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Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program

by James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs and Shinjoung Yeo. Published in the May, 2005 issue of Journal of Academic Librarianship. We would greatly appreciate it if, after reading this article, you post a comment. We’d like to collect all comments for collective input to Depository Library Council.

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Rapid technological change has caused some to question the need for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). We argue that the traditional roles of FDLP libraries in selecting, acquiring, organizing, preserving, and providing access to and services for government information are more important than ever in the digital age.

In the United States, there are deeply rooted values that a democracy requires an informed citizenry, that government must be accountable to its citizens, and that citizens therefore must have full, free, easy access to information about the activities of their government.1 These values have led to the creation of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), Government Printing Office (GPO), and the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP)2 to facilitate this process.

Over the last several years, developments in publishing and Internet technologies have affected the way government information is produced, disseminated, controlled, and preserved. These changes have affected the policies and procedures of the GPO and, in turn, have affected the depository library program. Despite the often-heard promises that these new technologies will bring more information to more people more quickly and easily, the actual effects have been decidedly mixed. The few highly visible, short-term successes of rapid dissemination of single titles directly to citizens (e.g., the large number of downloads of the 9/11 report3) mask the loss of a secure infrastructure for long-term preservation of and access to government information.4

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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. I saw your article posted on GOVDOC-L, and read it. It’s wonderful; thank you for writing it.

    The one issue that you didn’t raise is the role of depository librarians as an active constituency for GPO. Government documents librarians have been a vocal and useful constituency for GPO for as many years as I’ve been a librarian. I wonder what will happen when, in the future, Congress cuts GPO’s budget and GPO looks for people to champion its work. They will not have the documents librarians to count on for support. When that happens, where will GPO go for help, and what will the lack of a documents librarian constituency mean to GPO for their long-term survival as an agency? In this scenario, cutting out the FDLP will require GPO to look for other constituencies … but who wants GPO in the picture at all, except for librarians? Without librarians defending GPO and the FDLP, access to government information will not be the job of GPO for long. It will be decentralized to the agencies. Which is why we will need libraries and librarians to maintain the long-term access to government information.

    Anyway, again, thank you for posting your article.

    Katrina Stierholz

  2. Dear Colleagues:

    Thank you so much for sharing the preprint of your article which will soon appear in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (1). It is the clearest analysis I have yet seen of Public Printer Bruce James’ strategic “vision” (2). Though your article is blunt, it necessarily confirms a reality we must now all face. Along with you I must regrettably conclude that the GPO has no real intention of maintaining public access anymore though depository libraries, and has every intention of getting cash for its services to all comers, including libraries.

    A foreign commentator allegedly said that whenever four or more American strangers meet overseas they immediately elect a President, a Vice President, a Secretary and a Treasurer. This back-handed compliment addressed our natural ability to organize because we have the confidence to do so, and to initiate action, derived from our own sense of authority. Librarians certainly epitomize this spirit!

    So I am a little buoyed up by recalling two things. One is the establishment of the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) decades ago. Public agencies were evidently not going to take on the role as preservers and access brokers of scarce materials, so libraries took matters into their own hands and formed their own consortium, the CRL, which exists today. Now please “fast forward” and note what happened when the federal government, as “sole source,” recently withdrew a number of public documents from the web for very questionable reasons. Some depositories had already downloaded and thus “preserved” them for the public, on their own!

    Following this idea to its logical conclusion, there is nothing to stop the formation of a consortium within the library community to buy a single copy of every newly offered digital public document. Once it is in the consortium’s database it is under decentralized control and freedom of access is again maintained. Since under Title 44 such documents are by definiton in the public domain, it is perfectly legal.

    It is demeaning to see librarians now pleading with the Joint Committee on Printing and virtually begging at GPO’s door. But this is a two-way street. GPO does not alone have the privilege of dissolving the time-honored partnership with libraries. We have the right to — and perhaps now the obligation — to form our own “depository” system, for the good of the nation. I hope you will deem this model worthy of serious discussion.

    Frank Wihbey
    Head, Government Documents and Microforms Department
    (Tri-State Regional Document Depository and
    GeoScan Spatial and Numeric Data Service)
    Raymond H. Fogler Library
    University of Maine

  3. I stongly suggest that you not implement any access model that does not allow full access by any internet user to all the material that you can publish.

    It may be that you would implement an Ad supported model, thru Ad-Gateways or Key-word ads or ask for contributions from your readers, but in the final analysis the full availability to your material on the internet is such a public good that it must be enabled not limited.

    I would ask to have an estimate as to what the cost of providing such access so that we could determine how much money we need to ensure that you get to permit such access.

    Also I would suggest that, reguardless of whether you can host the information or not, you make all of it available at reasonable costs to any other person or group who wanted it and ensure that the re-posting/hosting of it is permitted at no cost with no restrictions.


  4. “freedom is participation in power” – Cicero

    The inability to access information necessary to do individual or group diligence on government mandates, directives, legislations, budgets, etc. *necessarily* limits freedom. Limiting freedom of access to information limits the transparency required in a high quality democracy. My hope is that the present FDLP trends will be reconsidered.

  5. Jacobs, Jacobs and Yeo article

    I found the article to be extremely clearly articulated and VERY interesting. I have felt for some time to be in agreement with the folks that have been asking for deposit of electronic docs with FDLP libraries, but have not ever seen the arguments in favor of this approach so well presented. I wish I could go to the meeting in Albuquerque and hear the discussions that the article is sure to provoke. I hope that those who do attend will see that the substance of these discussions is made available on govdoc-l.

    I am from a small library but we are certainly willing to do our part in a brave new FDLP if GPO would but give us the chance. And if it should turn out that only larger libraries would be able to participate directly in such a system, I still think that we small fry can contribute positively to public access by cooperating with our larger cousins in outreach, links, finding aids, etc. We feel just as strongly about the issues of decentralization, privacy rights, authenticity concerns, etc. as do the large research libraries.

    Good luck in pressing these arguments with GPO at the Council Meeting. I will be with you there in spirit!

    By Kathleen L. Amen

  6. “In fact, in the digital environment, a system in which the responsibility of preservation and access is shared among distributed depository libraries will provide a better, more secure environment than a monolithic, government-controlled database.” I wonder why GPO can not grasp this vision for the future of FDLP. Instead, they are bogged down by “Essential Titles…” and “Tangible products”! I found the DLC conference in Albuquerque provided no fresh ideas and missed the point. The technology is available for depository libraries to collaborate and establish a distributed seemless depository library system if only GPO would “deposit” electronic files instead just provide “public access”. Print on demand is a good concept and let the individual libraries to decide what “tangible products” they need for their own collections.
    More surveys of “Essential titles…” will not bring any concensus among different types of libraries and will again be a waste of time.

  7. For a fute project that I am working on I made an investigation into obtaining an XML feed for all historical congressional activity ever. I am disgusted to realize already that no such feed will ever apparently exist, especially considering the GPO wont discover XML until 2007. What is that red-tape bullshit? I was even further disgusted to realize that the government wants to charge 20 thousand dollars for something they’re required to make anyway. I want to puke my guts out.

    I agree with you Frank Wihbey, we need to make something happen for ourselves. What do we need to do? If wikipedia can exist, why can we convert all records into an xml format working on new material immediatly and working backwards over time. How can we split the asinine charge our enlightened government workers have imposed on the people who, excuse my cliche, pay their bills.

    I’m up for throwing in some instant programming, maybe even a few bucks off my studen wages. this is not a hard concept we’re dealing with.

    this isnt rocket science, here are the steps:

    1. make a Document Type Definition that works with all govenment-type descisions. agree on a working first-generation format in a week or so.

    2. pay for the sgml files which are sure to be ill-formed

    3. convert and insert into a database that spits out work files so whoever is in the club can start doing their converting work.

    4. put the data into a downloadable format so we can all use it freely and without charge.

    5. we’re done, and we didnt even break a sweat because instead of talking about it for 5 years, we actually did it.

  8. Thank you for sharing your preprint article with all of us. It confirmed some things I knew, and taught me much I did not know.

    As a professor of media and media history at a large university, my students and I are constantly consulting historical records, records that seem to be jeopardy these days. I wholeheartedly support a public dialogue about the issues raised by the authors and find myself in full agreement with the 5 criteria for an FDLP of the future:

    1. Information is available and fully functional to all without charge.
    2. Information is easy to find and use.
    3. Information is verifiably authentic.
    4. Information is preserved for future access and use in a distributed system of digital depository libraries.
    5. Privacy of information-users is ensured so that citizens can freely use government information without concern that what they read will be subject to disclosure or examination.

    Thank you for your efforts on this crucial development.

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