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GPO details onerous restrictions on digital materials

A recent note on the govdoc-l mailing list (Review of e-LCSH, Nathaniel Kraft, 5 Oct 2005, Discussion of Government Document Issues) provides a glimpse of the government restricting access to government information in the digital environment. The message is an invitation to review Library of Congress Subject Headings, 28th edition (“e-LCSH”). Kraft says that, “The Government Printing Office (GPO) and Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Service (CDS) are investigating options for electronic dissemination of CDS cataloging publications to federal depository libraries” but notes that “the Library of Congress Subject Headings is a CDS sale product for which costs must be recovered.” The restrictions placed on use are explicit:

This electronic version is being made available to the Federal Depository Library Program with the condition that the files NOT be redistributed or made accessible outside the premises of participating FDLP libraries. If downloaded to a local server, the e-LCSH files must be placed on a location that is not accessible to Web crawlers or to users outside the premises of the FDLP library.

This is an excellent (though sad and ironic) example of the promise of digital information being crippled by contract for economic reasons. Where digital information holds the promise of being easily copied, re-distributed, and re-used, we see instead extreme restrictions being imposed on the information because “costs must be recovered”. The restrictions bear repeating so that we can imagine the future of a world without digital deposit or a world with DRM locked down deposit or a world where use is limited not by copyright, but by contract:

  • Files may “NOT be redistributed”
  • Access only on “the premises”
  • Digital access hidden from web crawlers
  • Digital access prohibited by users outside the library

The true “Luddites” are those that impose restrictions on access to government information rather than envisioning and enabling the possibilities created by digitization of information.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. I don’t remember whether the LCSH books were ever not subject to cost recovery, but your post has implications for GPO’s FDSys concept. Specifically, what will happen with publications that are currently free, like Environmental Health Perspectives which move into private publishing? Will users lose access to those backfiles? Not if fully functional electronic copies are deposited to libraries!

    This particular development is a case study of what I feared for many publications when I read the phrase “depositories should be able to exploit fully-functional electronic files within their local digital environment” in the recent DLC Vision paper. Now I know DLC didn’t mean that phrase to mean in-library use only, but these restrictions show how LC can meet the letter of the vision paper but violate its spirit.

    This is also an good example of what Jim means by GPO being unable to guarantee no-fee permanent public access to electronic publications. Their hands are tied when a publication is privatized or made “cost-recovery” by Congress. Whatever the current policy of the day is will be the policy of the “policy neutral” FDSys. The harm this could cause would be mitigated by local deposit of fully functional electronic files that depositories could serve over the Internet.

    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote

  2. as an urban University library which does not otherwise provide computer access to the general public–except in the case of our Depository status–in addition to these new barriers, the administration here has been assured by GPO that we need not provide ANY *printing* capabilities AT ALL to the public, in order to maintain our status.

    so, in other words, “access” now means “you can sit at the computer IN THE FD LIBRARY and read page by page on the screen,” and that’s about it.

    will it even be possible to email or save to disc entire docs? or must this also be done one PDF page at a time?

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