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Copyrighted “Presidents” freely available on Web — and inaccurate

Here is an interesting case study on the confusing nature of government information in the digital age.

The publication, The Presidents of the United States of America has been published in eighteen editions from 1964 through 2009 by the White House Historical Association “with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society.”

First question: Is this a government publication? At least one edition (the 8th, 1981) was “distributed” by GPO (Item No. 1089. SuDocs No. Y 3.H 62/4:2 P 92). (My old copy of “Andriot” shows the White House Historical Association [1961- ] under Y3.H62/4.)

The White House web site has pages from the current publication online, but quick searches of CGP and the GPO bookstore do not show it as currently available in print as a depository item or for sale or distribution by GPO.

The White House Historical Association has its own website and has the paperback current (18th, 2009) edition for sale. The title page of the sample pdf of this edition says:

Copyright © 1964, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2001, 2006, 2009 by the White House Historical Association. All Rights Reserved

All presidential portraits contained in this book belong to the White House collection. Requests for reprint permissions should be addressed to Rights and Reproductions Manager, White House Historical Association, 740 Jackson Place, NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.

This raises more questions. Is the book really copyrighted? Is the website? (The White House copyright notice says “Pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected. The United States Government may receive and hold copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.”) What happens if someone harvests this website? (Is harvested material subject to a takedown notice?)

But wait! There’s more! All of this was prompted by an article about how the books is bad history.

  • Historians question White House presidential bios, By HILLEL ITALIE, AP (Apr 5, 2011).

    “…the White House biographies offer an unusual history lesson. Some are examples of blatant boosterism and outdated scholarship. Others are oddly selective or politically incorrect.”

I often hear people complain about the accuracy of government information and sometimes those complaints segue into an argument that such information shouldn’t be made available at all. Government agencies often take down “out of date” information because it is no longer accurate — and that leaves us with a big problem of how to preserve such information when the only copy was the one on the government web server. But I think it is important for libraries to preserve what a government says about itself, how it summarizes raw data, how it presents policy arguments, and so forth. This is the historical record. We cannot evaluate the record unless we have a record to evaluate.

Giving context to government information is very important, however. That is something that libraries can do by providing metadata describing the source of the information, but also by providing other (non-government) information that puts the government information in a wider context. That is something libraries can do (but government agencies cannot) by building collections that contain both government and non-government information.

But how can libraries do that when we are faced with inconsistent signals about copyright and the status of information produced by the government? How can we do that when we are forced to “harvest” information from the web rather than receive official deposits of government information? And, if libraries don’t do this, who will preserve the historical record of our government?

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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