Home » Library » Back from the brink! Recent discussions and the future of the #FDLP

Back from the brink! Recent discussions and the future of the #FDLP

We are concerned that in some recent informal comments on twitter and some more formal discussions of the MN/MI regional proposal and ASERL project, the tone has taken on a decidedly confrontational, even hostile tone with implications that GPO is being obstructionist. We are concerned that a few libraries may be in a rush to set the agenda for the FDLP in a way that best suits their interests. We are writing in hopes of calming the discussion so that, at the upcoming Depository Library meeting, we can have constructive discussions and avoid rushing into important decisions and the setting of agendas. The stakes are too high to oversimplify the issues facing GPO, the FDLP, the Regional Depositories, and the Selective Depositories with one-word epithets, emotionally loaded characterizations, and name-calling. It is essential that the conversations at DLC not be dominated by a few well-organized, vocal Regionals.

1. At the DLC meeting this month, when the future of the FDLP is discussed and the specific proposals by MN/MI and ASERL are sure to be raised, it is very important that we differentiate the issues that Regional Depositories face (with their special legal requirements, comprehensive collections, and support of selective depositories) from the issues that selectives face. The issues overlap but it would be unwise to let the agendas of the Regionals (or, worse, just some of the Regionals) set the agenda for all of the FDLP.

Regionals face unique problems, and solving their problems will not necessarily “save” the FDLP any more than a failure to solve their problems will “kill” the FDLP. Even the defunding and privatization of GPO will not “kill” the FDLP: it will just make it that much more difficult to build and maintain FDLP collections and services.

It is particularly important that we examine the context of the proposals currently on the table. As Ithaka S+R has assiduously described in its recent reports, many library directors and administrations are actively seeking ways to weed their paper-and-ink collections, and some want to decrease their commitment to the FDLP because they no longer believe that there is an institutional value to depository status. Regardless of the efficacy of such policies, FDLP librarians should recognize that those policies, even if justifiable for an institution, have little if anything to do with a commitment to long-term, free, public access to government information. At best, designing policies based first on local needs will only yield value for the FDLP as a by-product; at worst, it will diminish the FDLP’s value to users. Ithaka S+R’s report already made the case for just such an approach and GPO has (wisely, we believe) rejected it.

GPO and the FDLP collectively need to maintain the long-term preservation of and access to government information as a first priority and need to keep the needs of information users, not individual institutions, as our collective highest priority when modeling the future of the FDLP. Policies based on such an approach will yield value to users as a direct result of their implementation, not as a by-product.

In our deliberations on the future of the FDLP, we need to clearly state our justifications for new policies and procedures and separate those that are demonstrably good for the FDLP and government information users from those that are tied to local needs — such as budgetary constraints and the desire to weed paper-and-ink collections. Obviously, each library has to take its own needs into account, but, just as obviously, we should avoid making system-wide decisions based on the needs of a few libraries.

2. Developing a model for the future of the FDLP is going to require give-and-take and cooperation. Name calling and hostility will not serve the needs of anyone or result in positive solutions.

Libraries must work with GPO — and vice versa. Libraries need to accept that GPO operates under legal constraints. When GPO asks legitimate legal questions, it is not attacking or resisting change; it is fulfilling its legal obligations. Characterizing GPO’s responses as “protecting the status quo” are neither helpful in this difficult transition time, nor accurate.

That said, we also urge GPO to be as flexible as it legally can be and also as creative as it can be in order to come up with innovative solutions that strengthen information preservation, public access and the ongoing management of regionals and selectives. We believe GPO should push its policies and procedures to the limit of the law, not look for the most conservative possible interpretation of the law. We remember all too vividly how the introduction of microforms into the FDLP took almost 7 years, but it was done with leadership from GPO.

Just as GPO must work within a legal framework, so individual libraries must work within their own constraints. We urge FDLP libraries to be as flexible as possible and come up with plans that reflect the needs of a broad community of users and that will guarantee long-term preservation and access of government information in all formats. The digital-shift provides libraries new opportunities to do more than they ever have before. While it may seem easy to come up with procedures that reduce collections, minimize numbers of copies, increase costs to users and Selective Depositories, and reduce services to users, such “solutions” are, we believe, short-sighted and inadequate to the task at hand. It will be harder but, we would argue, much better to develop innovative solutions that will expand what libraries do to meet needs of users. Libraries are not as constrained as GPO is by Title 44: we can do more than GPO/FDsys can do by building collections that are beyond the scope of Title 44. Digital makes this possible and provides new opportunities; it should not be used as an excuse to trim services and collections.

We at FGI yield to no one in our desire for a fully functional digital FDLP. We have been advocating that for seven years and are just as anxious — if not more so — as anyone to move forward to the next phase of the FDLP. Over the years, we have criticized GPO and its policies — and will continue to do so when we believe such criticism is warranted. But our intention has always been to challenge GPO to do more and to do better, and to work with FDLP libraries, not work against them or arrogate responsibilities from them. Just as we want GPO to work with FDLP libraries, we want FDLP libraries to work with, not in opposition to, GPO. We at FGI believe that the future of the FDLP will be most secure if GPO and FDLP libraries work together to a common end.

We urge all participants in these conversations to deal with each other collegially and cordially and seek common solutions that will benefit all — not just a few libraries. We urge all parties to refrain from over-simpification of complex issues. We urge thoughtfulness and cooperation toward what should be our common goals of high-quality long-term preservation of and access to government information, driven first and foremost by the needs of users.


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  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you!

  2. Barbie Selby says:

    I just thought I’d post my govdoc-l message here as well as on govdoc-l.
    Barbie Selby
    University of Virginia

    I agree with much of what Daniel has said. We all believe in the ultimate goal of getting no-cost government information to the American public. The traditional mechanism for that was the FDLP. Much of that job has been taken over by the internet – every public library, every home computer is a potential trove of US government information. A shout out to the Hathi Trust and CIC for digitizing masses of older government documents and making them available as well.

    While I do agree with Daniel that our common goal should be “long-term, free, public access to government information,” I disagree that this is not somehow tied to the futures and policies of individual libraries and institutions. Daniel says “GPO and the FDLP collectively [emphasis added] need to maintain the long-term preservation…” I would like to emphasize the word “collectively.” We know that currently no one regional or selective collection “has everything.” We work collaboratively and collectively. Always have, always will.

    Our individual libraries and institutions are changing. For many types of information we are “just in time” shops. (For the record, I’m in charge of our microforms section and believe very strongly in preservation in a TANGIBLE medium.) However, I’m also a realist. I know that most of the users of our library (yes, big research library, not small public library) want information online and they want it now. I also know that we will most likely get rid of our microprint (yes, microprint) Early American Imprints set someday. I know there are microfiche sets out there, plus the original materials. And, I know I have digital access – appropriate redundancy.

    For federal government information there are 48 regional depositories. Yes, I’m leaving out the selectives right now. Selectives are not charged, as regionals are, with retaining everything. Probably, in any given state or region the combined collections of all the selectives still would not comprise a “comprehensive collection.” Neither would the regional collection, but I bet it would come closer.

    I think that collective access to printed US government information really IS, at least somewhat, dependent on the policies of these individual institutions. If regionals aren’t encouraged to work together and with GPO we may just wake up one morning to find far fewer regionals with no coherent, geographically distributed preservation plan for print government information. That’s not a good scenario, as Jerri Swinehart points out in her email. Not good for American citizens, not good for selective depositories, not good for regional depositories, not good for GPO.

    Large research libraries, as most regionals are, do take their missions to serve both their academic public and the American public very seriously. Efforts like the ASERL Collaborative Federal Depository and the Minnesota/Michigan multi-state regional proposal are good faith efforts to find creative, flexible, forward-looking models for service and collections that comply with current law.

    I look forward to our discussions at DLC. I also look forward to contacting Public Printer Boarman directly with my concerns about the rejection of the Minnesota/Michigan proposal (see http://www.arl.org/pp/access/fdlp/fdlp-dev/index.shtml). I’d encourage others to do the same.

  3. jajacobs says:


    Thanks for reposting your thoughtful ideas here. I’d like to clarify a couple of things from the original post and add a couple of comments:

    We at FGI do very much believe that long-term preservation and access is tied to the participation by individual libraries. We also recognize that the futures, policies, and constraints of individual libraries very much affect what those libs can do. We do believe, however, that we should avoid basing FDLP policies on the specific needs and constraints of just a few libraries. We also believe that policies that are best for users and FDLP will be those that are driven by the needs of FDLP collectively and by the needs of users — not by the constraints within which individual libraries must operate.

    I think we need to be careful when talking about “just in time” service. That term has come to be associated with libraries without collections, libraries that get information only when it is requested. While that is a nice service, we need to be clear that such a service assumes that someone has the needed information. We need to be sure there will be a “someone” who selects, acquires, organizes, and preserves all the information that users may request in the future. A service center is useless without a collection from which it can get information “just in time.” Who builds, maintains, weeds, and controls such collections will determine what information is available, what information is inaccessible because of cost, and what information is lost forever. At FGI, we believe FDLP libraries can and should play a part in that preservation process.

    Our vision is that every actual “library” (as opposed to commercial information providers and collectionless service-centers) will want to preserve something for its community. The library’s selection of what it preserves will be based on its own abilities, its community’s needs, and on what is being preserved by other libraries. We believe every ‘library’ will find something that is enough ‘at risk’ of long-term loss to warrant its involvement in the preservation of that material. A thousand small, focused collections will help ensure that there are fewer losses of things that ‘fall through the cracks’ of big, monolithic collections. This will also give the libraries that build and preserve such collections an importance, significance, and value to their communities and will, therefore, contribute to their sustainability.

    The concept of ‘appropriate redundancy’ is far from well defined. We all know of libraries that want to discard their print as soon as there is a digital copy somewhere. We think that libraries need to plan carefully to ensure that a) there is adequate redundancy of digital copies to ensure their safe survival of threats economic, social, structural, technological, and political; and b) there are enough print copies of digitized materials to ensure against loss of information during digitization and to ensure preservation of the original.

    Although we do believe that government information specialists take their missions to serve both their academic public and the American public very seriously, we are concerned that some (many?) library administrations do not share this value. Ithaka S+R research has discovered that many library administrators are more motivated by a desire to weed print than a desire to serve a broad “American Public.” There is also a movement among library planners to focus on “Return On Investment” to the parent institution; we rarely hear a related commitment to a broad American Public. Ithaka S+R has even documented that some library administrators see no value to their institutions in being a member of the FDLP community. These locally-driven priorities could, we fear, overshadow the commitment by government information specialists.

    I would very much like to believe that the latest round of exchanges between GPO and regionals is just part of an on-going give-and-take with a mutual desire to come to a consensus. That consensus should be based, I think, on the needs of government information users and the FDLP in general. I worry that we are witnessing a confrontation where each side wants to “win” but a “win” for either side will not be good for government information users or the FDLP.

    – Jim Jacobs
    Data Services Librarian Emeritus, University of California San Diego.

  4. Bonnie Klein says:

    I’m sure you know that the Government Printing Office manages only a fraction of the information produced by or for the three branches of government.

    The various types of government information management institutions are reflected in the charter and membership of the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC); http://www.loc.gov/flicc/about/index_about.html . There are distinct differences in the mandates, missions and operations of the National Libraries vs. federal agency libraries vs federal information center repositories vs. the National Archives.

    In addition, today every individual government office is a potential publisher. See http://www.Howto.gov . Since the E-Gov Act of 2002, there has been an explosion of government information available on the Internet. This material has not been systematically captured for long-term distribution and preservation.

    There are four National Libraries: Library of Congress, National Library of Medicine, National Agricultural Library and the National Library of Education. Libraries purchase and collect information from all sources.

    Major government Information Centers/Repositories do not “buy” documents but collect materials created and supported by government funding and sponsorship. This category includes the Defense Technical Information Center, the Department of Energy Office of Scientific Information (DOE OSTI), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). GPO and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) are also in this category. (See http://www.cendi.gov )

    The National Archives and Records Administration also falls into this last category. Title 44 § 3301. DEFINITION OF RECORDS
    As used in this chapter, “records” includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of data in them.
    Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes, extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, and stocks of publications and of processed documents are not included.

  5. jajacobs says:

    Thanks for this, Bonnie.

    It is a good reminder with good details of how much government information is not in FDLP or FDsys. Some of that information is being preserved, much of it is not.

    FDLP Libraries are in a unique position, because of their existing collections, expertise, and staff, to build rich collections of digital government information far beyond what GPO can do on its own (because of the constraints put on GPO by Title 44). As Daniel notes above, we at FGI would like to see proposals that, instead of reducing collections, increasing costs to users, and reducing services to users, would expand collection boundaries and increase services. You outline some places where innovative libraries could look for opportunities today.

    Jim Jacobs
    Data Services Librarian Emeritus, University of California San Diego

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