Toward a definition of “virtual depository”

August 24, 2006 by
Filed under: Library, post 

virtual: 1. Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name. 2. Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination. 3. temporarily simulated or extended by computer software.
Usage note: When virtual was first introduced in the computational sense, it applied to things simulated by the computer, like virtual memory; that is, memory that is not actually built into the processor.
from Dictionary.com

Depository: 1. a place where something is deposited or stored, as for safekeeping: the night depository of a bank. 2. a depositary; trustee. 3. of or pertaining to a depository or depositories.
from Dictionary.com

A recent post on govdoc-l regarding virtual depositories, piqued my etymological interest. please bear with me as I explore the meaning of “virtual depository.”

It should be obvious that the two words “virtual” and “depository” are oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence. The word “Depository” infers that something (money, govt documents…) is actually given to a trusted entity (a bank or library) to be stored for safekeeping. But how can something that’s not actually there but only hinted at or pointed to, something simulated and not tangible, be placed in the care of some trusted entity? The term “virtual depository” then, is a misnomer.

Putting aside this perplexity for the time being, let’s look at “virtual depository” within a library context. The Govt Printing Office (GPO) has been experimenting with “virtual depositories” since 2002 when they teamed up with the University of Arizona for a pilot virtual depository in which the library selected online resources instead of printed/tangible items. Basically, the project substituted actual deposit of paper documents in the library’s collection for links in the library’s online catalog to digital documents housed on GPO servers. The FDLP community has been steadily moving toward “virtual depositories” since then as more and more government documents become born digital with no paper equivalent.

As many of our loyal readers know, we at FGI have long advocated for GPO to actually deposit digital documents in depository libraries. Actual deposit (as opposed to virtual deposit) of digital documents, we feel, is an important way to assure access to and preservation of government information (see “Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program”).

A search of current depository management publications failed to turn up any formal definition of a “virtual depository”, much less management procedures. So, since there appears to be no official definition of “virtual depository,” I’d like to take this opportunity to propose one:

Virtual depository: a collection of digital government documents published by the Government Printing Office (GPO) and/or various government agencies and distributed to and hosted on the local servers of FDLP libraries so as to adhere to Title 44 of the US code and assure the provision of no fee and fully-functional access, distributed digital preservation and better and more expanded services to government information.

This is of course a definition in progress meant to open discussion on what exactly it’ll mean to be a depository library in the digital future. I realize that I’ve proposed a definition after showing it to be meaningless; however, the term has already been released into the wilds of the govt documents community lexicon (and GPO, I assume, will continue to use the term). I thought it best to define it in order to highlight the core roles of libraries (collecting, organizing, preserving and giving access to information). “Digital depository” might be a more meaningful term, so community members may want to start using that instead.

The first step is of course to define our terms clearly and succinctly and hopefully I have done that here. We’d greatly appreciate any comments you may have. And if you can coin a better term, please leave that in the comments as well.

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