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Government Documents still at the Crossroads

We recently obtained permission to repost to FGI an article that two of my colleagues and I wrote back in 2001:

We post this today as a reminder that the issues that government information professionals face are not new. This American Libraries article was an articulation of some of the issues that we thought important six years ago. Most of these issues have still not been addressed adequately by GPO or the library community. With the rapid change in technology, six years is a very long time to wait for solutions. It is about two generations in “Internet time.”

The problems we faced then are problems we still face. They include the problem of the government intentionally or unintentionally corrupting, modifying, or even deleting documents thus preventing access or changing the historical record, the problem of relying on the federal budget for funds to provide adequate access and preservation for all of us, the problem of the digital divide, the problem of shortsightedly sacrificing long-term preservation for short-term accessibility, the problem of privatization, and more. We summarized the problem this way:

What will it mean for our nation to shift from a tradition of widely dispersed, locally owned and controlled collections of government publications, organized and preserved by dedicated and public-service-oriented librarians, to a system in which the government holds and controls most of our government information?

…Should we worry so much about government control of government information, given that we live in such a benevolent democracy? Or do we enjoy our democratic rights precisely because people throughout our history have worried about too much government control?

And the solution we saw then is still the solution that seems to us the one most likely to succeed:

We should adapt our libraries to include electronic files of government publications and include them in our growing digital collections. Instead of only providing access to Web-based documents, the GPO could acquire and make available for selection by depositories the digital versions of government documents. With multiple copies available for inspection across the land, in the same way as in the world of paper-and-ink publishing, the government would still have the responsibility to disseminate its information, but we would retain local control.

In addition to solving many of the problems enumerated above, this approach would provide other advantages. Multiple copies, physically deposited at libraries, give us an automatic preservation hedge against loss or corruption of the “last copy” of any particular item. Having multiple collections throughout the nation, each responsible to a particular group of users, would also ensure that every document that is of value to some constituency would find a long-term home and not be subject to being discarded as being of marginal value from a single, monolithic, national, government-controlled collection.

We invite you to take a moment to read this article and add your comments.

And, by the way… don’t forget that FGI is more than the blog! Visit these other pages with more documents and links to key information. And please send us other citations and links for other articles that would be of interest to government information specialists. Send your suggestions to admin at freegovinfo.info.

  • Library page
    Documents, articles, and useful websites relevant to the important issues surrounding government information.
  • FGI Bibliography on Issues Related to Government Information
    A bibliography of resources relating to the many intertwining issues surrounding government information. You’ll find here articles on copyright, Freedom of Information (FOIA), digital library management among others.
  • FGI Publications
    Conference notes, papers, presentations, editorials and other publications by FGI volunteers.
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