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Reclaim The Records launches its biggest FOIA request ever, for BILLIONS of digital images and associated text metadata, from the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) #records


Asparagirl
 

Hello again from Reclaim The Records! We're writing today, to let you know that we just filed the single largest Freedom of Information Act request in our organization's history, for billions of historical records. Yes, billions!

And this time, we're not just taking on a single city or state archive or agency. No, we're trying to get these billions of files from none other than the United States National Archives and Records Administration, NARA.

What kind of files? Oh, you know, basically just everything that was ever digitized through their long-running public-private digitization partnership program.

Like, say, the Census. Immigration records. Military files. Everything.
 
Most of these records were digitized years ago, through NARA's public-private digitization partnership program, but even after the embargo periods ended, NARA never got around to making the data available on their own website. And then they dodged and denied any informal requests that were made for even small parts of that data. For example, we once tried getting a digital copy of the 1910 US Federal Census from NARA, as a test case, a guinea pig. And indeed, despite many back-and-forth e-mails, NARA refused to hand over the files to us, saying just that all the data would go online on the NARA website or through their API access eventually. (Spoiler: it did not.)
 
In other words, all these amazing historical digital records of AMerican history remained available online only through expensive subscription websites, and not through the Archives, even though the files actually belong to the American taxpayers. Not cool.
 
We're working with a great FOIA lawyer on this one, a guy who just won the FOIA case against the US Department of Justice for the unredacted version of the Mueller Report two weeks ago. And now he's helping the genealogists. And when we get this NARA data, and we're pretty sure we're going to get it one way or another, we're going to put it all online, for free. No strings attached. Anyone will be able to do anything they want with the records, both the digitized images and the text metadata that goes along with them.
 
Here's the actual text of the FOIA request we sent to NARA yesterday morning:
 
 
It's really, really long, but there is a lot of background information we need to present, to put the FOIA request in its proper context -- and to help explain the whole situation to the judge, should we need to sue.

Note that this is still a FOIA request, not a full-on FOIA lawsuit just yet, but it very well might become one in the near future, depending on whether NARA chooses to follow the law and release all the records, or not.

We hope they will. But we're ready to sue if they don't.

And if you're as excited about this new FOIA request (and potential new lawsuit target) as we are, we hope you'll consider making a donation to our non-profit organization, so we can keep fighting for open records from every level of our government, from the smallest city clerk's office to the actual no-joke National Archives itself.

Public records belong to the public, and not just to people who can afford hundreds of dollars a year for subscription websites. Help us get these records back and put them online -- for free -- for everyone!

From all of us at Reclaim The Records, thank you for your support! 🤗
 
 
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Mill Valley, California
President and Founder, Reclaim The Records


ewkent@...
 

Dear Brooke Schreier Ganz (and Reclaim the Records):

I sympathize with your frustration and your goal but (as someone who is doing transcription work and related things as a volunteer at the NARA's National Archives Catalog interface (at catalog.archives.gov; as "EthanFromBellmore" and as Ethan W. Kent) it seems to me that 1) it has probably taken much time and effort to scan the huge number of Images already available online via that Catalog, 2) it will take much more time to scan everything (even everything not still "classified"), and 3) I don't know how much scanning they can/will do while COVID-19 is still affecting this country (the United States). (I gather that the general public is still not allowed back to Presidential Libraries and Museums -- and to National Archives research rooms -- "thanks" to the spreading coronavirus (no longer "novel").

Maybe the lawsuit could at least wait until after (G-d willing) the current epidemic in the US ends?

Good Luck.

Ethan W. Kent (in New York City)
ewkent@...


Asparagirl
 

Ethan W. Kent commented:
 
"it seems to me that 1) it has probably taken much time and effort to scan the huge number of Images already available online via that Catalog"
 
Yes, it did. And it was clearly known to all of the "partner organizations" (i.e. Ancestry.com, Archives.com, Fold3.com, FamilySearch, etc.) right from the outset that all their work to digitize and transcribe these microfilm or paper records would be returned to the American public when their "embargo period" of exclusivity ran out. In most cases, those embargo periods have been over for a decade, and in some cases, those embargo periods have been over for two decades!
 
(If we were really playing hardball, we probably could choose to challenge the legality of a government archive making any kind of exclusivity deal on access to public materials, or the very idea of an embargo period at all! But for the purposes of this FOIA request, we are not touching that issue, at the moment.)
 
The records, both the images and the associated text metadata, belong to the public, full stop. We want them back -- and we want to put them all online for free. Honestly, NARA should really have been the ones to do that part, but with very limited exceptions they just didn't release the material. So now we're going to hold their feet to the fire and make it happen.
 
"2) it will take much more time to scan everything (even everything not still "classified"),"
 
Ah, but we're not asking NARA to scan brand new things! We're only asking them in this FOIA request for copies of billions of records that have already been scanned and transcribed directly under their public-private partnership program, records that have been sitting on a shelf waiting to be freely released to the public for years. In practice, in all these years, most of these could only be seen or used on Ancestry.com or their subsidiary companies, if you had a subscription, or multiple subscriptions. That's unacceptable. Government agencies should not be enabling private monopolies on public data.
 
"Maybe the lawsuit could at least wait until after (G-d willing) the current epidemic in the US ends?"
 
It's not a lawsuit yet, still just a request. We're all waiting to find out how NARA wants to handle the request, follow the law or break the law. We're hopeful they're going to comply.
 
That being said, if we do have to sue them, we will not wait out the end of the pandemic, and we will probably not even wait out the end of the year. Two decades of locked-up and monetized public files is quite long enough to wait.
 
Also, FYI, we at Reclaim The Records did hold off on filing any new Freedom of Information lawsuits against government agencies over the past 7-8 months -- which is, for us, quite a long time! But we held off making this particular FOIA request to NARA for quite a while, because the people at NARA who process FOIA requests from the public were simply not back in the building yet. (Legally speaking, government agencies were not actually allowed to stop processing FOIA requests because of the pandemic, though in practice a whole lot of them did.)
 
But NARA is right now moving to "Phase Two" of their re-opening procedures, which explicitly includes re-opening their FOIA division. And so we finally sent this long-awaited FOIA request on Monday, to get to the head of the line.
 
We want our records back.
 
 
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Mill Valley, California
 


Asparagirl
 

A minor correction: we formally submitted our FOIA request to NARA on Wednesday (October 14th), not Monday.
 
See, we really did wait. ;-)
 
 
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Mill Valley, California
 


ewkent@...
 

I'm not going to say much in the reply, but Thanks for your detailed and courteous reply posts, Brooke Schreier Ganz -- explaining in more detail what your organization is asking for -- and why. : )

(As I have mentioned, I have been working with the National Archives Catalog online (nearly completely on materials having absolutely nothing to do with my own family, and almost-as-completely having nothing to do with immigration) -- and I have also been a paid subscriber to (I am currently one) to Ancestry.com; I have noticed that while cards related to the naturalization of 2 of my great-grandparents (my father's mother's parents -- the Halperins ("Gelperin" at Ellis Island in 1916) ) are available in the Catalog, quite a few other Federal court documents and immigration documents (actually, the ones with the most information -- including the naturalization document which told me the place that my maternal grandfather (Kornhauser) had come from as a boy in 1913) are totally *not* visible in the Catalog.

I think that I did not realize that this had something to do with contracts/licensing between Ancestry.com and NARA as "partners". )

Thanks for educating me a bit. [Smile.]

(And Good Luck.)

Ethan W. Kent in New York City
(mostly researching Paat/Pat/Patt/Pate (emigrated from Bialystok (now in Poland) , Kornhauser (emigrated from Turka (now in Ukraine) and (it seems) Stefkowa (husband seems to have claimed 1 town (Stefkowa), and (later-emigrating) wife and children another (Turka) ) , Gelperin/Halperin (emigrated from Vilna (today's Vilnius, Lithuania) ), and Kantor (seemingly emigrated from Podolia guberniya; probably from Bratslav (now in Ukraine) )

PS: I gather from another thread from JewishGen that New York City government has proposed rules for use of the New York City Municipal Archives which could drive out all but the richest users who might wish to consult New York City records (including birth, marriage, and death records) related to genealogy; as someone who used these records a few years ago and was grateful to *not* have to pay (relatively-speaking) "an arm and a leg" for the privilege (?) of seeing these records, I sympathize with Reclaim the Records's dismay at these new proposals (which I fear may end up leaving the *very few* staffers at the Archives left more to themselves (not visited by researchers, physically) than they were when I was there.

Ethan.


Sniderlh
 

This is good news to hear.  I hope you have success with this, on this go 'round.  I truly appreciate groups like yours who step up and go to bat for ALL of us, and fight for what is rightfully ours (to access & use).  All the game playing (a nice term) that has gone on (& seems to be ramping up) over the years with public records, their access, and the gross cost of fee increases, is an affront to all tax payers in this country.  I, like many family researchers I know, would be quite happy to do my own free online searching, and I have even paid for several needed records in the past.  The new fees would make that impossible.
Good luck!

Thank you,

Leah H. Snider
Silverdale, WA / USA