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Who Pays for Access and Preservation?

A recent battle in the California Legislature over public records has a lesson for all of us who work with government information. A story in the Los Angeles Times sums up the issue exactly: “In the end it wasn’t really about public records or the people’s right to see them. It was about money.”

  • Who pays for all those public records, By Robert Greene, Los Angeles Times (June 21, 2013).

    [P]olicymakers will talk about which level of government can serve the public better. But they’ll really be talking, at least in part, about which level ought to pay for it.

    Either way, the same taxpayers get the bill.

In the California case, the issue was over whether the state will pay the costs that cities, counties, school districts and other local governments incur in providing public access to their public records.

Regardless of the needs of the public, regardless of the intentions of individual government agencies, and regardless of the value of public records, in the end, whether or not the public will have long-term, free access to the records of its democratically elected governments is largely a question of who will pay.

We at FGI have covered this repeatedly. (See, for example: Privatization of GPO, Defunding of FDsys, and the Future of the FDLP, and GPO’s Budget and Priorities, and Impact of the Sequester on GPO, and GPO Response to NAPA Report’s Recommendation to Charge for FDsys access, and The Technical is Political.)

The lesson for us remains the same: To ensure against loss or corruption of government information, we need more than one copy, more than one technology, more than one constituency, more than one budget. Libraries play an essential complementary role to governments that produce the information. Libraries focus on user communities and use of information whereas governments focus on the producers and the production of information. We need both and that means libraries must select, acquire, organize, and preserve government information and provide access to and services for that information. Otherwise, a government budget cut at one level will result in loss of that information.

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


  1. Managing information requires recognition of its value and the expectation of a measurable return on investment. Often the managers responsible for funding decisions are not themselves users of the data. Their decisions are myopic and made without consideration of the “big picture.” Without an understanding or appreciation of stewardship responsibilities, it’s an easy call to cut or eliminate “library” programs and apply the savings to high-profile projects.

    • Thanks for this comment, Bonnie.

      I realized a long time ago that in a hierarchical, bureaucratic organization different levels of the hierarchy have different constituencies. To over simplify: front line librarians see library users as their constituents and top level managers may see the managers above them in the hierarchy as their constituents. This makes for a disconnect in decision making!

      This also may be one reason that decisions are often made as if libraries were for-profit organizations (that demand a “return on investment”) rather than non-profits whose value and benefit to their community can often not be as easily quantified — particularly in for-profit / dollars-and-cents / “return-on-investment” terms.

      That is why we at FGI always urge front-line librarians to be strong advocates up the hierarchy and make sure that library managers hear their ideas and suggestions. Front-line librarians are, effectively, the only voice of library users that many library managers will ever hear. Managers need to hear how library users find value in the library and the way they do that is for front line librarians to tell them.

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