Group Files 'Largest FOIA of All Time'

The request is for billions of of digital images and historical records hidden behind arbitrary paywalls.
October 16, 2020, 1:00pm
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Image: Getty Images

Reclaim the Records—a group of activist genealogists, historians, journalists, teachers—has filed what may be the largest Freedom Of Information Act Request of all time. The group wants the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to release billions of digital images and their associated metadata to the public.

NARA is a government agency that preserves and archives the American government’s historical records. It’s also supposed to increase public access to those records. To accomplish that goal, NARA partnered with private companies such as genealogical website Ancestory.com to digitize and upload census records, immigration records, and other historical documents. 

Digitizing these records is a massive task, one NARA likely couldn’t accomplish on its own. In exchange for its help, NARA granted the private companies limited exclusivity to the records. That means that billions of documents related to America’s history are behind paywalls on sites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Fold3.

According to the agreements, the sites were supposed to open up their digitized archive to the public after an exclusivity period of 3 - 5 years. “In practice, this simply hasn’t happened,” Reclaim the Records said in a blog post announcing the FOIA. “NARA has never actually posted online the vast majority of these records that were digitized through their partnership program, not to their Catalog nor indeed anywhere else where the public might be able to freely access and download the now-digital records. This remains the case today, even when the embargo periods for many of these record sets have been expired for more than a decade, sometimes two decades.”

Most of these are stored behind Ancestry.com’s paywall, in part because Ancestry purchased several of the other sites that NARA had made deals with when they were still independent. “NARA surely did not mean to create a de facto monopoly on nearly all digital copies of important American historical documents like the Census and immigration records and military files, all for the benefit of a single private corporation,” Reclaim the Records said on its site. “But by not making the no-longer-embargoed documents available to the public anywhere else, not even on NARA’s own website, and leaving them solely in the hands of their mostly-commercial partner organizations, that is exactly what has happened.”

Reclaim the Records has asked that NARA release all the records it made in partnership with private companies in their digitized, uncompressed, non-watermarked form. It also wants all the files’ associated metadata, the training and formatting materials used to facilitate the creation of the digital files, and any records still held by Ancestry or other private companies that NARA failed to collect.

To facilitate the transfer, Reclaim the Records had said it’s willing to pay for USB drives and the cost of shipping them. It said it would also take digital copies of the records moved from NARA’s Amazon Web Services server to Reclaim the Records Amazon Web Services server.

Reclaim the Records filed its FOIA on October 14. NARA has 20 business days to acknowledge its receipt of the FOIA but the release of the records, should the come, could take far longer.