Home » Library » Government Documents at the Crossroads [2001]

Government Documents at the Crossroads [2001]

by Karrie Peterson, Elizabeth Cowell, and Jim Jacobs
American Libraries (Sept 2001) vol. 32 no. 8 p. 52-55.

The Internet and modern technologies have brought us to a crossroads, one that threatens the public’s continued ability to access government information, as well as jeopardizes the permanent preservation of that information.

These technologies have brought into question the traditional (and highly effective) program for getting federal government information into the hands of the public–the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). New policies and practices for the FDLP have recently been adopted, and proposals for a major reorganization of the program are being floated. Various interests–politicians, librarians, the information industry–have differing views of the dissemination of government information to citizens. We need to ensure that wise choices are made–choices that ensure the right of every citizen to free, timely access.

Librarians have always viewed federal information policy issues in the context of their fundamental belief in the rights of a people to find out what their government is doing, or to reap the benefits of research, data collection, or other information activities conducted at the public expense. We respect the needs of library users to obtain information in a timely way, as well as the long-term needs of scholars and others to study and assess the official documentary history of our nation. In this view, the responsibility of our federal government to provide for information access is based on the beliefs of President James Madison, who wrote in 1822:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Today, an epochal change in government publishing practices–moving from paper to online access–could jeopardize the federal government’s ability to keep the people informed. We must be vigilant if we are to ensure that new technology is used to expand rather than endanger the citizen access that Madison held in such high regard. In making the transition to e-government, we must look beyond the technological fanfare and examine carefully the decisions being made for our nation by politicians.

FDLP facts

The Federal Depository Library Program, which began in 1861, now distributes free official copies of government documents and publications to some 1,350 designated libraries across the land. The program grew out of the Madisonian belief that a strong democracy depended on the right of citizens to inform themselves about their government.

The Printing Act of 1895 also played a key role by establishing bibliographic control over government information through the Monthly Catalog and vastly increasing the types of government publications required for inclusion in depository distributions.

This basic arrangement has survived many difficulties, including an enormous growth in government printing in the 1970s, severe and often politically motivated cutbacks in collecting and publishing information in the 1980s and 1990s, and new formats from microfiche to CD-ROM.

Many recent trends have come to a head in the past year, starting with the annual battle over congressional appropriations. Continuing a decades-long march to cut the fat from government, some legislators proposed drastic cuts in the funding for the Government Printing Office (GPO), out of which the depository program is run. The House of Representatives especially proved themselves eager to save our money by defunding the agency most responsible for enabling our access to government publications. Although a significant public outcry reduced the size of the cuts, the funding reduction has pushed the GPO into making devastating cuts in the depository program. The shocking news is that the GPO will no longer provide paper (or other tangible format) documents to the 1,350 overlapping depository collections and there will now (with few exceptions) be only electronic access via the Web to government publications. This move, forced on depository libraries before problems of bibliographic control and permanent publ ic access are solved, drastically undermines citizens’ ability to make use of government information for which they have already paid.

The Superintendent of Documents issued a new policy statement October 15,2000, on dissemination through the FDLP. The key element of the policy is that “the primary method of making publications available to the Federal Depository Library Program is online dissemination.” Apart from a core list of some 40 essential publications, very few documents or publications will be distributed as part of the depository program; depository libraries will now mostly be pointing to their “collection” as electronic items on government servers. Some of these electronic publications will be on servers at the GPO, and some will be linked to by the GPO but remain on the Web sites of their agency “publishers.”

Pondering the problems

This is not entirely malign. Electronic publishing is user-friendly in many ways. The Internet offers 24/7 accessibility from many locations, keyword searching, quick availability of timely documents, shelf-space savings in our libraries, and so on. Sophisticated technology watchers, though, already anticipate the many problems with this new model:

  • When access is limited to a single electronic collection, there is no access when the GPO servers go down (as they do from time to time).
  • When the government controls the only authentic copy of a document, there is nothing to prevent the government from intentionally or unintentionally corrupting, modifying, or even deleting that document, thus preventing access or changing the historical record.
  • When a single electronic collection replaces 1,350 depository collections, the wide variety of selection, collection, and retention policies that address the needs of different communities is replaced with a single policy. Is this one-size-fits-all collection adequate for a diverse nation?
  • When a government agency, short of funds, decides which publications are worthy of being distributed in print, will those decisions reflect citizen needs or will they reflect agency economics?
  • Who will enforce the preservation of publications when the agency decides to remove a document from its Web site?
  • Now that Congress has saved money by reducing the GPO budget, will it increase the budgets of those agencies that now must pay the cost of making their publications accessible on the Web?
  • Is technology stabilized to the point where we are really saving money from a mostly online dissemination process, or are we shortsightedly sacrificing daily reliability and long-term access?
  • What new barriers will be faced by those without computers who want to access government information?

Another fundamental issue that we must examine is that of the longstanding tradition of free government information. Any librarian who lived through the privatization frenzy of the 1980s knows that free government information comes at the price of eternal vigilance. Recently, for-profit companies have proposed that many services of e-government–so convenient for citizens–are the province of the private sector. An October 2000 report from the Computer and Communications Industry Association has even gone so far as to suggest that it would be wrong for the IRS to offer free online tax preparation software to citizens because it would compete with the value that can be gained by commercial tax preparers and tax attorneys! Sadly, some misguided politicians and bureaucrats even now use the lucrative sales of government information to the private sector to supplement their budgets. They do not see that they are forcing citizens to pay twice for information: once with their tax money for the collection of the inf ormation and again with user fees for access to the information.

These problems and as-yet-unresolved questions are important, but they are not nearly as vital as this question: What will it mean for our nation to shift from a tradition of widely dispersed, locally owned and controlled collections of government publications, organized and preserved by dedicated and public-service-oriented librarians, to a system in which the government holds and controls most of our government information?

It is true that we have not gone very far down this road–yet. Let us imagine what the future might hold for government information.

Think for a moment about the multidimensional nature of government information. Government publications can be the basis for interactive services such as filing taxes, submitting a bid to sell goods or services to an agency, and voting in elections. Government publications are also a documentary record of official behavior and enable the citizenry to influence proposed policies, respond to actions taken, or assess events years down the road. Government information also includes the fair and open publication of the laws and regulations by which we all have agreed to abide. Research funded at the public expense and reported back to the funding agency is also part of the picture. Lastly, there are the many publications that are ephemeral in nature but produced for the convenience of all-for example, pamphlets about the National Parks.

Ticklish questions

Taking a broader view and looking at all types of government information poses some ticklish questions: Are we going to be truly comfortable with an arrangement in which controversial reports are suddenly yanked from executive agency Web sites when corporations named in the reports push the right political levers? Do we really want to place ourselves in the position of having to mount nationwide protests to restore such items that could have been part of our local library collections if they had been deposited in our local libraries?

An even more disturbing hypothetical scenario involves subtle “editing” of documents housed on agency servers without anyone being the wiser. If you think that is unlikely, consider for a moment the Congressional Record–supposedly the daily record of what is spoken in the House or the Senate, but subject to after the-fact revision by any senator or representative who wants to reshape his or her remarks, or even insert items never alluded to on the floor. Equally problematic is the possibility of newer versions of data being quietly inserted into a published report, causing incalculable scholarly confusion.

In July, the Government Printing Office backed off from a threat to recall a controversial volume documenting U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Indonesia’s first president, Achmed Sukarno (see News Fronts Washington, this issue). If the document had been available only through a government Web site, it seems much more likely that the agency would have carried through its plan.

Should we worry so much about government control of government information, given that we live in such a benevolent democracy? Or do we enjoy our democratic rights precisely because people throughout our history have worried about too much government control?

These are the problems with the new FDLP policies. What are the solutions? It is unlikely that the government will be willing to eschew the tremendous advantages of online publication until all problems are satisfactorily addressed. One solution, then, is to treat new digital publications within the framework of the depository program in the same way as we have treated other publishing changes: We should adapt our libraries to include electronic files of government publications and include them in our growing digital collections. Instead of only providing access to Web-based documents, the GPO could acquire and make available for selection by depositories the digital versions of government documents. With multiple copies available for inspection across the land, in the same way as in the world of paper-and-ink publishing, the government would still have the responsibility to disseminate its information, but we would retain local control.

In addition to solving many of the problems enumerated above, this approach would provide other advantages. Multiple copies, physically deposited at libraries, give us an automatic preservation hedge against loss or corruption of the “last copy” of any particular item. Having multiple collections throughout the nation, each responsible to a particular group of users, would also ensure that every document that is of value to some constituency would find a long-term home and not be subject to being discarded as being of marginal value from a single, monolithic, national, government-controlled collection.

These distributed collections also have a strength that a single, national collection that includes only government information cannot have. Each of the many libraries with depository collections also has other nongovernment publications that provide a more complete and accurate record of any given subject. Such nongovernment publications include private-sector products that help people use government information as well as journals, monographs, technical reports, and other publications from nongovernment sources.

Who will decide which course we take? Library users are not likely to be the first to sound the alarm as complex technical decisions begin to mask encroachment on their access to free government information. It is more likely that librarians will be the first to notice when government data arrives wrapped inside the proprietary software of a private company condemning it to a short lifespan; or when the document we accessed from an agency Web site yesterday is gone today; or when our OPACs begin to fill with records containing bad URLS, or when a report mysteriously loses a chapter that it had a week ago; or when the collection of some key economic data is farmed out to a commercial firm, available from its Web site as long as it is profitable to the company to provide it.

It would be nice to think that technological advances automatically contribute to improved access to government information and that we are all marching to the beat of the same drummer in putting technology to use. Sadly, the truth is that there is nothing automatic about technology here– the same social, political, and economic forces that we balanced in the print world of government information are still at play in the electronic realm. Because the pronouncements and policy decisions being made are cloaked in technological jargon, it is too easy to miss the political implications of the policies and fail to see how our rights to gain access to government information are affected.

Fighting for access

If librarians are to provide the leadership for citizens in this fight for access to government information, we will have to accomplish several things: We must understand that technical decisions are political and public-policy decisions. The fight is not about technology but about policy. We will have to be bold in our questioning of government policies and practices and outspoken in response to bad policy changes. We must not excuse bad policies as if they are the only possible response to funding cuts, and we must hold Congress accountable for how it allocates our money. We will have to use our professional organizations effectively to educate ourselves about the real implications of technological advances for our users. We will have to become much better at educating and organizing our users–be they researchers, students, journalists, faculty, citizen activists, or the public at large. We need to form alliances with other groups who monitor federal information policy. We must develop our own vision of w hat the FDLP should look like in the new millennium in order to provide the democratic protections that our fellow citizens deserve.

This will not be the end of the fight either. As technology advances, government information will begin to look less like publications and more like the digital equivalent of loose-leaf services. Information will not be prepackaged as much as presented based on user requests and user profiles. The boundary between government publications and government services will blur and become difficult to define. When that happens, will we still live in a world of free public information, or will the private sector prevail in defining the government’s role as that of collecting information and the private-sector role as that of adding “value-added services” for which the public must pay? If today we give up our rights under Title 44 of the U.S. Code to have all documents, including digital ones, deposited, we will have little ground left to fight on when the more difficult battles come.

This is a tall order, no doubt about it. However, the way that librarians approach this struggle to maintain free and open access to government information will have an enormous effect on our social landscape in years to come. The fight to preserve democratic rights is just; and if the battles are hard, the rewards of success are commensurately great.


At the time this article was written, KARRIE PETERSON was government information librarian, ELIZABETH COWELL was head of data, government, and geographic information services, and JIM JACOBS was data services librarian, all at the University of California, San Diego. At the time of this posting (2007), Peterson is Director of the Edwin Ginn Library, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, Cowell is U.S. Government Documents Librarian, Stanford University Libraries, and Jacobs is Librarian Emeritus, University of California, San Diego.

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