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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Nevada Library Assn presentation: Access

Below is the text of my part of FGI presentation at the Nevada Library Assn. Annual Conference on October 21, 2005. ShinJoung Yeo’s part of the panel was regarding access to government information in the digital age. Please feel free to give us feedback.

I am only talking about the issue of access to government information here. But, it is important to think about the issue of access within a larger context since it is tightly intertwined with long term preservation, local control, privacy etc. We have to remember that Information has a cycle — creation, collection, distribution, access and preservation. They are not mutually exclusive. With that said:

1. Why access?

We are living in a society where economic forces are at the front of many social and political decisions. However I believe there are certain things in our society that need to be free or have to free from a purely economic motivation such as water, air, education, health care etc. I hope you all agree with me that government information falls into this category. If you haven’t thought about government information in this way, I hope our talk today will convince you of its inherent importance.

Imagine that you aren’t able to access information about local environmental conditions (water and air quality…), or about current legislation pending in Congress, or find out about government research into cancer cures /for your loved one. When you think about government information in this way, access to government information is an inherent right of citizens.

2. Current Conditions

From the beginning, the U.S. government has recognized the importance of government information. Title 44 was written to codify its importance in our legal system.

Under Title 44, GPO has historically had primary responsibility for the printing, distribution, and sale of government publications. Thus, government publications passed through GPO and GPO distributed the publications to depository libraries. The geographically dispersed system of the FDLP libraries was then responsible for providing free, local access to government information.

However, the recent development of the Internet and its associated technologies has brought a shift from paper to purely digital information, bypassing the depository library system.

Judy Russell (who oversees the FDLP), the Superintendent of Documents, estimated that only 14 percent of federal government documents is deposited in the FDLP libraries. The other 86% is available only through the Internet and only from government-controlled Web servers. Ms Russell has stated that by 2007 fully 95% of all government information will be digital-only.

Because much of government information is now being produced digitally and not in paper, GPO is doing much less printing and distributing less print materials to depository libraries. In addition, it is becoming increasingly routine for government agencies to produce their own documents digitally and make them available directly to the public through the Internet. So without visiting a physical library building / now people are able to access government information anywhere there is an Internet connection. Sounds great right?

However, behind all this seemingly quick and easy access, there are far-reaching consequences of bypassing FDLP libraries. I am not saying this because I am a librarian. Rather, I am talking as a citizen here as well. If we don’t take this issue seriously and critically now, then we might completely lose access to government information.

3. Who controls access to information?

In the print world, the government collected, created bibliographic information, printed and distributed documents to FDLP libraries. After the government information was distributed in the FDLP libraries, the role of government was ended. However, in a digital world, it becomes up to government agencies and the GPO what information is accessible and how information is accessed. So Basically, the responsibility for access has shifted from libraries to the government. That does not mean that this responsibility cannot or will not shift back to libraries. I hope to persuade you that it MUST return to libraries.

In response to the shift from print to digital, GPO is proposing the creation of a centralized digital content management system (called their Future Digital System or “FDSys”) to provide access to all government information. GPO’s proposal implicates that GPO will be responsible for the collection, description, access and preservation and will also bear the full cost of these responsibilities. In other words, libraries will relinquish their traditional responsibilities –collecting, organizing, providing free access along with services — so they will be merely service points for helping patrons with search engines.

In this scenario that I’ve just painted — which is closer to reality than you might think — what could affect, change, limit access to government information? I would like to talk about 4 areas that are related to access in the event that libraries no longer have collections: Economics, Technologies, Politics of government information, and the Digital Divide.


Let’s say that GPO’s funding is fine now, but there is no guarantee that the government will fund GPO at the level needed to continue to provide no fee access to digital government information. We are already seeing GPO needing to fight for funding and under constant pressure from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In the midst of a budget crisis, can we assume that GPO’s funding will remain a government priority? In this hypothetical situation, where GPO is the sole information provider, if GPO’s budget line fails then there will be no access at all to government information.

Another possibility is that GPO or some government agencies might want to sell their information to private corporations for profit, or create a fee-based system based on cost-recovery, or even privatize popular or marketable documents or serials.

GPO’s strategic plan in November of last year states that they will provide free access AND distribute information on a cost recovery basis. Actually GPO tried to do this with GPO access about 10 years ago and failed due in part to the fact that FDLP libraries had the same information available for free.

So, it would seem obvious that in order to make a profit or at least to recover their costs, GPO or agencies will need to create information that is somehow limited or less-than-fully-functional in order to be able to charge for fully-functional information. We’re not saying that GPO WILL do this, but it seems to us that GPO’s contradictory mission statement of free access and cost recovery will lead to reduction or limitations on free and fully-functional access.


Technologies that GPO and other agencies implement could easily facilitate this fee based system — restrict user access, and/or render digital documents unusable or barely usable. For instance, Digital Rights Management tools, which are designed to authenticate users to prevent piracy or copying copyrighted materials, can easily restrict access by identifying users based on whether or not they have paid a fee or subscription to access information in the FDsys.

Even the Depository Library Council’s Vision paper has recognized the problem of DRM and has stated that, “GPO should work with agencies to ensure that the standard for web-publishing is fully-enabled digital files.”

Content management systems like FDsys can be set up to reduce the functionality of information products — prohibiting downloading, printing or transferring of text to other programs.

This is not simply my paranoia. Systems like I describe are already in place. For instance, at the National Academies Press Website, users may view a document one page at a time for free, but a fee is charged for downloading or printing the document.

Another issue that I’d like to bring up is the limiting of access based on software. GPO and other government agencies have decided in many instances to use only specific software for whatever reason. The decision to adopt a specific piece of software can restrict or limit users’ ability to access needed information.

For instance, FEMA’s online application for assistance after Hurricane Katrina could only be used with Internet Explorer browser. Another example is GPO’s own annual report. In order to view the fully functional annual report one would need to download the Vizio, a document viewing software and register with Vizio to use the software.

As you can see it is not that difficult to manipulate technologies to limit or restrict information according to economic, political and social motivation.

So do we really want to rely on the government to provide no fee and full-functional government information? Or do we want to rely on libraries have diverse technologies and backgrounds and are committed to free public access to government information?

Politics of government information

As you know the issue of access to government information is highly political. Depending on the political climate at any given time, what is able to be accessed might change regardless of public interest or public’s right to know.

In the current FDLP system, after the government deposits their documents, libraries have control over their collections. GPO can recall documents, but, in this system, it is difficult and cumbersome for the government to remove or alter or restrict those deposited documents located in FDLP libraries.

However, in the digital realm, documents can be removed or altered or restricted. We have already seen this on many occasions.

For instance, in May of this year, the Overseas Base Closing Commission report was released on the commission’s web site, but the report was pulled off of the site a few days later by order of the Secretary of Defense who didn’t like some of the information in the report.

In March, 2002, the EPA announced that it would no longer allow direct access to its Envirofacts databases. EPA stated that “As part of our continuing efforts to respond to Homeland Security issues.

I could go on and on and I bet you have a story like this as well. But you get the picture.

In the digital realm, information can be more easily and strictly controlled to the detriment of those who need access to the information: citizens, students, researchers, mothers, etc.

So the question is do we really want to put our trust to the government and expect them to provide us with free and fully functional government information? Or trust our 1300 libraries who have been fighting and advocating for people’s access to information for 150 years?

Digital Divide

Another issue that has barely been on the radar in the docs community is the issue of the digital divide. Daniel raised this issue recently on Govdoc-l in a response to the DLC Vision Statement, but we have not heard others discuss this.

This issue has largely been ignored because we all think of the Internet as ubiquitous. We frequently forget that those with lower incomes or in rural areas do not enjoy the privilege of internet technologies, or do not have access to high speed internet connections necessary to download and view large PDFs, audio or video files.

According to the recent Pew report on the Digital Divide in the United States:

68% of adults use the Internet, 32% do not.

73% of adults live in a household with an Internet connection and 27% do not.

22% of adults have never used the Internet and do not have access in their homes.

38% of adults living with disabilities have access to the Internet.

22% of adults over 70 have Internet access whereas 53% of adults between 60 and 69 have access.

11% of Internet non-users say that getting access is too difficult, frustrating or expensive.

We have to find ways to make sure that EVERYONE has access to government information — not just those who are privileged — and need to take into account those on the other side of the digital divide when making our decisions about future systems of government information or shifting our primary role as to merely being service center.

4. Solutions

So what are the possible solutions for the problems that I’ve just described above. Go back to paper? Print out every digital government document? That will be highly unlikely.

I think the white elephant in the living room that has been in front of our eyes this whole time is revitalizing FDLP instead of relinquishing its responsibilities to the government.

I often hear that the roles of FDLP are changing because of digital technologies. Remember only the formats have changed. The primary roles of FDLP libraries (and libraries in general!) — collecting, organizing, distributing, providing free access to government information — have not changed and I don’t think this should be changed. The only change that libraries need to make is accepting digital documents instead of paper documents. GPO needs to deposit digital documents instead of paper documents. It’s simply a matter of a format change. Libraries dealt with microcards, microfiche, CDROMs, DVDs…, they’ll and can deal with digital as well.

How does digital deposit solve these problems? Let me count the ways!

We believe that digital deposit and the creation of a digital FDLP system will solve the economic problem by dispersing and sharing the cost of digital access among many libraries instead of one chronically cash-strapped agency. Libraries will guarantee no fee access to information like they have been doing for the last 150 years.

Digital deposit will allow libraries to save digital documents on their local servers, have local control over those collections, and share them with other libraries in a collaborative manner. By doing this, we, libraries, can assure the provision of no fee and fully-functional access and better and more expanded services to government information.

By having local digital collections we will be able to use and reuse information and won’t need to worry about possible restrictions, information alternation or removal. Additionally, fugitive documents will be greatly reduced.

Digital deposit can also go a long way toward alleviating the digital divide by for instance, facilitating print on demand in libraries and/or allowing local libraries to create and maintain their own digital collections that could be used without having to have an expensive T-1 line, or burned to CDs or other media for off-line use.

Some might argue that not every library can afford to create their own digital repository, do not have the technological know-how, or might not have a need for or have the staff to process local collections. These same arguments were brought up not so long ago in regards to other formats, and at the advent of the Internet age. We dealt with those changes and we can deal with the current set.

5. Conclusion

I’d like to end with a story. In 1999, following World Bank advice and a condition for the country’s development loans, the Bolivian government granted a 40 year privatization lease to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, giving the company control over the water on which Bolivian citizens needed to survive. Immediately, the company doubled and then tripled the water rates for some of South America’s poorest families.

How do you think the people of a small town in Bolivia — a large majority of whom are poor peasants — responded to this? How could these peasants even imagine challenging Bechtel, one of biggest multinational corporations in the world? The people believed that access to water was a sacred right, not a commodity to be bought and sold, so they fought with their lives for access to water. Eventually, because of the fervor of the protests, Bechtel’s contract was rescinded and Bolivian citizens took back their water right.

There are only a few countries in the world where the right to access to government information is given to citizens. I believe this is your privilege and it’s your sacred right. I hope that the library community will fight to assure citizens’ access to freely available, fully functional digital government information.

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

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