnote’s data normally costs $11.95 a month or $79.95 a year, but the holocaust collection is free for the month of October.

The Archives' holocaust collection consists mostly of records seized by the U.S., military in the closing days of World War II and during the occupation of Germany. It is probably the world's third most significant collection of such documents, behind holdings kept in Germany and the archives of the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

The heart of the Archives holdings is the Ardelia Hall Collection, millions of documents mostly dealing with the Nazi looting of art and cultural treasures in Europe that was compiled by the U.S. State Dept. The images of the documents are now available through Footnote. This dramatically increases access, not only because physical access to the often fragile physical documents at the Archives facility in College Park, Md., is no longer necessary, but because they are searchable. The original are indexed, but using a system that it would probably take a lifetime of study to comprehend fully.

Other Archives holocaust information available through Footnote includes transcripts and other records of war crimes proceedings, entry records from the Dachau and Flossenberg concentration camps, and death records of the Matthausen camp.

As with other information on Footnote, individuals can annotate collection items and add stories or pictures of individuals associated with them.

It is a bit unfortunate that once the month is over, people will have to pay to view documents held in public records. But as the Archives point out in its "Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2007-2016," partnerships with businesses are a way to fund digitization, and these organizations generally have to charge for access to justify their costs: "NARA would prefer, of course, that public access is free or very inexpensive in all cases; but market realities dictate otherwise, and we believe that the dramatic increase in access provided by partnerships is in the public interest."

Free access to all Archives digital documents is available at reading rooms at the Archives in Washington and College Park, and at NARA facilities throughout the country.
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