*Update October 21,2005: James R. Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo, and Danial Cornwall were invited to speak at the Nevada Library Association Annual Conference. Here's Shinjoung's panel presentation about access and government information.
What do we mean when we say we want access to government information? What is government information? What is access? These are serious questions that can affect the debate on full public access to government information.
What we call "government information" is produced by many sources and in many formats; but in our view any information activity that is taxpayer funded is government information. That is, if government paid for the information to be collected and produced, it should be considered government information. This includes reports, journals, databases and other products a government has funded. People like to say that "It's the people's money." We say that "It's the people's information." Aside from very narrow exceptions for personal privacy and honest national security concerns, we believe the public is entitled to what it has paid for.
Having loosely defined "government information", let us turn to "access." Access can be defined as connecting a citizen with information produced by her government. This could mean the citizen finds a government publication or requests a public record.
In the old days before the Internet, access was easy to define. You had access to a publication if either it was deposited in a library, or if the issuing agency provided you with a copy of their publication. This was after you learned that the publication existed, either by consulting a library or seeing a publication announcement in local media. On the down side, relatively few people could actually use government information because only person could access a given item at a given library. On the plus side, government agencies found it next to impossible to alter or destroy every single copy of a publication it no longer wished to be public. Also, a disaster in one city or even in Washington DC itself wouldn't affect the country's access to the publication. There would likely be at least one library that still had the item.
The Internet changed everything for both good and bad. The good news was that now millions of people could access the same government document simultaneously. Also, people didn't have to wait for publications to be shipped out of Washington, DC. With some exceptions, people pretty much had equal access to the information.
The bad news is that in many cases we are left with one, or perhaps two, digital copies of documents under Federal control. This leaves government information with the following vulnerabilities:
- A natural disaster or terror attack that eliminated Washington DC would remove electronic federal information from the public domain.
- A future cash-strapped government might decide to charge for access to taxpayer funded information.
- The government can, and already has limited simultaneous access to some government resources to one or two people at a time per library (i.e. StatUSA).
- Government agencies may choose to remove public information from the Internet without public process. This has already happened
- Government agencies or hackers could alter or corrupt copies of taxpayer funded reports and data.
There is more that can be said about access. Check this space for updates to this article.
For further exploration try...
- ALA Task Force on Restrictions on Access to Government Information
- OMB Watch: Information and Access
- Open the Government
If you would like to locate one of the items below in a library, just click on the title of the book or journal. If the item is not held by a library near you, ask your local library to borrow it through Interlibrary Loan.
- Feinberg, Lotte E. FOIA, federal information policy, and information availability in a post-9/11 world.
Government Information Quarterly, 2004, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p439, 22p.
- Kennedy, Shirley Duglin On the Net, Off the Net. Information Today, Nov2004, Vol. 21 Issue 10, p17, 2p;
- Hartman, Cathy Nelson. Storage of Electronic Files of Federal Agencies That Have Ceased Operation: A Partnership for Permanent Access. Government Information Quarterly, 2000, Vol. 17 Issue 3, p299, 9p
- Hernon, Peter. (2002). United States government information : policies and sources. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
- Hernon, Peter and McClure, Charles R. (1988). Public access to government information : issues, trends, and strategies . Norword, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp
- Podesta, John and Shane, Peter M. (2004). A little knowledge : privacy, security, and public information after September 11th. New York: Century Foundation Press.
Please post suggestions for this bibliography in the comments section.