Home » Commentary

Category Archives: Commentary

Our mission

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.

Vigilance and Action in Uncertain Times

During this past week, there were many reports about the Trump administration’s actions that appear to be either removing information, or blocking information, or filtering scientific information through a political screen before allowing that information to be released.

How concerned should government information specialists be about these developments? Very.

What can we do? First, let’s be cautious but vigilant. As librarians, we are well aware that today’s information environment bombards us with fragments of news and demonstrably false news and speculation and premature interpretation of fragmentary speculation of unverified news. We should neither panic nor dismiss all this as noise. There is so much happening in so many areas of public policy right now that no one can keep up with everything; one thing that government information specialists can do is keep up with developments about access to government information so we can keep our colleagues and communities informed with accurate information.

We also need to evaluate what is happening critically. The Trump administration has attempted to normalize last week’s actions, saying, essentially, that removal of information and control of information is a normal part of a transition. On Tuesday of last week, for example, White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed concerns about reports of censorship at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by saying “I don’t think there’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, we’re going to review the policies.” And on Wednesday, Doug Ericksen, the communications director for the President’s transition team at the EPA, said “Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA.” In short, this explanation is that the new administration is just updating and transitioning and making sure that information from agencies conforms to its new policies. This is “business as usual.” Nothing to see here; relax; move on. Even some govinfo librarians minimize the significance of what is going on.

This sounds reasonable on the surface. Indeed, since even the entire Executive Office of the President, which includes the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, has been offline since Inauguration day and a temporary page asks us to “Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov,” perhaps we should just be patient? Surely those will be back, right?

I think we need to realize that this actually is pretty odd behavior. And we need to help our communities who still need access to important policies (like OMB Circular A-130 [IA copy]) that are gone but, presumably, still in effect.

We need to be aware that this administration presents difficulties for the public in just figuring out what it is actually doing. It appears that the administration has reversed or modified some of its initial information policies or that they were incorrectly reported, and that these reversals — if they are reversals and if they are permanent — seem to have come about because of public outcry.

I think we need to take the administration’s actions seriously and let them know when they are doing something unacceptable or uninformed. We need to stand up for public access and transparency.

I suggest that it is our professional duty to address these issues. I suggest that the communities that our libraries serve expect and need us to do this. This administration is doing many troubling and controversial things and everyone cannot fight every battle. Ensuring long-term free access to government information should be a job responsibility for every government information librarian.


What can we do? What should we do? How can we best allocate our resources?

  • We need to keep our library administrators informed. We can do that by putting Government Information on committee agendas and preparing accurate and well-informed briefings that address how political changes will affect the library’s ability to provide content and service and how they will affect library users’ ability to find and get and use government information.
  • We need to talk to our user-communities. We need to provide them with accurate and well-informed information about how political changes are already affecting their ability to find and get and use government information. We need to provide alternate sources where necessary and update library guides and catalogs. We need to learn from them when they identify issues and problems and solutions.
  • We need to keep our professional colleagues informed through local library meetings, informal communication, and professional activities.
  • We can still contribute to the EOT. There are lots of things you can do.
  • We can make the case for digital collections.

    We need to realize and understand that the underlying issues of long-term free access to government information are not new and they are not limited to this administration

    • We need to remind our administrators that when we depend on pointing instead of collecting we lose information.
    • We need to remind them that even though preservation sites like obamawhitehouse.archives.gov and the 2016 EOT crawl are worthwhile and valuable, they still create the problem of link rot. We need to remind library administrators that pointing to remote collections that move is not a cheap way to provide good service. It is a time-consuming, never-ending task that is neither easier than nor as reliable as building local digital collections.

Sample of News Stories

  • Reports of Federal Government Agencies Directed Not to Communicate with the American Public
  • Trump Administration Restricts News from Federal Scientists at USDA, EPA By Dina Fine Maron (January 24, 2017)
  • Information lockdown hits Trump’s federal agencies By Andrew Restuccia, Alex Guillén and Nancy Cook (01/24/17)
  • USDA lifts gag order: report By Paulina Firozi (01/25/17)
  • How far will President Trump’s media blackout spread? The Sunlight Foundation is trying to find out By Kelly Hinchcliffe (January 25, 2017)
  • Trump officials suspend plan to delete EPA climate web pages By Robin Bravender (Jan 25, 2017)
  • USDA Calls Scientist Gag Order a “Misunderstanding” By Dina Fine Maron (January 25, 2017)
  • The USDA Says That Trump Didn’t Send Its Order Restricting Scientists
  • by Dino Grandoni (Jan. 26, 2017)

  • EPA science under scrutiny by Trump political staff
  • What’s Up With the Office of Management and Budget Website? by Frank Konkel (January 27, 2017)
  • Science off to a rough start in the Trump administration (Jan 29, 2017)
  • Agencies Halt Public Releases USDA and EPA Both Go Quiet Following Orders from Trump Administration Emily Unglesbee (1/30/2017)
  • Panel on End-of-term crawl and the collection of vulnerable government information

    I was honored last week to be part of a panel hosted by OpenTheGovernment and the Bauman Foundation to talk about the End of Term project. Other presenters included Jess Kutch at Coworker.org and Micah Altman, Director of Research at MIT Libraries. I talked about what EOT is doing, as well as some of the other great projects, including Climate Mirror, Data Refuge and the Azimuth backup project, working in concert/parallel to preserve federal climate and environmental data.

    I thought the Q&A segment was especially interesting because it raised and answered some of the common questions and concerns that EOT receives on a regular basis. I also learned about a cool project called Violation Tracker, a search engine on corporate misconduct. And I was also able to talk a bit about what are the needs going forward, including the idea of “Information Management Plans” for agencies similar to the idea of “Data Management Plans” for all federally funded research. I was heartened to know that there is interest in that as a wider policy advocacy effort!

    The full recorded meeting can be viewed here from Bauman’s adobe connect account.

    Here’s more information on the EOT crawl and how you can help.

    Coalitions of government, university, and public interest organizations have been working to ensure as much information as possible is preserved and accessible, amid growing concern that important and sensitive government data on climate, labor, and other issues may disappear from the web once the Trump Administration takes office.

    Last Thursday, OTG and the Bauman Foundation hosted a meeting of advocates interested in preserving access to government data, and individuals involved in web harvesting efforts. James Jacobs, a government information librarian at Stanford University Library who is working on the End of Term (EOT) web harvest – a joint project between the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, the Government Publishing Office, and several universities – spoke about the EOT crawl, and explained the various targets of the harvest, including all .gov and .mil web sites, government social media accounts, and more.

    Jess Kutch discussed efforts by Coworker.org with Cornell University to preserve information related to workers’ rights and labor protections, and other meeting attendees presented some of their own projects as well. Philip Mattera explained how Good Jobs First is using its Violation Tracker database to scrape and preserve government source material related to corporate misconduct.  

    Micah Altman, Director of Research at MIT Libraries, presented on the need for libraries and archives to build better infrastructure for the EOT harvest and other projects – including data portals, cloud infrastructure, and technologies that enhance discoverability – so that data and other government information can be made more easily accessible to the public.

    via Volunteers work to preserve access to vulnerable government information, and you can help | OpenTheGovernment.org.

    “Flexibility” and the collaborative FDLP

    There’s something that has been sticking in my craw for quite some time. That something is the term “flexibility” that has been used as a bludgeon by regional FDLP libraries to push the Government Publishing Office (GPO) to create its potentially disastrous regional discard policy. Over the last 5 years at least, some FDLP librarians — primarily those in Regional libraries — have argued that, because of dire space issues at their libraries, they need “flexibility” to manage their collections. In other words, they want to discard documents to gain floor space. Regionals have argued that Title 44 of the US Code, the underlying law of the FDLP, does not give them this “flexibility.”

    It’s always bothered me that this demand for “flexibility” has come from a few regionals but the policy change will affect the whole FDLP. When GPO asked regionals what they wanted to do, more than half of the 47 current Regionals said they wanted to retain their current tangible collections and sixty percent said they wanted to continue building their tangible collections. When, in the same survey, GPO asked which of 60 specific titles Regionals might want to discard, only two titles were selected by more than a third of regionals.

    So, if a few Regionals want to get rid of a few titles, why do we need a policy that turns the FDLP commitment to preservation upside down and encourages rather than prohibits discarding at all 47 Regionals?

    It seems to me that there are three problems with the argument that Regionals need “flexibility:”

    1. The FDLP system already has flexibility. There are two kinds of depository libraries: Regional libraries that are required to receive all publications that GPO distributes in order to ensure long term preservation and access to the entire FDLP corpus and support the work of Selective libraries in their state or area, and Selective libraries that tailor their collections to match their size and the needs of their local communities and which may withdraw documents they’ve selected after 5 years’ retention. It is the very rules that the Discard Policy circumvents (Title 44 and the The Federal Depository Library Handbook) that create and support the flexibility of the system as a whole. The retention requirement of regionals is the very reason that all selective FDLP libraries can discard and manage their collections “flexibly.”
    2. Flexibility is built into the FDLP. Indeed, the words “flexibility” and “flexible” are mentioned more than a dozen times in the FDLP Handbook. This new (mis)use of the term to mean only one thing — discarding paper copies by Regionals — is a red herring that implies that flexibility is needed (it is not) and does not exist (it does). If a few regionals need “flexibility” perhaps they should just become selectives.
    3. Giving Regionals the “flexibility” to discard parts of their collections actually reduces the flexibility of the system as a whole because it puts new burdens on the Selectives — thus reducing their flexibility.

    Is the current Regional/Selective FDLP system perfect? No, there’s lots more work to be done by all FDLP libraries to assure preservation of the historic national collection and better support the program, and more that GPO could do to support cataloging and curation of the national collection. But I really wonder if the FDLP even needs this new designation of “preservation stewards” brought about by the introduction of the Federal Information Preservation Network (FIPNet) and the Regional Discard Policy. We already have 47 of them in the form of Regional libraries! If a few regionals choose to become selectives, FDLP would still have all those other Regionals (maybe as many as 40?). And we would also have those few former-regionals that would probably maintain most if not all of their historic collections. This would be much better for preservation and better for users than these temporary preservation stewards.

    DttP letter to the editor re digital preservation of government information

    Jim and I recently wrote a letter to the editor to the GODORT journal Documents to the People (DttP) (published in the Winter 2015 issue) entitled “Digital preservation deserves better coverage.” We post it here to FGI in the hopes that it will “clarify some of the issues and provide a more accurate and more understandable context for action by the GODORT community.” It’s not yet online at the DttP site, but will eventually be posted there. We’ll post a link to the DttP site when it’s online. I’ll be at ALA Midwinter conference next week in Chicago, so please track me down if you’d like to discuss. That is all.


    In the Summer 2014 issue of Documents to the People (DttP), an article by Scott Casper, which was highlighted as a “feature,” offered a badly misleading, confoundingly misinformed, and confusingly written account of digital preservation. Digital preservation is an incredibly important topic for government information professionals and it deserves better treatment in DttP.

    I think Casper must have had good intentions in writing his article, “Promoting Electronic government Documents: Part Four: Preservation.” Perhaps his intention was simply to promote the importance of digital government information, which is the theme of his series of articles, and the necessity of maintaining access to government information of all types. But whatever his intention was, he does a disservice by conflating important issues, confusing technical terms, and mostly ignoring the very important issue of digital preservation which is his ostensible topic.

    It would not be useful to point out every error and misstatement in Casper’s article. There are so many, though, that we would guess that anyone who read his article would be left either confused or badly misinformed. So, instead of trying to correct every error or trying to figure out what he may have meant by every confusing statement, we think it would be more useful to define and describe and give some context to a few of the key concepts that Casper mentions. Our hope is that this will clarify some of the issues and provide a more accurate and more understandable context for action by the GODORT community.

    Preservation of born-digital information is a very real and important topic that the government documents community needs to understand and address. DttP readers should be aware, for instance, that more government information is born-digital in a single year than all the printed government information that all FDLP libraries have accumulated in over 200 years. (See Born-Digital U.S. Federal Government Information: Preservation and Access prepared by James A. Jacobs for the Center for Research Libraries.)

    Digitization of print information is not a preservation solution; rather, it creates new digital preservation challenges that have not yet been adequately addressed. While digitization offers many promises of better access such as better discoverability, easy accessibility, and enhanced usability, and even a potential form of “preservation” (by protecting fragile paper documents from damage through use), the simple act of converting a paper document into a digital object does not automatically deliver any of those promises. In fact, digitization is only the first of many costly and technically challenging steps needed to ensure long-term access to content. (See Wait! Don’t Digitize and Discard! A White Paper on ALA COL Discussion Issue #1a. and Digitization does not magically preserve paper.)

    Access is not preservation. The word “access” is too often used as a buzzword that hides and obscures a number of underlying issues. It is often conflated with preservation as if the two were the same. In fact, they are two very different things that require very different actions. Like two spouses, they are very different but intimately related. So, when we hear the word “access” used, we should always remember two things: First, access without preservation is temporary, at best. Providing access does not guarantee preservation or long-term access — much less free access. Too often libraries are willing to replace public domain collections with “just in time” fee-based access that is encumbered by licensing and DRM restrictions. In our digital age we often see access promoted as a desirable goal in itself, only to see once “accessible” documents suddenly disappear from the web. “Access” without trusted, long-term, reliable preservation is more like a Kmart blue-light special (“Get it while you can! It won’t be here long!”), than a long-term library service. Second, preservation without access is an illusion. As Paul Conway said, “In the digital world, the concept of access is transformed from a convenient byproduct of the preservation process to its central motif.” See Preservation in the Digital World by Paul Conway and The value in being a depository library.

    Digital preservation is an essential activity of libraries. Casper fails to recognize this fact when he describes the good work of the EDI (Electronic Documents of Illinois) project without mentioning that it is a service of the Illinois State Library (http://iledi.org/). Digital preservation takes resources and a long-term commitment, but it also takes a very specific understanding of the long-term value of information (even information that is not popular or used by many people), and a commitment to the users of information. These are the strengths of libraries. Digital preservation is not something that can be cavalierly dismissed as the responsibility of others. (See: Preservation for all: LOCKSS-USDOCS and our digital future by James R. Jacobs and Victoria Reich in Documents to the People, Volume 38:3, Fall 2010).

    Relying solely on the government to preserve its information is risky. Casper almost recognizes this when he cites the defunding of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia unit and the cessation of the publication of the Statistical Abstract. But this is an example of an agency ceasing to create new information, not an example of an agency failing to preserve already created information. (So far, the Bureau has preserved old digital editions of Statistical Abstract and maintained online access to them.) Worse, Casper calls the privatization of the Statistical Abstract a “happy postscript.” Privatization of public information is hardly something that government documents librarians should be happy about. And it is hard to understand how relying on for-profit companies can be considered a good way to guarantee the preservation of the information or free access to it. Casper misses the opportunity to show that, when we rely only on government to preserve the digital information it creates, it becomes very easy for economics or politics or technology or bureaucracy to result in the loss of information. (See: When we depend on pointing instead of collecting and Government Link Rot and Information is not a Service, Service is not Information and Less Access to Less Information By and About the U.S. Government and Government Documents at the Crossroads.)

    Casper does ask the right question early on in his article: “Who is responsible for this preservation?” But the only answer he seems to give is that “there are no answers.” But Casper is wrong. There is an answer and it is right in front of our eyes: libraries should take this responsibility. There are many actions that libraries can take now to promote digital preservation of government information at all levels of government (this is not just a federal issue!).

    Preserve Paper copies. The FDLP is successfully preserving documents that were released in paper (and microfiche) quite nicely. We often hear that “digitizing” paper documents will “preserve” them, but we do not need to convert these documents to digital in order to preserve them. Digitization can provide better access and (if proper care and resources are invested in the digitization) increase the flexibility, usability, and re-usability of many documents. But digitization alone does not guarantee the preservation of the content. Worse, there are repeated calls for digitizing paper collections so that the paper collections can be discarded and destroyed. Such actions will endanger preservation of the content if they do not include adequate steps to ensure digital preservation of those newly created digital objects. Given that paper documents do not present a current preservation problem, and given that there is an enormous body of born-digital documents being created that do present a current preservation problem, one thing we can do is avoid creating new problems with proposals to destroy and discard paper collections before we have solved the problems of preservation of born digital documents. (We can still digitize paper documents in order to enhance access, but we should not use digitization as an excuse to discard or destroy the paper originals.) (See Wait! Don’t Digitize and Discard! A White Paper on ALA COL Discussion Issue #1a.)

    Move FDsys forward. GPO is doing a good job of capturing born-digital Congressional information (not digitized material as Casper mistakenly points out) and is doing an increasingly good job of capturing Judicial Branch documents. The FDsys system is apparently well designed for long term preservation, too. There are, however, two things that FDLP librarians can do now: First, we can encourage GPO to get FDsys certified as a Trusted Digital Repository. This has been on GPO’s agenda for a few years, but budget uncertainties have delayed it. It would help if GPO heard from the FDLP community that this should be a high priority. Second, even if FDsys gets certified, we need more than one copy of FDsys in the hands of a single government agency in order to reduce the risk of loss of that content. There are several ways the FDLP community can further this goal: Encourage more libraries to become LOCKSS-USDOCS partners; Suggest to GPO that it allow the Internet Archive to crawl FDsys systematically; Investigate partnerships with other government agencies such as NARA (could NARA become a LOCKSS-USDOCS partner?); explore partnerships with the Digital Preservation Network; Create records for the Digital Public Library of America that point to LOCKSS-USDOCS copies when they are made publically accessible; follow up on the digital preservation recommendations in the NAPA report, Rebooting The Government Printing Office: Keeping America Informed in the Digital Age. (Full disclosure: James A. Jacobs has done technical consulting work for the Center for Research Libraries in its certification of digital repositories.)

    Preserve More Documents of Executive Agencies. So much that is born-digital is produced by executive department agencies and is not captured by GPO. These are the new fugitive documents (those that are in scope of the FDLP but fall through the cracks; GPO PURLs are not fugitives). To be sure, this needs much more attention by GPO and depository libraries. FDLP libraries should concentrate on collecting born-digital fugitive documents and should work with GPO to develop a plan that focuses on developing programs that are attractive to agencies and that benefit agencies. This needs to be a higher priority for GPO with an increased focus and increased resources. GPO has the infrastructure in place (FDsys) to offer great benefits to agencies and this would help reduce agency fugitives.

    Get Digital Deposit. FDLP libraries need to insist that GPO modify its long-outdated and counter-productive Superintendent Of Documents Policy Statement 301 (SOD 301) that limits deposit of digital information to so-called “tangible” products. This policy never made sense — it was nominally supposed to be a response to born-digital information, but instead of acknowledging that GPO could deposit born-digital information with libraries, it created a two-tier structure that authorized it to deposit some and prohibited it from depositing other digital information. SOD 301 says that it is ok for GPO to deposit digital information on “tangible” media, but not ok to deposit “online” digital information. But, worse than not making sense, this policy is actually harmful to digital preservation in two ways. First, it only allows deposit of those digital items that are least preservable and most prone to physical deterioration and file format obsolescence (floppies, CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc.). This burdens depository libraries with an almost impossible task of preservation and access. Second, it prohibits deposit of raw digital information in formats that are more easily preserved and less likely to become obsolete (digital object files in PDF, text, HTML, XML, etc.). These are the digital objects that could have been easily distributed more cheaply and more reliably than “tangible” media. These are the digital objects that FDLP libraries could have been preserving and making accessible (during government shutdowns, for example) — the very kind of digital objects that GPO now enthusiastically distributes to the LOCKSS-USDOCS private network. The effect of this policy has been to delay the active participation of FDLP libraries in digital preservation. There was never a good justification for this policy, but now it is so obviously out-of-date and has failed so demonstrably that keeping it is place should be considered an act of negligence. (See From Production to Preservation to Access to Use: OAIS, TDR, and the FDLP.)

    Smart-Archive the Web. Although capturing web pages and preserving them is far from an adequate (or even accurate) form of digital preservation, it is a useful stop-gap until producers understand that depositing preservable digital objects with trusted repositories is the only way to guarantee preservation of their information. Therefore, FDLP libraries should use web archiving tools, including services such as Archive-It (as Casper points out, if in a confusing way). Every FDLP library should at least consider “smart-archiving” of web-based information. Web-archiving should not be seen as everything-or-nothing: libraries can do focused selection to build collections useful to their own users. This is smart-archiving. Selections can be large (an agency or a domain) or small (crawl a few seeds) or even one-document-at-a-time. Examples of these models exist. See, for example: the Chesapeake project, the work of The Columbia Libraries (The Integrity of Research Is at Risk: Capturing and Preserving Web Sites and Web Documents and the Implications for Resource Sharing), the California Digital Library Web Archiving Services(**), and the Stanford Libraries EEMs project (Everyday Electronic Materials in Policy and Practice).

    Promote Digital Preservation. Casper’s series of articles is about “promotion” of government information and his recommendation in this article about preservation is that we should “keep promoting these online sources.” He should have stressed the most important promotion that is needed today: the promotion of the role of FDLP libraries in actively preserving digital government information. The time when FDLP libraries could be passive in digital preservation is long past. The time when FDLP libraries could look to others to take care of digital preservation of government information is long past. FDLP libraries can work with others, but we must actually work with them, not leave the work to them.

    James A. Jacobs, Emeritus Data Librarian, UC San Diego
    James R. Jacobs, Federal Government Information Librarian, Stanford University
    Co-founders, Free Government Information

    **Editor’s note: CDL recently announced that the WAS service and collections was being transitioned over the Internet Archive’s Archive-it service.

    FCC “Open Internet” Rule will hurt e-government

    What will happen to government information on the web if we lose the little net neutrality we still have? Marvin Ammori of Slate’s Future Tense project, in partnership New America and Arizona State University, says that it will result in federal, city, and state government websites that run slowly and deliver errors.

    Although Ammori doesn’t say so, I would guess that it will have another, second-order effect on government information. First, using the slow internet lane will make it more difficult for governments to deliver adequate e-government services. Second, Congress and local governing bodies will use this as an excuse, not to fund fast-lane access, but to reduce funding of government information delivery and e-government even further. Finally, the private sector will move in and offer better services and fast lane access, thus privatizing and commercializing government information access and delivery. Private companies will, of course, demand that they get all the government information they want for free and then they will charge the rest of us for access to this valuable, public resource.

    On May 15, the FCC created a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet NPRM) that would permit cable and phone companies to create slow and fast lanes on the Internet. The FCC has received an unprecedented number of comments on this proposal (over a million), prompting the FCC to make the comments available to the public for analysis in XML format.