HathiTrust’s Six Millionth Open Book Highlights Congressional Investigations

January 31, 2018

The Roaring 20’s returned to Atlanta, Georgia, on October 24-28, 1970.

This sentence appeared not in the style section of the Atlanta newspaper but at the start of an interoffice memo between Internal Revenue Service offices.  The full memo and the backstory can be found in the six millionth openly available item deposited in HathiTrust, digitized by the University of California, Riverside.

There are many reasons HathiTrust’s six million open volumes are open: some are in the public domain in the United States, some worldwide, and some have been licensed for public view by the rightsholder, usually with a Creative Commons license.  Over 1 million of these are publications of the US government, which by statute are not afforded protection by copyright in the US.

When a digitized book is deposited in HathiTrust, we run an algorithm against its bibliographic metadata, checking for place of publication, date, and whether or not it was published by a federal agency.   We also have an expansive program to review the copyright status of subsets of works that are deemed likely to be in the public domain. Currently over 51 individuals from 32 partner libraries take part in that program.  Our goal is to open as many materials as we possibly can within the limits of copyright, and our members’ contributions of time and effort have helped us open a large portion of these six million.

Our six millionth open book documents in part the hearings conducted by the US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States, held during in the Ninety-Fourth Congress in 1975.  Also known as the Church Committee (after their chair, Senator Frank Church of Idaho), their investigations were instrumental in exposing secret surveillance of US citizens by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and IRS.  The Church Committee grew out of the 1973-74 Watergate hearings, which exposed significant executive branch abuses of power against US citizens, and was the predecessor to the standing US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The third volume of these hearings focuses on the intelligence activities of the Internal Revenue Service.

So, what was going on in Atlanta those days in October 1970?  Our anonymous man in Atlanta  explains that “people came in sleek limousines, customized automobiles, mink and flamboyant dress for the Muhammad Ali-Jerry Quary fight on Monday fight, October 26. The styles of the 20’s prevailed with males challenging the females for the extreme in dress and the brilliance of colors.”

However, it wasn’t the clothes that the IRS’ cared about. It was the cars.

After observing expensive custom built automobiles at the Regency Hyatt House, Atlanta's swankiest hotel, arrangements were made for the Atlanta District to conduct some old-fashioned bird dogging; that is, the taking of license numbers of the most expensive looking automobiles. The agents reported that the wearing apparel and the automobiles were fantastic with many of the automobiles in the $20,000 to $25,000 cost range.

The memo, headlined “Operation Bird Dog,” and a list of those license plate numbers, was distributed to all District Directors in the Southeast Region for “your use as leads to possible income tax violations.”  (Names and plate numbers were redacted before publication as part of the hearings.)

This boxing match was notable for being Muhammed Ali’s first officially sanctioned fight since he had been banned in 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the US military. Ali won in a TKO after the third round. An IRS whistleblower later noted that Operation Bird Dog seemed to have been set up to target African American leaders in particular.

Dig a little, and you’ll find that federal documents aren’t as boring as you were told.