Jacqueline Trescott, Historians Protest Smithsonian’s Deals, Washington Post, April 26, 2006.
The Society of American Historians, a group that promotes excellence in historical writing, has suspended Smithsonian Books from its ranks in protest over the Smithsonian Institution’s “increasingly commercial approach to its mission.” The suspension itself will have little impact, but it is the latest symptom of friction between the Smithsonian’s top managers and many of the nation’s scholars. The latest criticism follows a month of public debate over partnerships the Smithsonian made with commercial businesses and the change in policy about access to its archives. In a resolution passed by the historical group’s executive board yesterday, the society raised questions about the deal with Showtime Networks to create a series of 100 programs a year based on the Smithsonian collections and experts. But the historians also raised questions about a second contract, this one a publishing pact with HarperCollins….
In recent weeks, the Smithsonian has come under attack from writers, historians and filmmakers. The primary issue is how much access that researchers and producers not affiliated with Showtime will have to Smithsonian archives and the appearance of “right of first refusal” awarded Showtime for any project that has more than “incidental” use of Smithsonian materials. “The Smithsonian is an institution that involves public money and public trust and is a public archives,” said Elizabeth Adkins, president-elect of the Society of American Archivists. “It should follow the general guidelines of equal access. We are distressed.” The exact nature of the agreements are secret. The Smithsonian contends they are proprietary and not subject to freedom-of-information laws that require most federal contracts to be available for public inspection. However, a Smithsonian directive states that “the institution follows the intent and spirit of the [FOIA] as a matter of policy.”…Last week, about 215 filmmakers and historians asked the Smithsonian to reconsider the deal. Ken Burns, one of the country’s best-known documentary filmmakers, called the Showtime terms a mistake. The Society of American Archivists also asked the Smithsonian to reconsider the Showtime arrangement. “We urge the Smithsonian to revisit the agreement and to abandon those portions that limit either access to the archives or distribution of a researcher’s final results,” said the society’s president, Richard Pearce-Moses….The American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries asked the Smithsonian for a copy of the contract with Showtime. The two organizations argued that the “mission of the Smithsonian militates toward full disclosure of this document.” They argued that as a public institution, the Smithsonian had a responsibility to let the taxpayer know about its business dealings. “The public interest in disclosure here is clearly high in light of the unique nature of the agreement and its potential impact on public accessibility of Smithsonian resources,” said the organizations in a letter to the Smithsonian.