The Coalition Column

Public-Private Partnerships: Are They the Wave of the Future?

Lee White, March 2007

Over the past year, we have seen federal historical and archival institutions faced with flat or shrinking budgets trying to find creative ways to finance their programs. The resulting business arrangements that some public institutions made with private sector groups have raised some interesting questions and, at least in one case, stirred up considerable controversy.

The business deal that has drawn the most attention in the past year is the one we reported on last month, the development of the controversial partnership between the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime Networks. In March 2006, the Smithsonian announced that it had entered into a 30-year, semiexclusive contract with Showtime to create a digital, on-demand television channel. The deal created a firestorm of opposition from members of Congress and other stakeholders, including the National Coalition for History, who raised issues concerning the contract's potential effects on public access to and use of the Smithsonian's collections, its confidential nature, and the process by which the Smithsonian negotiated the agreement.

Despite this opposition, the fledgling Smithsonian Channel is scheduled to make its debut this spring. Recently, David Royle, executive vice president for programming and production at Smithsonian Networks, told the Washington Post that they were still in negotiations with satellite and cable television companies to make the channel available as an on-demand service. However, he stated that the Smithsonian and Showtime are considering transforming the venture into a traditional network channel such as Discovery Networks or the National Geographic channel. Although Royle did not address the issue, one would logically assume, were they to go the route of a regular TV channel, that it might include advertisements generating additional revenue.

Less controversial, but equally significant in many ways, perhaps, are other similar partnerships entred into by the Smithsonian and the National Archives. In January 2007, they both announced new partnerships with private sector companies to provide on line access to selected portions of their holdings for a fee.

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and Footnote Inc. CEO Russell Wilding announced an agreement to digitize and make available—for a fee—selected records from the holdings of the National Archives. More than 4 million pages have already been digitized (from materials currently on microfilm) and are now available at www.footnote.com/nara.php.

This non-exclusive agreement will enable researchers and the general public to access the digitized images of historic records in the National Archives on a subscription basis or by paying a per-page fee from the web site of Footnote Inc. The digitized materials will be available at no charge in the National Archives research rooms in Washington, D.C., and in regional facilities of the National Archives across the country. After an interval of five years, all images digitized through this agreement will be available at no charge through the National Archives web site.

In announcing the agreement, Weinstein said "It will immediately allow much greater access to approximately 4.5 million pages of important documents that are currently available only in their original format or on microfilm. The digitization of documents will also enhance our efforts to preserve our original records."

The first set of collections available are the Papers of the Continental Congress (1774–89); the Matthew B. Brady Collection of Civil War photographs; the files of the post-Civil War Southern Claims Commission; a name index to Civil War and later pension files, and investigative case files of the Bureau of Investigation 1908–22.

Also in January, the Smithsonian Institution and Corbis, a digital media provider, announced a deal to provide digital images from the Smithsonian's collections for editorial and commercial use at www.corbis.com. The licensing agreement with Corbis provides for the digitization of hundreds of images from Smithsonian museums, such as historical photographs, images of cultural objects, paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, scientific instruments, natural specimens, and aircraft and space vehicles.

The first of the Smithsonian images have been added to the Corbis image database with plans to increase the numbers significantly by the end of the year. Users must obtain a license to utilize these images for a fee. Accompanying the images are museum-approved photo credits, which identify the image, its relevance to the museum collection, and include historical facts.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Samia Elia was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that there is no guaranteed annual revenue under the deal. According to Elia, Corbis did not provide any money up front, and fees collected would be designated for the museum's educational programs. The Smithsonian declined to make any additional financial details public.

All of these deals raise interesting philosophical questions for the historical and archival communities.

Proponents of these ventures argue that they provide greater access to the holdings to the general public. For example, researchers who live outside the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area might not otherwise be able to use them due to travel costs. The new arrangements also increase the visibility of the institutions by making their holdings available online and in the case of the Smithsonian/ Showtime venture, on television. In some cases, private sector partners can bring to the table technical and commercial expertise that the public institutions may not have or cannot afford. And, as mentioned earlier, they provide much needed revenue to these financially strapped entities. The money gleaned from these ventures can then be used to develop additional programs and exhibits.
Opponents of the new arrangements insist that there should be unfettered access to artifacts, photographs, films and records. They argue that since such items are held in the public trust, federal entities should not violate that trust by limiting access.

A clear distinction can be drawn, though, between the Smithsonian/Showtime venture and the deals between the National Archives and Footnote.com and the Smithsonian and Corbis.
The Smithsonian/Showtime deal granted Showtime the ability to pick and choose who had access to the Smithsonian's holdings. The 30-year length of the contract, its semi-exclusive nature, and the overall sense of secrecy that surrounded the project exacerbated the feeling that the Smithsonian had violated its public trust.

By contrast, using archival material held by a public institution to generate revenue for the institution through non-exclusive commercial alliances is an accepted practice among public archival institutions. In this regard, the arrangement between the National Archives and Footnote Inc. to digitize records and the Smithsonian's deal with Corbis.com concerning digital images differ in that the public still has unfettered access to these holdings. In the case of the National Archives, all of the records digitized in conjunction with Footnote.com are readily available at archives facilities all around the country and the deal is not exclusive. In essence, researchers are paying a convenience fee to Footnote.com to have instant access to the records. In the case of Corbis deal too, the Smithsonian is continuing—in a different form—its current practice of charging fees for commercial use of digital images from its website. The Smithsonian Institution does allow free noncommercial use for personal or educational purposes, and that practice appears to be continuing.

In a sense, the public agencies are not to blame for pursuing these deals. It is the administration and Congress that should really be held responsible for these controversial ventures. For many years, the National Archives, the Smithsonian and the historical departments of the National Park Service have been woefully underfunded. Yet Congress and the administration continue to pass laws and issue regulations and executive orders that place additional burdens on these already strained agencies.

As we await the release of the president's budget for fiscal 2008 to begin the annual appropriations cycle on Capitol Hill, it gives the historical and archival community even more of a reason to advocate for increased funding for public entities such as the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution. If we do not raise our voices, we will continue to see the agencies we rely on forced to resort to the private sector with the specter of additional Smithsonian/Showtime deals in the future.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.