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Comment on article: Depository Library Program in 2023

A recent article reports on a survey of ARL library directors and their vision of their libraries’ roles in the depository library program:

The survey asked directors to choose among several future scenarios for the FDLP and their role of provision of government information. The authors are explicit about their intentions saying that “the study neither directly addresses whether the depository program itself will exist fifteen years hence nor offers a vision of what future will emerge after 2023.” They also note that the survey explicitly focused on the question “how many libraries want to remain in the depository library program and what role do they intend to play?” This focus predetermines the outcome of the survey somewhat. It doesn’t tell us what FDLP should be or how libraries could have a role in ensuring the long term, free access to government information. Instead we get a lot of information about what directors worry most about: money and resources.

The authors point out that no other study has systematically surveyed library directors for their perspective on the FDLP. This is particularly interesting given the rumors, gossip, and scuttlebutt going around about how many university librarians want to get rid of their depository collections, don’t trust their depository librarians, and see depository status as costing more than it is worth.

The study reinforces some of those stereotypes and provides some evidence that some ARL library directors do indeed think that way. Sample quotes: “Several directors look forward to a time when they can ‘dump the print.'” “Although some directors believe they have ‘forward-thinking’ documents librarians, others feel the opposite. As the director of a regional depository explains, ‘the more that directors know about the program and a library’s responsibilities, the less likely documents librarians can bluff about the legal obligations and seek to maintain the status quo.'” “The burden of participation in the program, including that of cost, is a recurring theme.” “The directors I talk to all want to get rid of the [depository] collection and drop out of the program as soon as possible.”

Not surprisingly, the directors who think that way are apparently part of the minority (13% that chose “scenario 1”) who believe that libraries should withdraw from the depository program or that the program will simply wither away.

What the survey documents for the first time, however, is how much value ARL directors put in government information and digital collections. Many of the directors see government information as essential to their academic communities and have serious concerns about how to ensure its availability. Fully half the respondents envision (scenarios 3 and 4) some sort of digital collections as part of their responsibility — either in partnership with GPO or separate from GPO if GPO does not provide adequate leadership.

While this survey is very interesting and provides much food for thought, it is far from the final word on the future of the FDLP, GPO, or government information. It leaves many questions unanswered and raises other questions. For example:

  • The survey’s use of the term “digital depository” is confusing at best and misleading at worst. One of the “scenarios” presented to directors in the survey describes “digital deposit” as the library providing “a digital feed of government information resources to its Web site, thereby becoming a portal for access to e-government information resources. The library receives, but does not create, digital content.” We wonder how directors interpreted this? Did they think that “receiving” digital content meant getting copies of digital files that they would keep in a digital collection? Or did they think that “providing a feed” and “becoming a portal” was a passive job of pointing to content at GPO or elsewhere? The article does not make this clear and we would have to guess that directors may not have provided responses that we can interpret consistently. (And, we would have to ask the authors, whose work we respect, why they chose the outdated word, indeed the outdated concept, “portal”? Does anyone really believe that users want or will use “portals” anymore?)
  • Another term that is used in a confusing way in the article (at least I was confused by it) is the term “dark archive.” We normally associate this with digital archives such as Portico (which archives digital copies of journal articles but is “dark” because no one can see the articles unless a particular kind of event — such as a publisher going out of business — allows the archive to make articles available). In this article, the authors use “dark archive” in that sense but they also use it to refer to print collections that have copies of last resort. Was this confusing to the surveyed directors? Did different interpretations skew their answers?
  • Some of this confusion is evidently apparent to the authors. When they analyzed the directors’ comments, they discovered that there was some “imprecision” by directors in choosing a scenario. Some were unable to place their institution fully in one of the provided scenarios. There were many reasons for this, but it makes it harder for us to interpret and understand the results.
  • The survey did not specifically present a scenario of real digital deposit in which GPO sends (i.e., deposits) authentic digital files to depository libraries. As noted above, the survey focused on two different but related questions: who wants to remain in the FDLP and what role do they intend to play. Combining those two questions may have further muddied the responses and left out options (e.g., true digital deposit).
  • One theme mentioned several times in the article is the need for a shared digital archive of digitized materials similar to the JSTOR model. To me, this seems to be an indication that the directors value digital information, see a need for a trusted repository in addition to GPO, and would support shared responsibilities for such an archive. This should spark some good discussions at the next DLC meeting.
  • The survey seems to perpetuate and even reinforce misleading concepts about the permanent availability of digital government information. Although the authors acknowledge that “government entities often do not retain all resources permanently on their homepages, and content can be difficult to find and can be subject to removal, redacting, or alteration”, they also passively quote directors who say they will rely on search engines and other libraries and government web sites to provide government information for them. There are certainly some libraries (even among ARL libraries) that will not have large digital collections of government information, but the survey does an injustice by passing along these comments without follow up questions to those directors about who will ensure access.
  • Another questionable idea that came out of the survey was about staffing. Several directors said “they would cease to employ separate, dedicated government documents librarians. They assume the specialized knowledge will be passed to reference librarians.” Shouldn’t ARL directors be thinking about the need for new skills to manage digital deposit and digital preservation and digital access to locally held files? Shouldn’t they be concerned about the special skills that will be needed to locate government information and provide reference service for it if they do not have a collection that they control?

In summary, the article provides much to discuss and good opportunities for further research. It also provides some clear evidence that the rumors that ARL directors want to dump their depository collections and drop their depository status are well founded, but that these directors are in the minority. Most ARL directors highly value government information and are looking for smart, efficient ways to ensure long term access to digital collections.

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