It is January and time once again to review what last year brought to libraries and the FDLP and where we should put our energies in the coming year.
In 2016 GPO issued a series of policies that express its intentions to enhance both access to and preservation of government information. While we applaud GPO’s intentions, we are dismayed because the policies are fatally flawed and will endanger preservation and access rather than protect and sustain them.
The biggest threat to long-term free public access to government information is government control of that information. Regardless of the good intentions of the current GPO administration, and regardless of the hopes of government information librarians, GPO cannot guarantee long-term free public access to government information on its own.
There are many reasons for this, but they all boil down to the simple fact that, when digital government information is controlled solely by the government that created it, it is only as secure as the next budget, the next change in policy, and the next change in administration. We have written about this repeatedly here at FGI and elsewhere for sixteen years, so we will not repeat all of those arguments (philosophical, technical, legal, economic, and professional) here today. (For those who wish to catch up, please see the FGI Library or the selected links below.)
GPO has come a long way since its first early attempts to deal with the shift from paper-and-ink publications to born-digital information. To its credit, GPO today emphasizes in its policies (including the new ones) its intent to preserve as much digital government information as it can through its own actions as government publisher, through harvesting agency content, and through partnerships with others. GPO has also wisely reversed an earlier policy and is now partnering with LOCKSS to create copies of FDsys in thirty-seven Federal depository libraries. Indeed, supporting the LOCKSS partnership which puts copies of FDSys/govinfo.gov in the hands of FDLP libraries is the most positive step GPO has taken. The LOCKSS archives are not, however, publicly available, so this is only a first step.
These are good intentions and positive steps. But we must ask: Are these steps sufficient? We must ask not only how good they will be if they succeed but how bad can the damage be if they fail? Can GPO really guarantee long-term free public access to government information?
The simple answer to these questions is: No, GPO cannot guarantee long-term free public access to digital government information. Why? First, regardless of its current intentions, GPO does not have a legislative mandate for long-term preservation. The wording of the law (44 USC 4101) does not mention long-term preservation or specify any limitations on what can be excluded or discarded or taken offline. It is limited to providing “online access to” and “an electronic storage facility for” two titles (the Congressional Record and the Federal Register). Everything else is at the discretion of the Superintendent of Documents. Previous SoDs have had completely different priorities and those bad policies could easily return. Federal agencies may request that GPO include agency information, but GPO is only obliged to do so “to the extent practicable.” This means that GPO’s commitment to long-term preservation is subject to changes in GPO administrations. Further, regardless of the intentions of even the most preservation-minded GPO administration, it can only do what Congress funds it to do and there are ongoing and repeated efforts to reduce GPO funding and privatize it.
Second, GPO does not have a legislative mandate to provide free public access. In fact, the law (44 USC 4102) explicitly authorizes GPO to charge reasonable fees for access. GPO’s current intentions are noble, but, alas, they lack the legislative and regulatory foundation necessary to provide guarantees.
So, even if GPO policies are successful in the short-term, the policies make the preservation and long-term free access ecosystem vulnerable to budget shortfalls and political influence because they are designed to consolidate GPO’s control of that information.
The shortcomings of such an approach have become more apparent to more people after the recent presidential election. Scientists, scholars, historians, news organizations, politicians, and even some government information librarians have announced their fears that government information is at risk of being altered, lost, or intentionally deleted because of drastic policy changes and leadership of the incoming presidential administration. (See a list of articles about this issue.)
To be clear, no one has suggested (yet) that information will be deleted from FDSys/govinfo.gov. And we are not predicting that the new President and his executive branch agencies will erase any valuable government information. We are simply saying that they have the authority to do so and, if we keep all our eggs in one GPO/government-agencies basket, they have the technical ability to do so. This is not a new problem. Agencies and politicians have a long history of attempting to privatize, withdraw, censor, and alter government information. Between 1981 until 1998, Anne Heanue and the fine folks at the Washington Office of the American Library Association (ALA) published an amazing series called Less Access to Less Information by and about the U.S. Government that chronicled such efforts to restrict access to government information.
What is new to this problem is the ability of a government that controls access to that information to remove access with the flick of a switch. Here at FGI we have written about this specific problem again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
To make matters worse, by explicit intent and inevitable effect, the new GPO policies will further consolidate GPO power and control and further weaken every individual FDLP library and the FDLP system as a whole.
What can government information librarians do in 2017? How should we focus our resources and actions?
- Monitor implementation of the Discard Policy. If successful, the new Regional Discard Policy (along with GPO’s National Plan and other policies) will, by design, further shift both access and preservation away from the FDLP into GPO. In addition, although the Policy claims that the digital surrogates it will rely on will be “complete and unaltered,” it lacks procedures to ensure this. At this point, the best we can do is hold GPO (and the Regionals that will be discarding documents) to their claims and not let the policy do even more harm than it is designed to do.
- Participate in PEGI. A loose group of individuals and organizations met last Spring and Fall to organize an effort called Preservation of Electronic Government Information (PEGI). Watch for developments and opportunities to participate in actions developed by this group.
- Support the EOT Crawl. 2016 will be the third national End of Term Crawl. The goal of the EOTs is to document the change in federal administrations by harvesting as much government information from .gov, .mil, and other domains before and after the inauguration. Follow their activities, contribute “seeds” and databases that need to be harvested, and promote their activities and visibility within your own communities.
- Support changes to OMB A-130. The Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-130 lays out regulations for “Managing Information as a Strategic Resource.” The government policies that have done the most to affect preservation of information collected with government funding have been those that required “Data Management Plans” of those who get government research grants. These policies have prompted the creation of many new positions and programs to support data preservation in libraries. Oddly, there is no parallel regulation that requires government agencies to guarantee the preservation of the information they create. FGI recommended amending A-130 to require every government agency to have an “Information Management Plan” for the public information it acquires, assembles, creates, and disseminates. We will continue to push for this change. Watch for opportunities to support it.
- Support changing SOD 301. GPO’s Dissemination/Distribution Policy for the Federal Depository Library Program (“SOD 301”) is the policy that allows GPO to deposit digital government information with FDLP libraries, but limits the deposit to only those “products” that are the least preservable and most difficult to access. This policy actively impedes preservation and access and is the policy that GPO uses to enforce its consolidation of power and control over digital government information within the scope of the FDLP. Demand that GPO change this policy to allow FDLP libraries to select and acquire all digital government information.
- Support a truly digital FDLP. GPO’s policies since the mid-1990s have systematically minimized the participation of FDLP libraries in both preservation and access. At a time in which it is more obvious than ever that GPO needs legislatively mandated partners to guarantee long-term free public access to government information, support a truly digital, collaborative FDLP that uses new methods to support the traditional values of the FDLP.
James A. Jacobs, UCSD
James R. Jacobs, Stanford