[UPDATED: Seavey’s article is attached below since it’s not yet available online. It’s only fair that readers should have the opportunity to read Seavey’s words as well as our analysis. We do so to further academic discussion and debate.]
In his article in American Libraries,“GPO must go,” Charles Seavey accurately highlights an important problem — how to enable 100,000 non-Federal Depository Libraries to better use government information to inform and empower their patrons. We agree with his point that widespread access to government information is a worthwhile goal for all libraries. However, his proposed solution — the abolition of the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) — is many times worse than the problem it proposes to cure.
We believe that Seavey conflates “printing” with “publishing” and “access” with “preservation” and in so doing diminishes the importance of GPO and the FDLP in the life-cycle of government information. But the biggest problem with Mr. Seavey’s proposal is that, while accurately emphasizing the issue of access today, it completely ignores at least four key advantages that we would lose without the FDLP: 1) a more reliable preservation model that assures long term, free access; 2) a system that is tamper-resistant and tamper-evident; 3) a system that creates, uses and reuses metadata in a cost-effective fashion; and 4) multiple collections that combine Title-44 materials with non-Title 44 materials in collections that are user-focused and that provide user-centric services. The FDLP has been providing these advantages for printed publications for almost 200 years and, thanks to technological advances and initiatives like the LOCKSS-USDOCS project, it is increasingly capable of providing these advantages for digital information as well.
In the world proposed by Mr. Seavey, all government information would be made accessible by a new “Government Information Access Agency” (GIAA). End users and libraries assisting patrons would access the information directly from government-controlled web servers. This would be fine as long as we could rely on the wisdom, funding, and non-political benevolence of the federal government. But we already know we can’t.
1. Relying on a single organization (the federal government) to preserve all government-produced information is risky at best. It puts the information at risk of loss due to changing budgets, changing missions, and government interpretation of what information should be available to the public.
By distributing digital files to Congressionally-mandated FDLP libraries, we will have multiple funding streams, multiple user-communities, multiple technologies, and multiple preservation-locations. Together, these eliminate the single-point-of-failure risk endemic to a single preservation system maintained by the federal government (This is not hypothetical; we all remember the nearly 1 month outage of the GPO purl server last summer right? [http://freegovinfo.info/node/2704] ).
2. The federal government has a long history of attempting to recall or delete information that puts the government in an unflattering light or out of — often misplaced — fears about national security. With custody of government information in the hands of government alone, digital information can be deleted or altered at will without any public input. For example, see Steven Aftergood’s 2005 Slate Article, “The Age of Missing Information” and OMB Watch’s “Information removed from agency websites.”
Distribution of digital information to FDLP libraries would provide the same guarantee of tamper-resistence that paper has in cases such as the attempted withholding of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. XVI, and in proving evidence of tampering such as that provided by the recent censorship of the Afghanistan war memoir Operation Dark Heart. (See the end of this post for other articles of interest on this topic.)
3. Seavey overlooks the importance of metadata in digital publishing, preservation, and access.
Adequate metadata that describes the provenance, authenticity, fixity, and usability of digital objects is essential. If anything, we need more standards — and open standards — to be enforced by government “publishers.” Content creators rarely want to bother with this, nor are they equipped to do so. The role of a digital Government *Publishing* Office is essential. GPO is well-positioned to fulfill this role by establishing, enforcing, and using digital publishing standards for born digital content.
Metadata also plays an essential role in organizing information in collections and making it findable and discoverable. Just having an unknown subset of government information in volatile, commerical, full-text indexes in enormous search engines or relying on the often-primitive search engines of agencies is not adequate and should not be acceptable to government information professionals. See for example, the CTD/OMB-Watch study, Hiding in Plain Sight. Or try this yourself: Search Google for BP Oil Spill [http://www.google.com/search?q=BP%20Oil%20Spill&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8] and notice that the first page of results doesn’t list .gov sources at all, just news sources and the BP website. – Compare those results to the 17 reports and Congressional reports available via the same search in catalog.gpo.gov. Using Google to find government documents/information deletes the whole intellectual process of information organization from the government information lifecycle equation.
4. By eliminating the FDLP, Seavey would also destroy the strength of multiple collections that serve distinct user-communities, which, in the digital world, need no longer be geographically based. With a digital FDLP, libraries will be able to do what the government cannot do: build collections that include both government and non-government digital information combined in well-organized, easy-to-use collections that focus on topics, subjects, and disciplines rather than provenance. By distributing digital government information to FDLP libraries, GPO will facilitate many user-centric collections and services that it (or a GIAA) could never hope to provide or maintain.
While we at FGI greatly sympathize with the idea of spreading awareness of, knowledge of, and skill in government information use to the nation’s libraries, we are deeply skeptical this can be done without a core network of libraries with deep government information knowledge, experience, and expertise.
Seavey may be right when he says that, traditionally, FDLP libraries have not much engaged non-depositories in dialog and training, but in the digital world, this is changing as more FDLs are reaching out to their communities. The explosion of Web 2.0 tools and greater bandwidth are creating opportunities to transfer knowledge and expertise through the GPO OPAL webinar program [http://www.opal-online.org/archivegpo.htm], online conferences like the Six State Virtual Conference, the 21st Century Government Information course materials on WebJunction, and groups open to all libraries on ALA Connect and Facebook. The list goes on. If there was no FDLP, the expertise that is driving this outreach might evaporate and these materials would not have a government information focused community to create them and make them available. The documents community has started teaching and engaging users and libraries from all walks of life. The digital world is already empowering just the change Seavey suggests we need. We should encourage this, not thwart it.
The many issues surrounding access to and preservation of government information will not go away simply by playing semantics or changing the name of a government agency. The many people working within and serving the ideals of the FDLP maintain a critical role in the government information ecosystem. The FDLP shouldn’t be tossed aside, it should be assisted and well-funded in its catalytic work of diffusing awareness and expertise in the use and stewardship of government information regardless of format.
Seavey, Charles. GPO Must Go. American Libraries, October 2010, p. 33
Aftergood, Steven. “The Age of Missing Information,” Slate, March 17, 2005. Accessed at http://www.slate.com/id/2114963/ on October 11, 2010.
Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), OMB Watch. Hiding in Plain Sight: Why Important Government Information Cannot Be Found Through Commercial Search Engines (Dec. 11, 2007) http://www.ombwatch.org/files/info/searchability.pdf
Heanue, Anne. and the Washington Office of the American Library Association (ALA). Less Access to Less Information by and about the U.S. Government. (1981 – 1998). Accessed at http://freegovinfo.info/library/lessaccess on October 12, 2010.
Library Success Stories, IFC ALA Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, November 2004. Accessed at https://members.ala.org/nif/v53n6/success_stories.html on October 11, 2010
Nevelow Mart, Susan. “Let the People Know the Facts: Can Government Information Removed from the Internet Be Reclaimed?” llrx.com. June 6, 2006. Accessed at http://www.llrx.com/features/reclaimed.htm on October 12, 2010.
OMB Watch. “Information removed from agency websites.” http://www.ombwatch.org/node/182#agency
Ruffilo, Nick. “Metadata, Not E-Books, Can Save Publishing. O’Reilly Radar July 29, 2010 Accessed at http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/07/metadata-not-e-books-can-save.html on October 13, 2010.