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Information is not a Service, Service is not Information

John Shuler and his colleagues comment on the effects of the recent government shutdown on information access in this GIQ editorial:

  • E-government without government, John A. Shuler, Paul T. Jaeger, and John Carlo Bertot. Government Information Quarterly (In Press, Corrected Proof) DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2013.11.004 [subscriber access required].

The authors rightly point out that the shutdown caused an interruption of “services and transactions,” and that: “for e-government to function, you actually need a government that functions.” This is, of course, true whether the government services are online (applying for social services, signing up for Medicare) or physical (access to museums, parks, and monuments). That government services require a functioning government is not a new insight, nor is it unique to digital services. It is, in fact, so obvious that it should go without saying. Alas, we live in a time when this kind of thing needs to be pointed out to politicians, citizens, and, apparently, to librarians.

In making this observation, however, the authors also conflate two very different concepts in a way that obscures another lesson that we should gather from the government shutdown. They conflate government information, which is a resource, with e-government, which is a service that uses government information. Resources are not services and services are not resources and conflating them confuses the issues of access, preservation, and the different roles of government information producers and libraries in the digital age.

E-government is a service. It is like the gate at a national park. The park is a resource and the gate is a service that protects the resource and provides access to it — but is not the resource itself. When the government controls the only gate and then closes it, the park becomes inaccessible — even though the park is still there.

Government information is a resource, like a national park. When the government controls the resource by keeping it in its own information silos and allowing access only through its gates, we can lose access to the information just as easily as we can lose access to a national park — even though the information is still there.

But information resources are special — in a good way. Librarians should be the first to understand that information does not have to be locked into a single silo and controlled by a single government gate. Information can be copied and used, and re-used, and re-purposed, and re-mixed. Libraries can provide different kinds of services than the government does. The nature of information as a resource is such that this can be done without causing damage or overuse to the resource or to other service providers. Economists call these kinds of resources “non-rivalrous,” which means that we can all make use of them without anyone having to give them up, and “non-excludable” because it is actually impractical to stop everyone from making use of the item. Resources that are both non-rivalrous and non-excludable are called “pure public goods” [Suber]. What a perfect description of government information!

Shuler and colleagues miss the larger issue when they identify the shutdown of e-government as the cause of the loss of e-government information, the loss of the ability to search for government materials, the loss of information access and dissemination, and as causing researchers to suspend their studies. These losses and interruptions were real, of course, but they were not caused by the government shutdown and they should not have been “unexpected” as the authors claim they were. The loss of government services were caused by the shutdown, but the loss of access to government information became inevitable and predictable (Jacobs, Jacobs, and Yeo; Peterson, Cowell, and Jacobs) when libraries ceded to the government their own responsibility for making government information available. When FDLP libraries decided to rely on the government as the sole provider of preservation and access, they lost their ability to control what would be preserved, what access would be provided when and at what cost, and what would be withdrawn, corrupted, altered, or lost.

Under these circumstances two things are entirely predictable.

First, information (resources) that the library and its community values will be lost, corrupted, withdrawn, and altered. We know this because this has always been true, even before the digital age. See Less Access to Less Information By and About the U.S. Government for repeated examples of government control of information. The reasons for these kinds of losses of access need not be nefarious or political or even intentional. As recently as this weekend, for example, we saw US court websites go offline due to technical problems. Regardless of the cause or intent, we know that this will happen and, when there is only one gatekeeper, the events will always affect everyone’s access to the resource.

Second, as long as libraries cede control of information, they will have no control over these events: they will have no collections — no resources — to control.

This is a problem for libraries and denying that it exists, getting angry about it, bargaining with Congress to please not do it again, and getting depressed will not help. But libraries do not have to ask the government to solve this problem or ask for permission to solve the problem. The solution to the problem of access to government information resources is within the grasp of libraries today. The solution is to accept that libraries can fix this problem by returning to their traditional roles of selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information, and providing access to and services for that information. Government services may be interrupted, but that is no reason for library services to be interrupted when libraries can have their own copy of the resource.

e-Government Services and library services. Just to be clear: there will always be online government services that libraries cannot duplicate. For example, those that do not use public information (e.g., filing your tax return) and those that provide public information in real-time or near-real-time (e.g., “How big was the earthquake I just felt?”). But there will also always be troves of government information (e.g., databases like The Census of Population and Housing, individual reports such as GAO reports, and whole collections of information from different agencies about a subject, or region, or information of a particular type or information aimed at a particular community) that libraries can choose to select, acquire, organize, and preserve for their own community.

When libraries do this, they will be able to do more than replicate a government service or provide a mirror of a government web site. When libraries build their own digital collections they can free the information from the constraints (legal, technical, economic, political) imposed on agencies that produce that information. Libraries can combine information from government and non-government sources and organize it into collections that address the needs of their communities. Libraries can create user-interfaces and APIs that make it easier for users to discover information that best matches their needs and make it easier for them to acquire and use that information in the ways that best match their workflows. When libraries do this, they can insulate their user communities from the effects that Shuler and colleagues describe.

Libraries can preserve information (resources) and ensure their users will have it even when government gates (services) are closed, whether those closures are caused by a government shutdown, or a politically-driven removal of information, or changes in priorities, or any other reason.

Those who continue to suggest that libraries should provide services without collections, or have collections without services will continue to be frustrated when those who do have collections and who control those collections close the gates, or impose new fees, or limit access, or impose use-restrictions. When the next big shutdown or small loss-of-access occurs and you are tempted to say that it is inconceivable that we could lose access to such important resources, I can only say, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

See also:

For more on e-government services, see Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year.

For more on the essential link between collections and services, see Federal Depository Library Program: Services and Collections.

Endnotes


Jacobs, James A., and James R. Jacobs, and Shinjoung Yeo. Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. 2005. Journal of Academic Librarianship, v.31 n.3 (May 2005) pp198-208 .


Peterson, Karie and Elizabeth Cowell and Jim Jacobs. Government Documents at the Crossroads 2001. American Libraries v.32 n.8 (Sept 2001) p.52-55.


Suber, Peter. 2009. Knowledge as a public good. SPARC Open Access Newsletter, Issue #139 (November 2, 2009)


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