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Pt. 2: Non-Lawyer’s Journey through Title 44: Availability of Government publications

As I proceed through selected parts of Title 44, I want to keep reminding our audience that I am not a lawyer and that I welcome comments from all, especially those with more experience in interpreting Title 44 than I do.

Last time I covered the part of Title 44 that defined a government publication. This time we continue our examination of the law behind the Federal Library Depository Program by examining the Availability of Government publications through Superintendent of Documents contained in 44 USC 1902:

TITLE 44–PUBLIC PRINTING AND DOCUMENTS

CHAPTER 19–DEPOSITORY LIBRARY PROGRAM

Sec. 1902. Availability of Government publications through
Superintendent of Documents; lists of publications not ordered from Government Printing Office

Government publications, except those determined by their issuing components to be required for official use only or for strictly administrative or operational purposes which have no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security, shall be made available to depository libraries through the facilities of the Superintendent of Documents for public information. Each component of the Government shall furnish the Superintendent of Documents a list of such publications it issued during the previous month, that were obtained from sources other than the Government Printing Office.

(Pub. L. 90-620, Oct. 22, 1968, 82 Stat. 1283.)

Historical and Revision Notes

Based on 44 U.S. Code, 1964 ed., Sec. 81b (Pub. L. 87-579, Sec. 1, Aug. 9, 1962, 76 Stat. 352).

This part of the law shows the ideal for government information as designed by Congress – that everything except classified or purely internal documents would be available to the nation’s federal depository libraries. And even internal documents should be provided to the public via depository libraries if they had some interest or educational value. The default position of the law as written is that all documents should be released to the public in findable places. According to the law, these places are depository libraries.

In recognition that even in a perfect world, not all publications are sourced through the Government Printing Office (GPO), agencies have a statutory requirement to provide GPO with a monthly list of publications. Based on my personal observations, nearly all states with a state depository program have a similar requirement for state agencies.

In practice, that requirement is routinely ignored on both the state and federal levels. It’s done partly out of ignorance, partly because of workload and perhaps a small fraction because agencies don’t want their documents known to the general public.

One benefit of living in a web-based world is that agencies can be “helped” in complying with the “listing of publications” portion of the law through web crawling. That’s what we do in Alaska. Every month we check all publicly accessible agency servers known to us. We download all new files and in the process generate a list of newly added materials. I believe that GPO is already experimenting with this technology for a few agencies.

The downside of doing it this way is that not every file is a document, and some documents consist of multiple files. Perhaps what we need is an enforcement mechanism for those monthly lists. Or smarter software.

The next stop on our journey, which may take me a few days, will be to examine section 1903 – Distribution of publications to depositories; notice to Government components; cost of printing and binding.

As I said at the top of this entry, I hope that some readers of this site with longer experiences of Title 44 will chime in with their thoughts and analysis. Or that people who are meeting Title 44 for the first time will have some questions. In either case, please either use the comments below, or e-mail me at dnlcornwal AT alaska.net with your comment and permission to post to the FGI site.

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3 Comments

  1. duanez says:

    I appreciate these posts as I am new to using Gov. Docs myself. I myself am not a lawyer, either, and am in the information management profession.

    It sounds to me like Title 44 established a formal (statutory?) relationship between ourselves (citizens) and our government in terms of government information. It seemed to define expectations and boundaries a citizen should expect in that relationship. I wonder as you go thru your review of Title 44, we could look at how the e-Government Act of 2002 has, perhaps, re-defined this Title 44 relationship. Most government information I search for and use I am getting on-line and not in Federal Dep. libraries.

    Lately, I was loking at the FY 2005 Report to Congress on Implementation of The E-Government Act of 2002 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/reports/2005_e-gov_report.pdf). The report indicated that some of the goals of the e-Government Act were to “provide citizens greater access to government services” and “make government more transparent and accountable.” Has government information become a kind of routine commodity that is just a part of an agency’s “services”?

  2. Norma says:

    I know nothing about government documents, but based on my limited use of them (IRS instructions and forms, passports), it would seem to me that to assume anything from these rather vaguely worded definitions would be a mistake for both librarians and the general public. I’ve read only your first two entries, and perhaps you explain more later.

    This is really squishy and subjective: “no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security.” It would seem to me that publications could come and go at the whim of an official and the state of the nation with this definition.

  3. dcornwall says:

    “This is really squishy and subjective: “no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security.” It would seem to me that publications could come and go at the whim of an official and the state of the nation with this definition.”

    I think I speak for everyone at FGI when I say “we agree.” The types of documents deposited with the Federal Depository Library Program have changed over the years since the original program was conceived in the 19th Century. And officials can withdraw documents from depositories by providing notice to the Government Printing Office (GPO). There is a formal process for this posted at the GPO web site.

    It’s a good process in theory, but in an electronic world who can guarantee it would be followed? Thanks for pointing out a concern of many depository librarians.

    ————————————
    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote

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