Footnote.com presents itself as an online archive, geared towards helping people discover documents that one may otherwise have to visit College Park, Maryland to examine. Many of the National Archives Record Administration’s record holdings are becoming available online via Footnote, which could be a great thing to those who cannot afford to physically travel to NARA. To view such collections you can either pay a membership fee to gain access to everything, or take the free route and risk not getting access to the files you want. At first that sounds like great news for a historian. After perusing the Footnote site, however, one should be hit with the thought, why is there a fee attached to some of the record groups? Additionally, I do not recall having to pay for my NARA researchers card, so why pay to view the same files now? If this is truly about making more files readily available for historians, then they should follow the same practices as a National Archive’s facility and not charge a membership fee.
Now I know what you are thinking, some one needs to get paid to digitize the record groups from the archives on to Footnote. I would be inclined to agree, however, such an argument fails to answer why only a fee for certain records? Sure, some of the popular records groups are free, but most files related to military history are not. Considering my current topic of interesting is the First World War American Expeditionary Force, I would need to pay a fee. Who is to decide which record groups are more popular? More importantly, if this material was located on the National Archives website there would not be any membership fee whatsoever. These are the documents of America, not some company or select individuals.
What about the fact that these files are now easier to access and save you a trip to the archives? Fair enough, but the National Archives should be preserving its record groups anyway. Therefore, people should not be charged a fee for convenient access to files which should be digitally preserved for posterity. You are not charged a fee to view restored documents at the NARA, so why now? When you visit the National Archives there is not an entrance fee or a price to pay when viewing records. The only money swapping hands at the National Archives are the coins for the copiers and snack machines. Sure, you might have to pay to get reproductions of various images, but nothing like the fees being charged by Footnote. Moreover, charging an access fee prohibits financial constrained individuals from viewing the documents in person or online. Ultimately, Footnote is only offering documents to those with money.
Footnote does provide a viable alternative for those who are unable to travel to the NARA, but affixing a fee to history is immoral. Attaching a monitary value to any document is flawed, because original documents are irreplaceable and therefore invaluable. I can understand the need to get these record groups online, but that should not require a monitary transaction between the public and any institution or private company. If the Federal government carried enough about these documents, and the morality of the situation, they would not allow a viewing fee to be affixed to any file. In the end, these documents are not the property of any single entity, but the world as a whole.