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2. Access – Discussion Questions

The Government Printing Office (GPO) document, Digital Distribution to Depository Libraries: Exploring the Issues (9/6/2006) asks these questions about Access:

1. Access
a. Is the major goal of digital distribution to improve public access to FDLP publications, and if so, how is that goal facilitated by libraries providing local access to a digital copy?
b. Should libraries receiving digital distribution be expected to offer no-fee, anonymous public access to local copies of FDLP digital publications, and to minimize any restrictions such as user registration, location, etc?
c. Should depository libraries take active steps, such as including metadata in their catalog or developing appropriate web pages, to enable users to identify and link to FDLP digital publications in their collections?


FGI Responses

Throughout our responses we will treat the terms “digital distribution” and “digital deposit” as interchangeable.

Q: a. Is the major goal of digital distribution to improve public access to FDLP publications, and if so, how is that goal facilitated by libraries providing local access to a digital copy?

Digital distribution probably will improve public access to otherwise available data, but that is not the major goal of digital distribution. In the view of FGI volunteers, as well as many digital deposit advocates, the major goals of digital distribution are:

  • To help assure the preservation of electronic publications through many copies. One copy or a small number of copies is liable to destruction or alteration, whether through accident or malice. But if we start out with hundreds of initial copies, it is very likely that at least a few institutions will successfully preserve a given publication.
  • To assure perpetual no-fee access to publications acquired through digital deposit. The Future Digital System FDSys is required to be policy neutral and it will also support the needs of the GPO sales program, therefore the infrastructure for charging for electronic government publications will exist. As budget woes grow across government, pressure will build for “reasonable prices” for government publications. With a single-system solution like FDSys, Congress could mandate a subscription plan that would automatically deny access to previously published items. With digital distribution, even if the government eventually charges for new publications, the older publications would remain fee-free at the nation’s depositories.
  • To force any removal of government publications into a public process. When the government holds all copies of a publication on its own servers or those of commercial contractors, items can be removed quietly outside of normal processes. When those same electronic publications are deposited with libraries, then any removal must follow a public process like the sensible one outlined in ID 72: Withdrawal of Federal Information Products from GPO’s Information Dissemination (ID) Programs. Digital distribution is simply the people’s insurance that withdrawal of information won’t take place under cover of night.
  • To hinder official efforts to collect personally identifiable information on users of electronic government publications without a court order. When publications are dispersed across the country, no one query can pull together a list of everyone who has used a file. By contrast, information directly pulled from federal servers can be tabulated by IT staff without any legal process at all. History has shown that federal governments of both parties tend to be overzealous in their data gathering efforts and wind up spending time investigating folks like Lucille Ball, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Merton. We should put a few checks on that tendency.

In addition to what we’d call these major purposes of digital distribution, access is also enhanced through digital deposit in several ways:

  • Protection against partial Internet breakage – People can access local digital collections built by deposit when there are Internet problems in their area. This week, a fiber optic cable north of Talkeetna Alaska was cut and all areas north, including Fairbanks, lost Internet access for servers south of the cut for two days. If a local digital collection existed at the depository library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, people in Fairbanks could have accessed those publications online even though they couldn’t get to GPO Access.
  • Insurance against natural disasters/terror attacks – We are going to have more disasters and terror groups haven’t retired. While a single mirror site for publications on GPO Access has been bandied about for five years or so, we still see messages from GPO that GPO Access will be down for maintenance for hours at a time. Every once in awhile days at a time. Digital distribution would instantly provide dozens or hundreds of mirrors for a given publication.
  • Help with bandwidth issues – Many electronic government publications are many megabytes in size, making them difficult to download over the dialup connections used by as many as 30% of the American population. Libraries with local digital collections housed on library services could easily save these onto DVDs, flash drives or even MP3 players brought in by patrons seeking access to large government documents. Download speeds from LANs are much faster than the general Internet.

Q: b. Should libraries receiving digital distribution be expected to offer no-fee, anonymous public access to local copies of FDLP digital publications, and to minimize any restrictions such as user registration, location, etc?

Absolutely. Although the cost-recovery printing allowed for remote publications should be retained for local digital collections. But the conditions listed in part b of the discussion questions are some of the important reasons we want digital distribution/deposit!

Q: c. Should depository libraries take active steps, such as including metadata in their catalog or developing appropriate web pages, to enable users to identify and link to FDLP digital publications in their collections?

Depository libraries already do this for publications accessed through federal web sites. Why shouldn’t they do the same for local digital collections? This task would actually be easier in a system of digital distribution. Instead of hunting through New Electronic Titles we would get a list with basic metadata from GPO tailored to our selection profile.


For more on the issue of access in general, please see our access issue page, and of course, Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program.

What do you think about the Access discussion questions? Let us know! And if you are going to Council, leave a comment or send us a note about what you heard!

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