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Who owns history?

18 July 2011

Via C.M. Mayo, “a profoundly important article by historian Richard J. Salvucci, about what happened to one of the priceless treasures of Mexican archives. ”

Salvucci’s full article appeared (on-line, naturally) on the Miller-McCune website

… in September 2008 … Google announced it was expanding the News Archive Searchback in time “to make more old newspapers accessible and searchable online.”

“History buffs: take note,” Google triumphantly proclaimed.

Well, yes, history buffs, take note once more. In an unpublicized letter to its news archive digitization partners sent in May this year, Google told them the digitization project was going away, although existing material was, for now at least, still available. So the historical initiative at Google had really lasted less than three years. Is this any way to run a historical archive? I don’t think so. Historians generally have a longer attention span.

Google is a for-profit business, with stockholders, partners and bankers. If it can preserve primary sources for history and make money, Google will do it. If not, then not. That should come as no surprise, right? But, apparently, surprise some it did, since, after all, Google’s old motto was “Don’t Be Evil.” Historians have been known to confuse profits and evil more or less reflexively.

Paper of Record is a Canadian website that boasts of building the world’s largest searchable archive of historical newspapers. … Paper of Record is, to my knowledge, the most extensive searchable archive of Mexican historical newspapers in the world. There are more than 150 logged newspapers, some dating as far back as the 1840s. Paper of Record became, outside of the National Newspaper Library of Mexico, the single most important resource of its kind for scholars like me working in Mexican history — in Mexico, the United States, anywhere. With an excellent user interface and powerful search engine, Paper of Record made a vast collection of what had been nearly unusable and generally inaccessible primary sources searchable and exploitable, at no charge to users. For some scholars, especially those of us doing commercial, political or economic history, Paper of Record became literally indispensable.

Then Google bought it.

Google closed down Paper of Record, made the papers inaccessible, promised to make them available under Google News, but mostly didn’t, and then virtually refused to discuss what had happened with anyone. Research projects in Mexico and the United States came to a halt.

The Mexican newspapers were gone.

That is, until they returned, after a two-year hiatus, but now behind a pay wall operated by Paper of Record, under the proverbial “new management.” My university balked at a subscription because at any plausible level of use, a subscription could cost several thousand dollars a year.

What happened? Well, who knows? It’s not like Google has told anyone, or will…

Ms. Mayo is a specialist in the Second Mexican Empire  and Dr. Salvucci, an expert on 19th century Mexican economics.  Neither of the two scholarly specialties are, in themselves, burning issues at the moment, and limiting access to Mexican newspaper archives will not create some immediate crisis, even in the somewhat rarified circles of Latin American historical research.  Still, this points out a serious problem.

As Mayo notes:

It should make us question the easy assumptions that digitalizing documents and books saves them for eternity, and so cheaply (a big argument thse days for cash-strapped libraries). Digitalization is more fragile, for both technical and economic reasons, than we often suppose…

Mayo’s books are mostly e-books, though she is considering printing in limited quantities (think of them as off-line backups), which at least preserves the work-product, and is an excellent idea (Editorial Mazatlán, by the way, generally publishes first as a “book-book” and only later as an e-book). That resolves the immediate problem of existing work, with some commercial demand, but misses a more important issue.

Whether one is an independent researcher, or in the happy position of having institutional backing, access to sources is always a challenge. While it is possible to physically visit archives that should include specific documents, most scholars have neither the finances, nor sometimes the ability to do so.

In one way, this has paid off for us, as we published Ray Acosta’s Revolutionary Days: A Chronology of the Mexican Revolution last year.  The book is not a big seller, and we never expected it would be (though I think every Latin American scholar SHOULD buy it… ahem!  Had Google, or some other cyber-corporation made a decision to make it possible to easily trace the Mexican Revolution day by day, there never would have been a need for the book.  But they didn’t, there is, and it fills a niche. And such a bargain!

A small niche, perhaps, but consider a “hot button” topic like insurgent warfare and training.  While I’m not contemplating writing anything about the subject, I recently acquired quite by accident De Tuxpam a la Plata, published by the Cuban Army’s Centro de Estudios de Historia Militar in 1985.  Although it is only 25 years old, the book is falling to pieces, it is a valuable book (not monetarily, to be sure) … not just because Fidel Castro is likely to be due for a new biography soon, but because it says so much how clandestine military operations are planned.   There is a copy of the first edition (which, the authors admit, required revisions) listed on Amazon UK for £ 27.03 with no indication of what the book is about.  And, claims it is in English, which it isn’t.

I don’t claim De Tuxpam is good writing — after all, being written by a team of Cuban Army officers  (Marxists and military officers the world over, no matter their language, have their own jargon) — only that is potentially valuable even outside the easily dismissed field of pure historical studies[1].  Understanding insurgent movements is something that I wouldn’t expect every citizen and voter in the United States to study the Cuban Revolution, nor the Granma expedition, but those that depend on the scholars to make their decisions on how to invest military resources, and what the government should do, or not do, regarding Cuba (or Latin America, or insurgency movements elsewhere) are seriously handicapped when the scholars cannot assess the information available.

U.S. scholars for whom it is nearly impossible to research “the Cuban side of the story” are forced to depend on limited information,  not because the information doesn’t exist, and not because it hasn’t been made public, but because a corporate entity decided it didn’t give a return on their investment.   I doubt this was an editorial decision (there is a lot of crap on the internet, and even among historical documents, like old newspapers, a lot of what was published probably never should have been published, but was) but one reflecting the biases of a corporation.

Here in Mexico, our history is our destiny.  In common with other Latin American states, discussions of policy, polity and politics are argued with references not to what could be, or how things ought to be, so much as by analogy to what we have experienced in our past.

Free access to our past is vital if we are to have a democratic playing field.  However, with a foreign corporation having simply decided our past does not matter, or making it available only at a price far out of the reach of the average citizen, or even the specialist, simply because it does not guarantee a short-term return, means we are in very real danger of ceding even more control of our own destiny to outsiders who — neither knowing, nor caring to know where we have been — are endangering not just our own ability to discuss our futures, but the corporation’s home country’s ability (and the corporation´s shareholders) ability to understand what it means when the unexpected (but, to us, had we known, wholly predictable) happens.


[1] Though it will force me to change a sentence in my own book, should there be a revised edition at some point.

One Comment leave one →
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