Report from Australia: Vanishing Government Information
History will vanish into the ether, by Toss Gascoigne, Australian IT, MAY 11, 2005.
This is an edited version of an address to the seminar, “Digital Amnesia: The Challenges of Government Online” organized by the Australian Library and Information Association at the National Library of Australia on April 21.
Toss Gascoigne, executive director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, notes that “Tracking down government reports is a growing problem for researchers in Australia. Originally published on the web, many reports have become unavailable or difficult to find.” Gascoigne reports many examples of documents gone missing and examines the reasons.
Of interest to us here in the U.S. is the finding of relatively trivial circumstances that cause documents to go missing. Many of the documents were still available, but such simple things as redesigning or streamlining a website caused the documents, though still available somewhere, to become “almost impossible” to find. Changes in staff and management and making “way for new versions or new publications” was a reason for publications being permanently removed from web sites. Staff would remove publications when a particular publication seemed to “no longer attract much traffic.” One person reported that he presumed that “a desire to take a different policy direction” would naturally result in removing a report from an earlier time.
Comment. The Australian situation suggests to me three important problems of relying solely on a government for providing long-term access and digital preservation.
1) Relying on producing agencies invites loss of information because few agencies have long term access or preservation of information as a mandate and are not funded to do so. 2) Even if a government gives an agency (such as GPO) a mandate to preserve and provide permanent access, that mandate is only practical as long as funding is available and the mandate doesn’t change; federal funding for long-term access to past government information is far from guaranteed. 3) Any government agency, including GPO, is subject to the same kinds of changes in government information policies as individual agencies: thus, removing information because it is out of date, or because it no longer attracts much traffic, or because older reports don’t reflect current policies could easily result in information being removed from public access. Such removals from government web servers in some cases would even be wise and appropriate as citizens would not expect the government to deliver out-of-date facts or rescinded policies. That is not the role of government.
Society does need “memory organizations” however. These are organizations that have the role of preserving and making available information from the past as well as information from the present. While Australia is looking to adopt new legislation that will help guarantee long term preservation of government information, the U.S. already has such laws in place, including Title 44 of the US Code. What we do need in the U.S. is a true partnership again between GPO and the over 1200 FDLP libraries. We need again a partnership that values the role of libraries as memory organizations and does not relegate libraries to providing service for only that information that GPO and the federal government decide to make available and provide funding to keep available.