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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year

 

James and I were both impressed to see that MLIS student Crystal Vicente posted a link on govdoc-l to her paper about the effects on government information of the government shutdown. It is great to see library students addressing the issues that confront the future of government information. We’d like to see more students posting their papers to promote engagement between students and practioners. [Note: the link to Vicente’s paper has changed. Here is the correct link (as of 4/4/14) to Online electronic government information and the impact of the government shutdown on public access.]

Ms. Vincente’s paper prompted us to reflect on the issues that face government information and FDLP libraries. As we end the year and begin a new one, we offer these reflections on some of the big issues that still face us.

  1. e-government. We think it is important for librarians to differentiate between “e-government” and information dissemination by the government. The two terms may overlap in common usage, but we think it is useful to draw a distinction between e-government, which is a service that uses government information and the information itself. We think it is useful to distinguish between interactions (or transactions) with the government (which is two-way communication) and the government disseminating information (which is one-way communication, an instantiation of the government’s work and processes).E-government and the provision of information services by the government on the web will surely increase over time and this is a very important thing to monitor and evaluate, but we believe that librarians need to pay even closer attention to the (public) information that the government gathers, assembles, and creates and then uses to create such services.
     

    A citizen might go to a government web site and submit a form to find out the current population of their city or the phone number for their Representative or the current laws or regulations on a subject. This is an e-government information service driven by government information. Will the government preserve and make that information available after it is “out of date” or when it is not popular enough to warrant a full-fledged service? This isn’t hypothetical: we have already seen the Census Bureau remove whole Decennial Censuses — one of the biggest, most important collections of government information, from its American FactFinder service and announce its intention of continuing to do so as new data become available. (See: American FactFinder, American FactFinder Communications,AFF2 Expansion and Legacy Sunset, and The Future of the Decennial Census: Where is it Going?, and IASST-L For users of the US Census Bureau’s American Factfinder: that “include archived products” checkbox does nothing, officially.)

    Services may come and go, but the information itself needs to be preserved, and free access to it and services for it will need to be provided for the long term — regardless of the short-term services the government provides with that information.

    The data behind such e-government information services can be (and, in our view, should be) acquired by libraries to ensure its long-term preservation and availability. In some cases, this will be more like acquiring databases than acquiring static documents — a task which has its own challenges, but is not without precedent. (See the long history of relations between ICPSR and libraries in the preservation of social science data and delivery of data services, and and the current trend for libraries to be involved in “data management.”) E-Government initiatives are less likely to worry about long-term, life-cycle data preservation and access since many (most?) focus instead on currency of information and responses to individual queries. As we see more e-government services (such as healthcare.gov and online facilities for applying for driver’s licenses, etc.), this will become an even bigger issue and the distinction between e-government transactions and the information behind such services will become even more important.

    E-government can also create a big impact and burden on library staff (most often, unfunded), but the instantiation of the workings of government has never been more at risk as we deal with the many issues and difficulties surrounding born-digital government information.

    The availability of e-government information services should be seen, not as an excuse for reducing library involvement in government information, but as evidence of the need for even more involvement in the long-term preservation of and access to information!

    (See also E-Gov: are we citizens or customers?)

  2. the single source problem. Although the recent government shut-down was a very visible and extreme reminder of the problems of relying on a single source for any information, complete shut-downs are not the only source of problems. When we rely on a single source for creation, preservation and access to information, any decision made by that single source can potentially affect the availability or accuracy of the information. (See, for example: When we depend on pointing instead of collecting and The Technical is Political). And when all we have to rely on is commercial sources for public information, it is a sign of the failure of libraries to do their job of ensuring long-term free public access to public information.
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  4. discovery. The issue of information discovery is different from, but connected to, these other issues. When we rely on a single information provider (such as GPO or an information agency like BLS), we are limited to their interface and discovery tools and their choices of what to deliver and how. We are also limited by the “stove-piping” of information into silos. But, if libraries build collections along subject and discipline and user-community lines (instead of provenance or agency lines), one result will be new ways to discover and get information and new ways to combine information from government sources and non-government sources in ways that work better for users and that the government itself cannot do.
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  6. authenticity. The question of authenticity is not a technical problem, though technology can help. The thing that makes it hardest for information to be forged or altered or damaged is replication with trusted parties. (See LOCKSS Preservation Principles and Who do you Trust? The Authentication Problem).
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  8. fugitives. We all know that fugitive documents are an issue, especially as agencies publish more and more of their information online and outside of the traditional FDLP. We would hope that in 2014 and beyond, the community will put more energy toward fugitives. We need to collectively figure out which agencies are best and which are worst at complying with Title 44. We need to identify the current community activities that deal with fugitives (see, for example, Lost Docs), and gaps where more needs to be done. This also relates to the above issue of e-government services that provide short-term access to information, but that do not instantiate it for long-term preservation and access.
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  10. bottlenecks. We should also explore what bottlenecks to access exist besides government shutdowns. This gets into the areas of government secrecy, less access to less information territory, the digital divide, and the “information deluge.” We used to talk about “drinking from the firehose” — but the issue of finding the right information amidst too many google search results is becoming even more important. (Howard Rheingold calls this “crap detection.”) This affects librarians as well as the public. We need to select, describe, and preserve the information our communities need and then curate those collections and create digital tools and services and educational materials that will help our communities find and use the government information they need.
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  12. finding solutions. We believe that the the government information community needs to act in concert to develop solutions to digital information access and preservation. There are many possible solutions and they should all be explored. At FGI, we’ve long advocated for digital deposit to fend off the single point of failure issue (see When we depend on pointing instead of collecting), and FDL’s have put energy toward building digital collections (e.g. lockss-usdocs, archive-it, EEMs). But we think there are other avenues to explore besides the end-of-the-publication-cycle solutions. What about things like “adopt a federal agency” — where one or a group of FDL’s liaise with an agency to assure their publications and data make their way into the FDLP — FDLP libraries advocating to federal agencies that they get together to collaboratively build information architectures that facilitate preservation rather than obfuscate it etc? In other words, are there any beginning-of-the-information-lifecycle ideas that could be explored?
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  14. beyond docs…. Finally, how do the issues we’re dealing with in government information carry over and affect other library collections, services, and policies in general? To what extent is government information the canary in the library coal mine (see, e.g., What’s love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections #lovegate)?

 

There is plenty to work on! Here’s to a happy, healthy, collectible and preservable 2014!

— James and Jim


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