Who Owns History?

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Who Owns History?

link: Boston 1775: The Archives Just Aren’t the Same

The above link will take you to an article from J.L. Bell’s Boston 1775 blog, where he shares an interesting change he noticed at the Waltham, Massachusetts National Archives outpost. The microfilm reels and readers are gone, replaced by computers. Makes sense right? Digitizing these records is an important step in preserving them, and has the added benefit of being shared with more people at once. But it was this part of his post that bothers me greatly:

A while back, N.A.R.A. entered some sort of public-private partnership with Ancestry.com to digitize the Revolutionary War pension material. That database is now complete. Each agency outlet has a subscription for all its computers. Meanwhile, the service can sell access to the digital files other libraries and individuals. (There’s a similar arrangement withFootnote.com governing other material.)

Great. It’s another instance where a corporation now has the control over a large chunk of our history. OUR history. I don’t know the specifics of the deal, and maybe I’m overreacting, but I find this type of “deal” disgusting. And the idea that Ancestry.com can sell access to the files means that they, and they alone, own them for all intents and purposes.

So what happened to all those reels of microfilm? Were they stored as a back-up? No. Where they given away to any other historical or archival entity? Of course not. They were tossed. They’re at some landfill underneath a community’s rotten leftovers and broken toys. Ancestry.com can’t make as much money off the stuff if there are rogue copies of it flying around! (O.K. maybe I’m running off into Paranoiaville there.)

I don’t know how to sum this up other than asking if anything is safe from being bought and controlled?

August 21st, 2010|Categories: History|5 Comments


  1. bmj2k August 21, 2010 at 6:11 PM - Reply

    The best question you ask is what happened to the reels. In the old school where I taught, when we upgraded our computer system and subscribed to all of those services, we tossed all of our old reels. It wasn’t a part of any deal, just a nod to the fact that we were now “hi-tech.” I kept some of the oldest microfilm copies of the Times, from the late 19th century, but how can I read them? I am sure Ancestry.com doesn’t own the actualy documents, but who will ever see those? It really is a disturbing trend. Privacy concerns are of utmost seriousness today, with our personal information being treated as simply a commodity. Want proof? Look at the scary and disturbing statements made by the Google corp about “personal” info. In short- there is no such thing.

    • Jim August 22, 2010 at 10:53 PM - Reply

      According to the article all the reels were thrown away. And you’re right about the privacy issue….and it’s only getting worse. Most people don’t seem concerned about it though. Yet.

  2. skinner August 23, 2010 at 12:44 PM - Reply

    Maybe I’m running into paranoid territory myself, but as time goes on I increasingly wonder what alien archeologists would make of our civilization if they were to discover our ashen ruins in a million years. “It’s like they got to the 1960s and then forgot how to write things down.”

    – and, while we’re cruising the streets of Paranoia-ville: I also worry about huge sunspots or a future war full of anti-electronics EMP bombs. We’ve built a really big basket, super efficient and clean, and we’re tossing eggs into it with furious bravado.

    • Jim August 23, 2010 at 3:51 PM - Reply

      I suspect the alien archeologists might mutter something like “Looks like we didn’t miss anything important here. Glad we waited to visit.”

      And I have a theory as to who might set off those giant EMP devices. A coalition of the music industry, the movie industry, and the publishing industry. Then they’ll gladly sell us new televisions, CD players, and printed goods, and return to doing business the only way they want to.

      Going through that massive blackout of 2003 was a huge illustration of how much we depend on power/electronics to survive. Kind of scary.

  3. Bnj2k September 3, 2010 at 10:21 PM - Reply

    Those industries are already doing enough to destroy themselves. Instead of embracing and learning to work with things like file sharing, they sue little old grannies who download a copy of “La Vida Loca” for their daughter’ s birthday party.

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