FGI presents at FAFLRT panel on open government at ALA Annual ’15

faflrt15-presentationI was honored to be part of a program at American Library Association‘s 2015 annual conference (hosted in my home town of SF!) set up by the Federal & Armed Forces Libraries Round Table (FAFLRT). The program, “Open Government: Current Trends and Practices Concerning FOIA, Open Access, and Other Post-Wiki-Leaks Issues” featured Anneliese Taylor, Assistant Director of Scholarly Communications & Collections at UCSF, who gave an in-depth and very interesting presentation on open access and the OSTP directive on “Expanding Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research”. Thanks to Anneliese, I *finally* found a list of all of the agencies covered under the policy on one handy google spreadsheet “A table summarizing the Federal public access policies resulting from the US Office of Science and Technology Policy memorandum of February 2013″!

My talk was titled “Blind Spots and Broken Links: Access to Government Information.” Unfortunately, the speaker for the FOIA portion had to cancel at the last minute, so I edited my original talk on access trends — and breakdown points — to federal publications to include a bit on FOIA. I really didn’t do FOIA the justice it deserved, but I think the panel turned out well because we had plenty of time for questions and discussion. Please see the slides and notes for my presentation below. There’s also a PDF available of both the slides and notes.

The FDLP Historical Collections

A recent question on the govdoc-l mailing list asked if GPO had ever officially defined the term “legacy collection” or “legacy document” and if the definition goes beyond something that has historical value or importance. I posted a short answer there. Here, I document and explain that brief response.

The term was introduced by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and by Superintendent of Documents Judy C. Russell in 2003. The phrase has been used almost exclusively in the documents community in the context of digitizing and discarding FDLP historical paper collections ever since.

Before 2003

Before 2003, documents and articles that discuss collections (even in the context of digitizing them) rarely if ever used the adjective “legacy” to describe FDLP collections. For example, a 2002 GODORT report on digitizing government information did not include the word “legacy” to describe the collections to be targeted for digitization.

I did not find any references to “legacy collections” in DttP or govdoc-l or Google Scholar or Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts before 2003.

2003: Introduction of a New Term

Judy C. Russell, then GPO Superintendent of Documents, apparently introduced the term in late 2003 in an announcement of an agreement between ARL and GPO to “digitize a complete legacy collection.” GODORT mentioned it at ALA in January 2004 and GPO included it in its Strategic Vision for the 21st Century in December 2004.

Russell also referred to “legacy content” at the Center For Research Libraries Forum on “Building Blocks of a National Print Preservation Network.” And, in a 2005 Dissemination Implementation Plan, GPO referred to the “legacy collection of tangible U.S. Government publications held in libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP).”

Adoption of the term

After 2004, the mentions of an FDLP “legacy collection” increased. Documents librarians adopted the phrase to refer to the paper (and sometimes microform, and, occasionally, even “tangible” digital) documents that GPO had actually deposited into FDLP libraries.

What is the FDLP “Legacy Collection?”

Russell described the “legacy collection” as “tangible items in your libraries” in her remarks to DLC in April 2004. She also said that the legacy collection of U.S. government documents consisted of “an estimated 2.2 million print publications totaling approximately 60 million pages.” A report of the 2004 GPO meeting of experts on digital preservation described the legacy collection as “U.S. government documents currently held in depositories, estimated to be about 2.2 million items (excluding microfiche).”

It is worth noting here that the term was applied to all paper; there was no singling-out of any documents that would have more historical value or importance. The key to inclusion within the definition of “legacy collection” was, apparently, that they were paper and were in FDLP libraries and were targets of digitization (and, as we will see in a moment, targets for discarding).


As noted above, the introduction of the phrase accompanied a plan to digitize the paper FDLP collections. GODORT referred to the initiative as “Digitizing Legacy Federal Documents Collections.” The GPO Strategic Vision described converting “printed legacy documents” into digital format. The Dissemination Implementation Plan enumerated priorities for digitization of the “Legacy Collection.” The purpose of the Experts Meeting was to address digitizing “the entire legacy collection of U.S. government documents.”

The government information community adopted that context along with the phrase. Every use of the phrase that I found was in the context of digitizing paper.

Why “Legacy”?

Why did ARL and Russell choose the term “legacy collection”? Since the use of the phrase was directly and explicitly tied to digitization of those collections, why not describe those collections as “analog materials” or “historical collections” or “paper collections” or even (ugh!) “tangible collections?” Why “legacy“?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that the word “legacy” was not used as an adjective until 1990. That use comes not from the libraries but from the computing world. It is used by IT managers to describe software or systems that are outdated and unwanted. Wikipedia says that it is often considered a “pejorative term” and is used to describe systems that are “potentially problematic.” And the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “software or hardware that has been superseded.” In practice, IT managers would like to stop supporting “legacy software” and discard it. Sound familiar?

It is, of course, possible that the choice of the term to describe the FDLP Historical Collections was not well thought out and no one intended to imply that the collections are problems that need to be discarded. But it is revealing that GPO’s own 2004 Strategic Vision statement not only used “legacy” to describe “printed documents,” but also said that GPO needed to reduce costs associated with the operation and maintenance of “stand alone, legacy computer systems.” This was not a mysterious, obscure word with an ambiguous meaning — even within the walls of GPO.

Legacy (adj.). Unwanted.

Thus, the use of the term “legacy” as an adjective to describe print FDLP collections reflects a particular attitude (one might even say a bias) about the FDLP Historical Collections. It defines the FDLP Historical Collections as out-of-date, unnecessary, and unwanted. Using this term pre-determines the fate of the collections. Those who use this term are expressly saying that they have already decided that they want to throw the collections away – even if they say that what they want is better access.

Using such terminology helps explain why the discussions about these collections have not focused on their intrinsic value, or their value to specific user communities, or the quality of the digital surrogates being used to replace (not supplement) them. Instead, the discussion has returned to a single question again and again and again: How many copies should we keep? – which is the wrong question.

Digitize and Discard

The phrase fits in well with ARL’s long-term advocacy of digitizing paper collections and then discarding them. See for example its 2008 report in which it proposed “a small number of physical regional legacy collections” and its 2010 report when it recommended that there should be “a distributed system for storage of print legacy collections that involves no more than 15 regionally distributed comprehensive print collections.” These recommendations to discard Historical Collections in order to reduce the number of paper copies in the FDLP are not supported with any evidence that such policies will either meet the needs of our communities or preserve the written record of the government.

Let me be clear. I am not an advocate of saving print collections for the sake of print collections. Tautologies are not useful for planning. But, in the same way, vague promises to enhance access through digitization are also not useful. Vague promises need to be backed up with procedures to minimize the risk of loss of information and long-term planning that provides adequate resources for preservation, access, and service. As James R. Jacobs and I have repeatedly argued (see endnotes), decisions about retention and discarding need to be premised on the needs of our communities and the ability of libraries to preserve and provide free access to the FDLP collections. Just labeling the collections as unwanted and out of date may be a clever way to try to persuade librarians to discard their collections without examining the outcomes of doing so. But labeling without evidence is not an application of Library and Information Science. It is rhetorical misdirection.

Libraries are free to digitize their collections (and they should!). If enhanced access is the goal, this can be done today without unnecessarily discarding a single document. But ARL and their supporters have been adamant that digitization must be linked to “flexibility … for the efficient management of the legacy collections” and reducing the number of print copies by requiring only a “small number of physical regional legacy collections (print and microforms).” And some libraries are using digitization as an excuse and a technique for discarding.

A better term: FDLP Historical Collections

I suggest that librarians use the term “FDLP Historical Collections.”

“Historical” because these documents tell us something about the past. Indeed, these documents are also, in a very real sense, “historic” in that they are the unique official record of our democracy.

“Collections” (plural) because we have many separate collections – not one big one – and we do not have an accurate and complete inventory of holdings across all FDLP libraries that would allow us to call it a single “collection.”

Legacy (noun). Gift, Inheritance.

I think it is fine to use the word “legacy” as a noun when speaking of our historical collections because they have been handed down to us. They are more like a valuable inheritance than an unwanted copy of WordStar. Who will preserve and take care of this legacy? Only FDLP libraries have this as their mission. Only FDLP libraries are responsible for the stewardship of this legacy.

For us to discard those paper publications without ensuring the accurate and complete preservation of the information in them would be to discard a valuable inheritance and ignore our responsibility.


Words matter. Library professionals are supposed to be professional and should be clear and unambiguous when they choose their terminology. This is important when making plans for the future and it is even more important when the planning involves irreversible decisions. Librarians should reject the use of the term “legacy collection” when discussing the FDLP Historical Collections and challenge those who use it.

But choosing a different term is not enough. We should clearly articulate both the inherent value of the FDLP Historical Collections and their specific value to our designated communities.

The documents in the FDLP Historical Collections may not exist anywhere outside of FDLP libraries. Even Judy Russell had to admit that discarding paper collections without a clear preservation and access strategy can be a big mistake. In her remarks to ARL in 2003, Russell said:

Many years ago GPO turned over its historical collection to the National Archives and almost immediately we began to regret the absence of a tangible collection. We have decided to re-establish a comprehensive collection of tangible and electronic documents as a collection of last resort for the program, and the new organization will dedicate staff resources to that effort.

Unfortunately, there has, apparently, been little progress in rebuilding GPO’s paper collection as a Collection of Last Resort. Instead, GPO is actively promoting changes that will make it easier to discard more paper collections.

While individual documents or volumes may exist elsewhere, FDLP libraries have collections that put those individual documents in context of their provenance. Although casual internet users may not understand the value of context and provenance, librarians do (or should) and researchers require it. Before FDLP libraries use digitization as an excuse and a technique for discarding these collections, librarians should insist on several essential criteria. My colleague James R. Jacobs has developed a preliminary checklist in his What Are We To Keep? (FAQ). Let’s think about that checklist and think carefully before we assign pejorative labels to our valuable legacy.


Association of Research Libraries. 2008. Future Directions for the Federal Depository Library Program (Dec 4, 2008).

Association of Research Libraries. 2010. Statement of Principles on the Federal Depository Library Program (October 2010).

Center for Research Libraries. 2004. Building Blocks of a National Print Preservation Network. Focus on Global Resources, Vol. 24, Num. 1 (Fall 2004).

Depository Library Council. 2004. Advice to the Public Printer (January 22, 2004).

Federal Depository Library Program. 2014. Future Roles and Opportunities: An FDLP Forecast Study Working Paper (March 28, 2014).

GODORT. 2002. Report: Digitization Of Government Information. Ad Hoc Committee on Digitization Of Government Information, Cathy Nelson Hartman Committee Chair (June 14, 2002).

GODORT. 2004. First Steering Committee Meeting Agenda. 2004. ALA Midwinter Conference, San Diego, Friday, January 9, 2004.

Jacobs, James A. and James R. Jacobs. 2013. The Digital-Surrogate Seal of Approval: a Consumer-oriented Standard. D-Lib Magazine (2013).

Jacobs, James A. 2015. “An alarmingly casual indifference to accuracy and authenticity.” What we know about digital surrogates. FreeGovInfo (March 1, 2015).

Jacobs, James A. 2015. Legacy collections. “Discussion of Government Document Issues” (25 Jun 2015).

Jacobs, James R. 2014. Why GPO’s proposed policy to allow Regionals to discard is a bad idea. FreeGovInfo (August 27, 2014).

Jacobs, James R., What are we to keep?, Documents to the People (Spring 2015).

Jacobs, James R., What Are We To Keep? (FAQ). FreeGovInfo (April 30, 2015.).

Rossmann, Brian W. 2005. Legacy Documents Collections: Separate the Wheat from the Chaff. DttP: Documents to the People Volume 33, No. 4 (Winter 2005).

Russell, Judith. 2003. Remarks by Judy Russell, 142nd ARL Membership Meeting, 142nd ARL Membership Meeting, Federal Relations Luncheon (May 15, 2003).

Russell, Judy C. 2003. Information Dissemination Operations. Remarks by Judy C. Russell Superintendent of Documents Depository Library Conference/Fall Council Meeting October 20, 2003, Administrative Notes Vol. 24, no. 13 (November 15, 2003).

Russell, Judy C. 2004. Remarks of Superintendent of Documents Depository Library Conference St. Louis, Missouri (April 18, 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. 2004. A Strategic Vision for the 21st Century, (Dec. 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. 2004. Report on the Meeting of Experts on Digital Preservation. U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. (March 12, 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. Office of Information Dissemination. 2005. Information Dissemination Implementation Plan: Priorities For Digitization Of Legacy Collection. Washington, D.C. (September 15, 2005).

Freegovinfo receives 2015 GODORT “Documents to the People (DttP)” award

FGI-gangLast night, Daniel Cornwall and James R. Jacobs were honored to be on hand to receive the 2015 GODORT “Documents to the People (DttP)” award for Free Government Information.

Free Government Information has been chosen as the recipient of the 2015 ProQuest/GODORT/ALA “Documents to the People” Award. This award is a tribute to an individual, library, institution, or other non-commercial group that has most effectively encouraged the use of government documents in support of library service. FGI epitomizes the spirit of the DttP Award by creating an open, public dialogue and building a diverse community. By moving the conversation to more social technologies, FGI has changed the way we think about preserving access to government information. As one letter of support noted, “FGI fills a gap between the specialized and frequently technical discussions taking place on the listserv and the more public conversations that are taking place with librarians of other specializations, professionals and advocates from other disciplines and backgrounds, and even the wider public.” The DttP Award recognizes the work of the many FGI volunteers who, for ten years, have dedicated themselves to advocating for permanent no-fee public access to government information.

FGI volunteers shown here (clockwise from upper left) Daniel Cornwall, Jim Jacobs, James Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo, Rebecca Stockbridge, James Staub.

We were given the opportunity to say a few words, so thought we’d share our statement in its entirety below. We were so surprised and honored to receive this award. It’s a good feeling that 11 years of work with FGI have had some positive effect on the Documents community. Thanks!


11 years ago this october, Jim Jacobs, James Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo and an unnamed person who wishes to remain anonymous were having dinner. We were discussing the future of govtinfo and brainstorming about how to change the conversation in the community. We had begun to notice some disturbing trends.

Under the pervasive myth that the new digital enviroment transcended and rendered moot the roles of libraries in access to govinfo, some libraries had begun questioning and dismantling the very fibers of the FDLP and public access to govt information by abandoning their traditional govinfo roles and repurposing their documents experts billets. To challenge the myth and to engage in a broader dialogue with both the wider library community as well as other stakeholder communities, the three of us had just written an article in Journal of Academic Librarianship about the once and future FDLP, in response to the trends we were seeing. We were really trying to push back against what we saw as libraries’ complicity in the erosion of the FDLP and public access to govt information.

I wish we could say that we’ve accomplished our goals and moved on to other projects. However, after 11 years, we’re still fighting for these same issues, dispelling the myths of what communication scholar Vincent mosco called the “digital sublime:” the almost religious fervor that technology would magically deliver democracy to the masses and that libraries no longer needed to work at collecting, describing, giving access to, and preserving govt info but could simply rely on GPO, commercial vendors and others besides libraries.

After that evening of discussion, FGI was born and the blog was started soon after. We quickly doubled our “staff” when Daniel Cornwall, Rebecca Troy Horton and James Staub joined us.

The bad news is that we are still facing tremendous challanges and tasks as the issues surrounding gov info become ever more complicated. The good news is that you all still have plenty of opportunities to participate to assure publicly controlled long-term access to govinfo.

We may have charred a few bridges over the years, but if this award is any testiment, we’ve also made a lot of friends and comrades to the cause of freegovinfo and for that we thank you!


Like James, I’m very grateful that GODORT has honored FGI on the past decade’s worth of work. This is a good time to look ahead to the next ten years. We believe that the work of maintaining a system of permanently accessible government information at no cost to the user will require an active partnership among libraries and other non-profit institutions of good will. Otherwise, only that which has tangible market value will be preserved, with access at a price.

What can you do to help ensure a positive future in government information? Some things we think are in the reach of libraries and other non profits are:

– Advocating for users. Being user centric is more than throwing a user icon on the center of a chart. How do your users look at government information? What are they missing if they’re not? Help put the right information in front of the right people.

  • Participate in finding/reporting fugitive documents. Host the stuff you find on your own servers or through an archiving service.
  • Think about joining the LOCKSS-USDOCS group that is currently the only archive of FDSys outside Federal hands.
  • Build local digital collections under your administrative control. Pointing is not maintaining access. We learned this during the last government shutdown.
  • Work with other librarians in your state to plan for how you’ll serve up federal information for when the next government shutdown happens. Let’s not be taken by surprise again.

If we’re willing to pull together and do what we can, the next ten years will look bright for government information. Thank you.


Happy 800th birthday Magna Carta

Magna CartaHappy 800th birthday Magna Carta the “Great Charter” agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215, and the basis for constitutions around the world.

but that was 800 years ago. How does this relate to today you ask? Check out Historian Peter Linebaugh’s interview on DemocracyNow about the connection between the Magna Carta and “Black Lives Matter” movement.

And then see how the Magna Carta has been updated for the 21st century by the British Library and 3000 young people who came up with 500 clauses they would like to see in such a document.

The Top 10 most popular clauses so far:

  1. The Web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information
  2. The Web we want will allow freedom of speech
  3. The Web we want will be free from government censors in all countries
  4. The Web we want will not allow any kind of government censorship
  5. The Web we want will be available for all those who wish to use it
  6. The Web we want will be free from censorship and mass surveillance
  7. The Web we want will allow equal access to knowledge, information and current news worldwide
  8. The Web we want will have freedom of speech
  9. The Web we want will not be censored by the government
  10. The Web we want will not sell our personal information and preferences for money, and will make it clearer if the company/Website intends to do so

It’s Time to Publish CRS Reports

We have long advocated for public access to reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress’ think tank. But CRS reports are little known and difficult to find because they are not distributed to FDLP libraries or made public — I harvest them up from sites around the ‘net that post them when they can, but it’s pretty random.

But now, thanks to the tireless efforts of Daniel Schuman, our friend and colleague and others at the Congressional Data Coalition, public access to CRS reports seems to be gathering steam. The NY Times published an editorial yesterday entitled “Congressional Research Belongs to the Public”. There are 2 legislative efforts underway in the House and Senate to make these valuable but difficult-to-find-or-even-know-about reports publicly available. Librarians have been fighting for this forever. Now it finally looks like it might just happen!

Over the years our coalition has submitted testimony in favor of public access to these reports, most recently in March. In summary, the reports explain current legislative issues in language that everyone can understand, are written by a federal agencies that receives more than $100 million annually, and there is strong public demand for access. A detailed description of the issues at play is available here.

This congress, two legislative efforts are underway to make CRS reports public. First, the bipartisan H. Res. 34, introduced by Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL), would make all reports widely distributed in Congress available to the public, except confidential memoranda and advice provided by CRS at the request of a member. Second, Rep. Quigley offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have required CRS to make available an index of all of its reports. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate in prior years.


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