Digital Archives That Disappear

Google purchased "Paper of Record," a Web site popular with historians and other scholars. Now the site is gone, and although it may be about to return, researchers are furious.
April 22, 2009

As digital archives have become more important and more popular, there are varying schools of thought among scholars about how best to guarantee that they will be around for good. Some think that the best possibility is for the creators of the archives -- people generally with some passion for the topic -- to keep control. Others favor acquisition, thinking that larger entities provide more security and resources for the long run.

The fate of "Paper of Record," a digital archive of early newspapers with a particularly strong collection of Mexican newspapers, may be cited in the years ahead as an example of the dangers of purchase by a large entity. Paper of Record was purchased (secretly) by Google in 2006, and shortly after Google took over management of the site, late last year, the archive disappeared from view. After weeks in which historians have complained to Google and others about the loss of their ability to work, the previous owner of the archive has received permission to bring the archive back for some period of time, and resumption of service could start as early next week.

While the imminent return of the site will please scholars, many are worried about what the incident says about the availability and accessibility of key resources. Writing on the blog of the American Historical Association, Robert B. Townsend quoted the late Roy Rosenzweig, a George Mason University professor who was a pioneer in digital history, on the "fragility of evidence in the digital era."

The current loss of access is "tragic," said Ted Beatty, director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Beatty said Paper of Record not only has a great archive, but its search tools "revolutionized" the ease with which scholars could search the newspapers in the collection. Beatty said that he has been using the database for years, and encouraging his undergraduate and graduate students to do so as well -- until access disappeared.

Beatty studies technological change in 19th century Mexico, and while he has done some of his research in Mexican archives and libraries, and will continue to do so, Paper of Record was extremely valuable to him. "There is a lot of historical evidence in newspapers that is typically not accessed because of the time consuming, low-yield nature of page-turning work," but that could be found online, he said.

The situation also shows the power Google now has over the collection. Even if Google puts the works back up, it could set prices for access -- and that could put the collection out of reach to some, Beatty said.

Richard Salvucci, a professor of economics at Trinity University, in Texas, said he has been blocked from pushing ahead on research on a lender that played a role in the Panic of 1837 in Mexico. Noting that Mexico's universities and government paid for some of the digitization of the newspapers from the country, Salvucci said "who the hell is Google to deny the very people who paid the freight the right to see their national patrimony? It stinks and it's an unfriendly and uncollegial gesture."

Word of the situation has also upset scholars in Mexico, where the Mexican Association for Economic History has issued a resolution (available here in Spanish) condemning Google and calling for the material to be made available immediately.

While Google declined to discuss the situation with Inside Higher Ed and has not returned the calls of many scholars, it has spoken with Bob Huggins, the founder of Paper of Record. Huggins said that he has permission to bring the site back up, and plans to do so next week, until Google is prepared to offer access to the archives. Huggins said that he sold Paper of Record to Google in 2006, but that the deal was secret until late last year, when Google exercised its right to have Huggins stop managing the site. At that point, Huggins expected a transition to having the material appear on Google, but the material just disappeared from public view.

"Google wasn't ready to put their version online and they have been taken aback by all the anger," he said.

Next week, Huggins will post rates for institutional subscriptions to the database of $3,600 a year for institutions with full-time enrollment of at least 20,000, and $1,800 for others -- prices that are less than the fees before the Google purchase. Huggins said he didn't know how long Google would let him keep the revived site up. "I don't think particularly that the communication of this was handled very well by Google. I'm very disappointed," he said.

At the same time, Huggins said that he thinks many academics have been too harsh in their criticisms of Google. While the National Endowment for the Humanities and other entities are supporting some digitization projects, "they are going to be 100-year projects" before they are really valuable to scholarship, Huggins said.

Whether scholars like it or not, Huggins said, Google is uniquely able to manage large-scale projects at a reasonable pace, despite the problems with Paper of Record. "There is no other entity on the planet that is Google," he said.


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