Harmonizing libraries and e-government by combining services and collections

September 1, 2015 by
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To me, it is odd, or at least ironic, that the library government information community has been studying and debating the same issues about the digital future of the FDLP for almost 20 years, without any clear resolution. I was reminded of this today when I got a request for a copy of a very brief letter to the editor of Government Information Quarterly that James and Shinjoung and I wrote five years ago. I realized that we never posted that letter here on FGI. So, today, we do so.

The letter we wrote was in response to this article by John Shuler and others in GIQ about “harmonizing” FDLP with e-government:

In that article, Shuler et al. briefly referred to two articles written before and in the very early days of FGI: our 2001 article in American Libraries and our 2005 article in Journal of Academic Librarianship.

The key points we made in those articles remain valid today. Nine years before Shuler wrote about e-government, we wrote that “The boundary between government publications and government services will blur and become difficult to define” and enumerated the problems of relying solely on the government to provide long-term free public access to government information. Before Shuler wrote about trying to “harmonize” libraries with e-government services, I wrote about how services and collections remain intrinsically connected. In 2014, when Shuler and colleagues expressed surprise that we lost access to information during a government shutdown, we pointed out that this is precisely what we had predicted for years and that there is difference between information and service. More recently, we have written about about the difference between citizens and customers, how pointing is not the same as collecting, and how born digital government information poses the real, unaddressed challenge of the digital era.

Here, then, is the complete text of our letter in response to Shuler’s 2010 article.

The authors of “Implications of harmonizing the future of the federal depository library program within e-government principles and policies” (Government Information Quarterly, 27:1) grossly mischaracterize articles that we co-authored and, by implication, they mischaracterize positions that others in the FDLP community have advocated for more than a decade.

The authors claim that we argue for “no changes in the program.” The opposite is true and the mischaracterization is worth noting because it is one of many examples of the authors confusing library roles (what we do – build collections and provide services for and stewardship of those collections) with library procedures (how we do it). The authors speak dismissively of “physical” collections as if libraries can only build collections of physical objects.

While they mention the need to preserve digital information and note the difficulty of preserving transaction-based services of e-government, they fail to see that the underlying data that drive those services should be deposited in depository libraries in open-formats, so that it can be preserved, used, re-used, and re-purposed by libraries and their user-communities.

They offer no vision of new, robust digital collections that combine selected government information with digital information from other sources to provide specific user-communities with unique, rich, tailored information environments. They also fail to mention any connection between collections and services.

The gist of the article is that libraries need to “align,” “reconcile,” or “harmonize” their practices with emerging e-government initiatives. Few will disagree with this or find anything new in the authors’ suggestion that we need to modernize our services and use the internet. Unfortunately, the authors do not explain what this might mean, how it might work, or even how library services might be different from or complement rather than duplicate e-government services.

The authors seem to want to change the role of libraries, by dropping collections, and preserve the procedures of providing reference service.

We want to preserve the mission of providing services based on curated collections and adapt the procedures to the digital environment. We envision serving user-communities that no longer have to be geographically-based. We will continue to examine the issue of an expanded, modern, digital FDLP at freegovinfo.info.

James R. Jacobs
James A. Jacobs
Shinjoung Yeo

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