Month of August, 2009
A recent article reports on a survey of ARL library directors and their vision of their libraries' roles in the depository library program:
- The Federal Depository Library Program in 2023: One Perspective on the Transition to the Future. Peter Hernon and Laura Saunders. College and Research Libraries, July 2009, Vol. 70, No. 4). [In the interest of academic discussion and openness, we've posted a copy of the article on FGI.]
The survey asked directors to choose among several future scenarios for the FDLP and their role of provision of government information. The authors are explicit about their intentions saying that "the study neither directly addresses whether the depository program itself will exist fifteen years hence nor offers a vision of what future will emerge after 2023." They also note that the survey explicitly focused on the question "how many libraries want to remain in the depository library program and what role do they intend to play?" This focus predetermines the outcome of the survey somewhat. It doesn't tell us what FDLP should be or how libraries could have a role in ensuring the long term, free access to government information. Instead we get a lot of information about what directors worry most about: money and resources.
The authors point out that no other study has systematically surveyed library directors for their perspective on the FDLP. This is particularly interesting given the rumors, gossip, and scuttlebutt going around about how many university librarians want to get rid of their depository collections, don't trust their depository librarians, and see depository status as costing more than it is worth.
The study reinforces some of those stereotypes and provides some evidence that some ARL library directors do indeed think that way. Sample quotes: "Several directors look forward to a time when they can 'dump the print.'" "Although some directors believe they have 'forward-thinking' documents librarians, others feel the opposite. As the director of a regional depository explains, 'the more that directors know about the program and a library's responsibilities, the less likely documents librarians can bluff about the legal obligations and seek to maintain the status quo.'" "The burden of participation in the program, including that of cost, is a recurring theme." "The directors I talk to all want to get rid of the [depository] collection and drop out of the program as soon as possible."
Not surprisingly, the directors who think that way are apparently part of the minority (13% that chose "scenario 1") who believe that libraries should withdraw from the depository program or that the program will simply wither away.
What the survey documents for the first time, however, is how much value ARL directors put in government information and digital collections. Many of the directors see government information as essential to their academic communities and have serious concerns about how to ensure its availability. Fully half the respondents envision (scenarios 3 and 4) some sort of digital collections as part of their responsibility -- either in partnership with GPO or separate from GPO if GPO does not provide adequate leadership.
While this survey is very interesting and provides much food for thought, it is far from the final word on the future of the FDLP, GPO, or government information. It leaves many questions unanswered and raises other questions. For example:
- The survey's use of the term "digital depository" is confusing at best and misleading at worst. One of the "scenarios" presented to directors in the survey describes "digital deposit" as the library providing "a digital feed of government information resources to its Web site, thereby becoming a portal for access to e-government information resources. The library receives, but does not create, digital content." We wonder how directors interpreted this? Did they think that "receiving" digital content meant getting copies of digital files that they would keep in a digital collection? Or did they think that "providing a feed" and "becoming a portal" was a passive job of pointing to content at GPO or elsewhere? The article does not make this clear and we would have to guess that directors may not have provided responses that we can interpret consistently. (And, we would have to ask the authors, whose work we respect, why they chose the outdated word, indeed the outdated concept, "portal"? Does anyone really believe that users want or will use "portals" anymore?)
- Another term that is used in a confusing way in the article (at least I was confused by it) is the term "dark archive." We normally associate this with digital archives such as Portico (which archives digital copies of journal articles but is "dark" because no one can see the articles unless a particular kind of event -- such as a publisher going out of business -- allows the archive to make articles available). In this article, the authors use "dark archive" in that sense but they also use it to refer to print collections that have copies of last resort. Was this confusing to the surveyed directors? Did different interpretations skew their answers?
- Some of this confusion is evidently apparent to the authors. When they analyzed the directors' comments, they discovered that there was some "imprecision" by directors in choosing a scenario. Some were unable to place their institution fully in one of the provided scenarios. There were many reasons for this, but it makes it harder for us to interpret and understand the results.
- The survey did not specifically present a scenario of real digital deposit in which GPO sends (i.e., deposits) authentic digital files to depository libraries. As noted above, the survey focused on two different but related questions: who wants to remain in the FDLP and what role do they intend to play. Combining those two questions may have further muddied the responses and left out options (e.g., true digital deposit).
- One theme mentioned several times in the article is the need for a shared digital archive of digitized materials similar to the JSTOR model. To me, this seems to be an indication that the directors value digital information, see a need for a trusted repository in addition to GPO, and would support shared responsibilities for such an archive. This should spark some good discussions at the next DLC meeting.
- The survey seems to perpetuate and even reinforce misleading concepts about the permanent availability of digital government information. Although the authors acknowledge that "government entities often do not retain all resources permanently on their homepages, and content can be difficult to find and can be subject to removal, redacting, or alteration", they also passively quote directors who say they will rely on search engines and other libraries and government web sites to provide government information for them. There are certainly some libraries (even among ARL libraries) that will not have large digital collections of government information, but the survey does an injustice by passing along these comments without follow up questions to those directors about who will ensure access.
- Another questionable idea that came out of the survey was about staffing. Several directors said "they would cease to employ separate, dedicated government documents librarians. They assume the specialized knowledge will be passed to reference librarians." Shouldn't ARL directors be thinking about the need for new skills to manage digital deposit and digital preservation and digital access to locally held files? Shouldn't they be concerned about the special skills that will be needed to locate government information and provide reference service for it if they do not have a collection that they control?
In summary, the article provides much to discuss and good opportunities for further research. It also provides some clear evidence that the rumors that ARL directors want to dump their depository collections and drop their depository status are well founded, but that these directors are in the minority. Most ARL directors highly value government information and are looking for smart, efficient ways to ensure long term access to digital collections.
[Update: 10/13/09: I've revised my thinking on the cloud as the term is loaded and doesn't really mean what I'm describing. A friend from the San Diego Supercomputer Center said, "some greybeards are going back to the original metaphor: the grid" and suggested the term "shared digital libraries" which is good. But what I'm describing is more like a biological ecosystem, the FDLP ecosystem. jrj]
Last week's GPO purl server crash should be disconcerting to both the documents community and the public at large (in fact, although the hardware's been restored, resolution is ongoing as I write). I know GPO staff are just as worried about this and are doing everything they can to fix the purl server.
"The PURL Server is currently inaccessible. GPO is working with IT staff to restore service as soon as possible. We regret any inconvenience caused by the server problems. An updated listserv will be sent once service is restored."
But in the meantime, there are 1250+ library catalogs and innumerable links to government documents that are not working. The crash of a critical piece of GPO's infrastructure brings a couple of things to mind:
1) What worries me about this is that FDsys and it's supposed upgrade in hardware/software/systems design is for all intents and purposes the same as GPOaccess. That is, FDsys is a monolith where the failure of one piece can cause the whole system to ground to a halt. As our readers know, we've been advocating for a long time for a distributed digital FDLP (a *true* "digital depository" system!). We're heartened by what we see of FDsys so far, but we need to be building a system with built-in redundancies.
I envision a collaborative and distributed system of digital content, collaborative cataloging/metadata creation, as well as technical infrastructure. With this kind of system in place, a failed purl server will only cause a momentary blip in service as a backup purl server kicks on instead of a several week+ outage. How many system degradations (WAIS) and failures (purl server) until we shift our thinking from "client-server" (with libraries decidedly on the "client" side of the equation) to "Peer-to-peer" concepts and build systems with built-in redundancies that mirror what the FDLP has been for the last 150 years? How long before we build an FDLP cloud?
FGI would like to congratulate Bert Chapman, Lori Bryant and Libby Wahl for their work which has resulted in the Purdue University Libraries Government Documents Department being the Government Printing Office's (GPO) Federal Depository Library Spotlight for August 2009. This honor is well deserved as this excerpt from GPO's citation makes clear:
The depository has subject guides, course guides, and the maintenance of an ongoing list of “Frequently Asked Questions” that are of interest to people monitoring current events.
The library’s Government Documents Web page also promotes government information through the maintenance of a "Government Documents of the Week" and "Featured Sites of the Week" section. This enables people to explore topics of current or general interest through depository resources. Visitors may not even have known that government information played a part in the topic!
The library’s efforts to connect users to government information supports not only library users, but library staff as well, since much of the information is related to current events and hence may be harder for reference staff to track down.
Finally, the depository coordinator, Bert Chapman, is committed to providing detailed subject help through listserv postings as well as through the online reference service Government Information Online (GIO). By participating in these and other initiatives, he shares his vast knowledge by providing quality information and reference services to both library users and librarians nationwide.
In addition to what GPO has cited, we at FGI would like to thank Bert Chapman for his many contributions to the GODORT Handount Exchange. His willingness to share his excellent subject guides beyond his university to the entire government information community is greatly appreciated. We have featured a number of his guides linked to the Handout Exchange.
In summing up the greatness of the Purdue Government Documents department, we can't do better than how GPO ended their citation:
For all the energy directed to educating both users and librarians alike, GPO would like to thank the Purdue University Libraries. Their willingness to share their expertise benefits us all.
Indeed. FGI salutes Bert, Lori and Libby for all that they do and wish them well in continued efforts.
Federal Courts Wary of Document-Sharing Plugin, By Ryan Singel, Wired (August 25, 2009).
Yu, a Princeton University computer science graduate student, helped code RECAP, a Firefox-only plugin that helps lawyers who use the PACER system, the government’s antiquated computer system for federal court records. With the plugin installed, the user’s browser uploads whatever documents a user looks at in PACER to an online repository hosted by the Internet Archive.
Then when the next person using RECAP searches for that file, RECAP grabs the copy, sparing the user the cost for the document.
Federal judiciary spokesman Dick Carelli says the courts are reserving judgement until they’ve had more time to study the plug-in. But that hasn’t stopped warning emails and warning notices to PACER users that spread a bit of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
I had known that the Internet Archive had submitted a response to the GPO's RFP for mass digitization. A friend just sent me the link to the proposal submitted to GPO (embedded below and here's the link to the proposal and supporting documents).
As you can probably guess, we've been pulling for the Archive to get the bid, not least of which because the Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit library and we've stated on more than one occasion that privatization of public domain government information is a very bad idea. But also, we've been heartened by the quality of the Archive's scans to date, their openness and willingness to be collaborative in their processes and data access and sharing. Those qualities certainly come through in their proposal for mass digitization -- not to mention the fact that they've actually made their proposal public!
While the award has not been officially announced, we really hope that the Archive wins the award. Perhaps GPO will name them as an official depository library and work with them not only on the "legacy" collection (there needs to be a better description of the deep and rich collections of depository libraries than the somewhat pejorative "legacy" :-| ) but on digital deposit of government documents going forward.
--that is all.
The last paragraph in Thomas Paine's 1795 essay entitled Dissertations on First Principles of Government said this:
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric holder released the confidential CIA Inspector General report entitled "Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 - October 2003). The report is not for the faint of heart, but I hope libraries will add the document to their collections. As Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti said in today's NY Times (Report Shows Tight C.I.A. Control on Interrogations):
The Central Intelligence Agency’s secret interrogation program operated under strict rules, and the rules were dictated from Washington with the painstaking, eye-glazing detail beloved by any bureaucracy.
"What every American should be made to learn about the IG Torture Report". Glenn Greenwald. Monday Aug. 24, 2009.
As a side note, I'd like to reiterate my twitter comment for those that didn't see it. PLEASE would all journalists include links and citations for supporting documents on ALL of their pieces?? The Web means that there's no excuse or need to save space. Don't make your readers have to search for supporting documents. It'll make them go away.
Released CIA Report -- post-9/11
The finalists include:
ThisWeKnow.org allows you to explore government data about your community. I did a search for my city, and it gave me a summary, but I also can look at how many people in my county were diagnosed with Cancer. Dang!
Thank goodness for data.gov and the opening up of more government data so we can make cool applications like these!
Blogband is part of the FCC’s commitment to an open and participatory process. Blogband will keep people up-to-date about the work the FCC is doing and the progress we’re making. But we want it to be a two-way conversation. The feedback, ideas, and discussions generated on this blog will be critical in developing the best possible National Broadband Plan.
As this blog demonstrates, the Internet is changing and expanding the way Americans communicate, providing them with unparalleled access to information.
Make a note: 2009 and the FCC says that their one and only blog demonstrates how the Internet is changing the way we communicate. Okay. I don't want to be petty, and I'm glad they have this blog, but did they really think that "Blog Band" was a good name? And, does the FCC logo, when you look at it out of the corner of your eye, look like a frog? Maybe I've been reading too much Pynchon and am just feeling snarky today. Sorry.
Congratulations to the FCC for entering the twentieth (oops, I mean 21st!) century!
- FCC (finally) joins blogosphere, By Leslie Cauley, USA Today (August 18, 2009)
p.s. They have a Twitter feed as well! fccdotgov.
p.p.s. Supreme Court! Are you listening!?
After reading the book
Jacoby, Susan. 2008. The age of American unreason. New York: Pantheon Books.
and reading this about our beloved Constitution:
“More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights; 42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that “the first language of the United States is English”; and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion. The young are even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About half of adults–but just 41 percent of teenagers–can name the three branches of government.”
I decided to devote Mondays on my personal blog to exposing people to the Constitution one article at a time. I'm using official text from the National Archives and I'm trying not to do a lot of commentary. I think this might be a good thing to do for librarians around the country. If you do add commentary, try to customize it for your audience.
Maybe if our nation understood its Constitution better, it would be more interested in defending it. Call me quixotic, but it is worth a try. If you decide to join me on Constitution Mondays, please leave a comment here or on my introductory post.
In trying to decide where to start our blog, we have been discussing all the different topics that interest us related to government information, but that discussion leads us from one corner of the earth to another. Issues of information access are central to just about any aspect of governance, from the neighborhood watch to the United Nations. So we thought perhaps it would be best to start with a few personal reflections and opinions.
Readers who know us, know that we are strong advocates for permanent public access to government information. It seems counterintuitive to those of us grew up in a time when, for the cost of a few good sneezes, we could dig up just about anything from the dusty bowels of our favorite research library. But permanent access is something we cannot take for granted in a time when a small agency that has little interaction with the public can press a button and delete a good chunk of its history without stirring up any notice -- yet it’s double-edged sword. The technology that makes it so easy for valuable information to disappear also empowers all of us to participate in a truly democratic process at a global scale like never before.
In this modern information universe, of course, the only way to begin any inquiry is with a Google search. So let’s see what we get.
"Free Government Information" returns 24,300 hits, topped off by ours truly. A quick scan down the list shows that the bulk of the hits are to sites discussing or linking to FGI, so it’s only somewhat enlightening. One thing that pops out to us is the fact that people are using the terms "open government," "transparency," and "free government information" interchangeably and differently depending on context. You see quotes like "open government leads to transparency," while others take transparency as an element of open government. Of course the bulk of them are political in nature, concentrating on government information policy, from the radicals at Radical Reference to pretty tame municipal government sites on open meetings. But some interesting snippets caught our eye.
There’s a conspiracy website whose motto is "Those who are unaware are unaware that they are unaware." Our first inclination is to shrug it off, but it’s something to make note of. In the current public debate over health care reform, it’s fascinating to see how deeply these kinds of ideas affect -- at times it seems, even steer the public debate. Even if we can’t take these ideas themselves seriously, the fact that so many people take them very seriously and consider them the main point of connection between their lives and the government is sobering, and vital to a clear understanding of our political landscape. The fact that a search of "free government information" places this near the top of the list is telling.
We are scanning for other weird, fun, and offbeat sites to cover in the next few posts. Until then …