Archiving the world a document at a time
LINDON - A tiny company is out to digitize the world, one historical document and photograph after another.
And in so doing, Footnote Inc. hopes to accomplish a couple of things - bring easy Internet access to millions of documents and tap a bunch of niche populations willing to pay for that access.
In January, Footnote Inc. signed a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration, the small agency that cares for billions of documents generated by the federal government since its inception. Footnote agreed to produce digital copies for the National Archives for free in exchange for allowing it to make the images available for a charge on its Web site, http://www.footnote.com.
"We think we can digitize the world; the problem is it's not going to get funded," said Russell W. Wilding, CEO of Footnote. "So the way you fund it is if it's a commercially viable opportunity and the market really wants it, they'll pay to subscribe to it."
Footnote is but the latest incarnation of the company that began as Automated Solutions Inc., cofounded in 1994 by David Norton but which was foundering by the end of the 1990s. Norton also was one of the founders of Iomega, a computer storage company.
According to Wilding, who joined Automated in 1998, the company had one great asset, its optical character recognition technology, a software program that could convert scanned documents into digital text documents that could be easily searched. Looking for a new direction with the departure of Norton, Wilding asked technicians if the software could scan microfilm, a photographic process used commercially to preserve records since the 1920s and by libraries and public archives since the 1950s.
With an affirmative answer, Wilding began calling newspapers. And he heard about a program at the University of Utah Marriott Library to convert microfilm of all of the state's newspapers to digital form. The library signed up the company.
John Herbert, director of the Marriott's digital newspapers project, praised Footnote's technology that has enabled it to scan sometimes distorted or smeared words and produce a searchable digital text database.
"From what I know they are on the leading edge of things," said Herbert.
The company also took on other newspaper digital projects; it now scans 250,000 pages a month, using workers in China, the Philippines and Bangladesh to do much of the required hands-on work computers can't do. But most of that work was state and federally funded, and there were billions of documents out there beyond newspapers but no money to fund their conversion.
Thus was born Footnote Inc. and its Web site.
For the National Archives and Records Administration, the deal was simple, according to spokeswoman Susan Cooper. The agency has 9 billion records and the mission to make them as widely accessible as possible, but not enough funding to put them on the Internet.
"If Footnote Inc. had not come along, this material would not be on the Internet," she said. The deal with Footnote runs for five years, with automatic one-year renewals unless either party objects.
The technology is there and more documents are added constantly, but for Footnote the challenge now is how to find and attract to its site the people with interest in various historical topics.
Footnote hired away four top employees of Ancestry.com, the commercial genealogical research site, for their expertise on creating and marketing a Web site.
On top of its 18 million-and-counting documents and photos, Footnote has added a social networking component along the lines of MySpace. Among other features, the Footnote site allows users to annotate documents, such as highlighting names, which can then be searched. Comments can accompany all images.
"What we've said is we've almost unchained the Bible from the pulpit and put the materials in front of everybody, allowing them to make their own discoveries," said Justin S. Schroepher, director of marketing, "I anticipate as they get into this, the more new facts, the more new angles are going to come out of this and it's going to put a different light on some [historical] topics we thought we knew very well."
Footnote Inc., with 35 employees at its Lindon offices , is running on financing from Canopy Group, the venture capital company of the late former Novell CEO Ray Noorda, and Century Capital of Boston.
Footnote is seeking new venture capital with some expertise in Web sites, said Wilding.
"We have to hit the critical mass and we haven't yet," he said.
* Formerly a certified public accountant for Ernest and Young
* Spent 13 years with Silicon Valley companies
* In 1998, joined then-Automated Solutions Inc., which later became Footnote Inc.
* Footnote has 35 employees in Lindon and 1,200 workers in contract companies in China, the Philippines and Bangladesh.
The subscription rate for Footnote's Web site, http://www.footnote.com, is $7.95 a month or $59.95 a year. Searches are free, and users can download individual images for a one-time fee. Access to the documents is free of charge at 14 National Archive offices and at presidential libraries. After five years, scanned documents will be available free at the National Archives Web site, http://www.archives.gov
To see Footnote's work digitizing newspapers, visit the University of Utah Marriott Library's digital newspaper project at http://www.lib.utah.edu/digital/unews.
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