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It is January and time once again to review what last year brought to libraries and the FDLP and where we should put our energies in the coming year.
In 2016 GPO issued a series of policies that express its intentions to enhance both access to and preservation of government information. While we applaud GPO’s intentions, we are dismayed because the policies are fatally flawed and will endanger preservation and access rather than protect and sustain them.
The biggest threat to long-term free public access to government information is government control of that information. Regardless of the good intentions of the current GPO administration, and regardless of the hopes of government information librarians, GPO cannot guarantee long-term free public access to government information on its own.
There are many reasons for this, but they all boil down to the simple fact that, when digital government information is controlled solely by the government that created it, it is only as secure as the next budget, the next change in policy, and the next change in administration. We have written about this repeatedly here at FGI and elsewhere for sixteen years, so we will not repeat all of those arguments (philosophical, technical, legal, economic, and professional) here today. (For those who wish to catch up, please see the FGI Library or the selected links below.)
GPO has come a long way since its first early attempts to deal with the shift from paper-and-ink publications to born-digital information. To its credit, GPO today emphasizes in its policies (including the new ones) its intent to preserve as much digital government information as it can through its own actions as government publisher, through harvesting agency content, and through partnerships with others. GPO has also wisely reversed an earlier policy and is now partnering with LOCKSS to create copies of FDsys in thirty-seven Federal depository libraries. Indeed, supporting the LOCKSS partnership which puts copies of FDSys/govinfo.gov in the hands of FDLP libraries is the most positive step GPO has taken. The LOCKSS archives are not, however, publicly available, so this is only a first step.
These are good intentions and positive steps. But we must ask: Are these steps sufficient? We must ask not only how good they will be if they succeed but how bad can the damage be if they fail? Can GPO really guarantee long-term free public access to government information?
The simple answer to these questions is: No, GPO cannot guarantee long-term free public access to digital government information. Why? First, regardless of its current intentions, GPO does not have a legislative mandate for long-term preservation. The wording of the law (44 USC 4101) does not mention long-term preservation or specify any limitations on what can be excluded or discarded or taken offline. It is limited to providing “online access to” and “an electronic storage facility for” two titles (the Congressional Record and the Federal Register). Everything else is at the discretion of the Superintendent of Documents. Previous SoDs have had completely different priorities and those bad policies could easily return. Federal agencies may request that GPO include agency information, but GPO is only obliged to do so “to the extent practicable.” This means that GPO’s commitment to long-term preservation is subject to changes in GPO administrations. Further, regardless of the intentions of even the most preservation-minded GPO administration, it can only do what Congress funds it to do and there are ongoing and repeated efforts to reduce GPO funding and privatize it.
Second, GPO does not have a legislative mandate to provide free public access. In fact, the law (44 USC 4102) explicitly authorizes GPO to charge reasonable fees for access. GPO’s current intentions are noble, but, alas, they lack the legislative and regulatory foundation necessary to provide guarantees.
So, even if GPO policies are successful in the short-term, the policies make the preservation and long-term free access ecosystem vulnerable to budget shortfalls and political influence because they are designed to consolidate GPO’s control of that information.
The shortcomings of such an approach have become more apparent to more people after the recent presidential election. Scientists, scholars, historians, news organizations, politicians, and even some government information librarians have announced their fears that government information is at risk of being altered, lost, or intentionally deleted because of drastic policy changes and leadership of the incoming presidential administration. (See a list of articles about this issue.)
To be clear, no one has suggested (yet) that information will be deleted from FDSys/govinfo.gov. And we are not predicting that the new President and his executive branch agencies will erase any valuable government information. We are simply saying that they have the authority to do so and, if we keep all our eggs in one GPO/government-agencies basket, they have the technical ability to do so. This is not a new problem. Agencies and politicians have a long history of attempting to privatize, withdraw, censor, and alter government information. Between 1981 until 1998, Anne Heanue and the fine folks at the Washington Office of the American Library Association (ALA) published an amazing series called Less Access to Less Information by and about the U.S. Government that chronicled such efforts to restrict access to government information.
What is new to this problem is the ability of a government that controls access to that information to remove access with the flick of a switch. Here at FGI we have written about this specific problem again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
To make matters worse, by explicit intent and inevitable effect, the new GPO policies will further consolidate GPO power and control and further weaken every individual FDLP library and the FDLP system as a whole.
What can government information librarians do in 2017? How should we focus our resources and actions?
- Monitor implementation of the Discard Policy. If successful, the new Regional Discard Policy (along with GPO’s National Plan and other policies) will, by design, further shift both access and preservation away from the FDLP into GPO. In addition, although the Policy claims that the digital surrogates it will rely on will be “complete and unaltered,” it lacks procedures to ensure this. At this point, the best we can do is hold GPO (and the Regionals that will be discarding documents) to their claims and not let the policy do even more harm than it is designed to do.
- Participate in PEGI. A loose group of individuals and organizations met last Spring and Fall to organize an effort called Preservation of Electronic Government Information (PEGI). Watch for developments and opportunities to participate in actions developed by this group.
- Support the EOT Crawl. 2016 will be the third national End of Term Crawl. The goal of the EOTs is to document the change in federal administrations by harvesting as much government information from .gov, .mil, and other domains before and after the inauguration. Follow their activities, contribute “seeds” and databases that need to be harvested, and promote their activities and visibility within your own communities.
- Support changes to OMB A-130. The Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-130 lays out regulations for “Managing Information as a Strategic Resource.” The government policies that have done the most to affect preservation of information collected with government funding have been those that required “Data Management Plans” of those who get government research grants. These policies have prompted the creation of many new positions and programs to support data preservation in libraries. Oddly, there is no parallel regulation that requires government agencies to guarantee the preservation of the information they create. FGI recommended amending A-130 to require every government agency to have an “Information Management Plan” for the public information it acquires, assembles, creates, and disseminates. We will continue to push for this change. Watch for opportunities to support it.
- Support changing SOD 301. GPO’s Dissemination/Distribution Policy for the Federal Depository Library Program (“SOD 301”) is the policy that allows GPO to deposit digital government information with FDLP libraries, but limits the deposit to only those “products” that are the least preservable and most difficult to access. This policy actively impedes preservation and access and is the policy that GPO uses to enforce its consolidation of power and control over digital government information within the scope of the FDLP. Demand that GPO change this policy to allow FDLP libraries to select and acquire all digital government information.
- Support a truly digital FDLP. GPO’s policies since the mid-1990s have systematically minimized the participation of FDLP libraries in both preservation and access. At a time in which it is more obvious than ever that GPO needs legislatively mandated partners to guarantee long-term free public access to government information, support a truly digital, collaborative FDLP that uses new methods to support the traditional values of the FDLP.
James A. Jacobs, UCSD
James R. Jacobs, Stanford
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:”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
Rare & Endangered Government Publications committee (REGP) panel discussion at ALA Annual: GPO’s National Plan for Access to U.S. Govt Information
At the 2016 ALA Annual Conference, held in Orlando in late June, GODORT’s Rare & Endangered Government Publications committee hosted a panel discussion about GPO’s National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information. The discussion responded to four questions:
- How can depositories ensure preservation of their tangible collections while still providing access for users?<
- What do you see as one pro and one con of GPO’s new Regional Discard Policy?
- In your opinion, is digital deposit by depository libraries a viable option for preserving born-digital government information?
- Is it feasible to assume that the Government can guarantee the preservation of all government information “in perpetuity to ensure the continued accountability of the Government to its present and future citizens”?
Kirsten Clark, Daniel Cornwall, and Shari Laster addressed these questions along with those posed by attendees. Daniel and Shari have put together summaries of their remarks here (Daniel) and here (Shari). Below are some key points:
From Daniel’s remarks:
Aside from being chronically underresourced for preserving and dissemination, the strong natural incentives for government are to hide or destroy information, not to preserve it. There are least four circumstances when the government has a strong incentive to destroy information:
- When information becomes outdated. This is particularly true with web sites. The majority of users benefit from only having the most current information. Having to sift through older reports – unless you are a historical researcher is wading through clutter. So a gov’t web designer looking for the most benefit for the highest number, will ensure that only a short crisp menu of the latest information is available.
- When information was generated by a previous Administration. It’s a known fact that after the end of term of a federal or state executive, all reports and other information productions belonging to the predecessor’s office are wiped clean off the government website and not normally preserved by the incoming administration.
- When information is perceived as embarrassing. A few Administrations bravely admit their mistakes and learn from them. Most try to sweep them under the rug.
- When information is perceived as a threat to national security. It only takes one terror attack to get the government going “OMG! OMG! Mosaic Theory!” to get them going about the perceived dangers of having some material in the public record – even it had been in the public record for years. Witness the withdrawal of some USGS Water Supply CDs and the attempted removal of long public Treasury money laundering reports after 9/11. The second withdrawal would have happened if not for the loud outcry of librarians and financial researchers. In an all digital, government centric server world, the reports would have been deleted from access as a fait accompli.
These incentives were present in the print era, but much harder to act upon. Once physical items were in the hands of federal depositories, a public recall order had to be issued. If the order seemed to be made for reasons 2-4 above, such orders were often publicly disputed. But when all government information resides on federal servers, “recalls” can happen at the push of a button without debate. We cannot risk that happening to the public record.
From Shari’s remarks:
Dark archives are a sterile approach to preservation. You keep the “concatenation of atoms” of the original object, but collections under lock and key are counter to the spirit of no-fee permanent public access: they privilege access to the few who are positioned & resourced to navigate permissions. They’re also vulnerable to the winds of political and economic change. When you have an information source that by definition can’t have a user, the justification of the resources it takes to protect it becomes a lot harder.
I’d like to advocate for an active, adaptive, and messy approach to preserving tangible collections. After all, we already know that these collections are secure for the long term to the extent that we rely on redundancy. If my local user spills her coffee all over my collection’s copy of a publication, I’d like to be able to obtain or make a high-quality reproduction and give it right back to her so she can dig back in!
By building collections for users, we focus our work where it’s most likely to be fruitful. I know there’s an argument that all government information should be saved for posterity because we don’t know for sure what will be important to the future. In truth, we are already make judgments about ephemera, filing updates, superseding, and so on. We also know the core documents of democracy are not in real danger, and saving every pamphlet from every federal agency is beyond the power of all of us. The space between these two approaches is filled by all of us working collaboratively to maintain collections that meet the needs of our communities, both broadly and uniquely construed.
More background and discussion:
- The National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information
- Strategic Planning, Part I: A Workable Plan for GPO and FDLP
- Strategic Planning, Part II: SWOT Analysis for the FDLP
- Strategic Planning, Part III: Building a Collaborative FDLP
Following the conference, GPO made more information available about the Regional Discard Policy, and launched a new site: Implementing the Regional Discard Policy. This addresses much of the need for clarification identified by all three panelists, and has been explored in more depth in a recent post, “Analysis of the Regional Discard Policy: What you need to know about implementation.”
Now that GPO is
testing the implementation of implementing the Regional Discard Policy, it is time to finally get answers to the important questions that GPO has not addressed over the last two years.
Although we have asked many questions about this policy, our concerns boil down to one simple question: Will FDLP — and more importantly, the public! — lose information when Regionals discard their historic collections? To answer that question, we just need to know if GPO’s implementation of the Policy will ensure that the paper preservation copies of discarded volumes and their digital surrogates are complete and accurate.
We now know that the implementation will not prevent loss of information.
In October 2015, GPO announced that it would begin testing processes and procedures of the new Regional Discard Policy with six regional depositories in January of 2016. GPO provided little description of how the policy would be implemented beyond the policy itself, leaving many important questions unanswered.
GPO has now provided links to three draft implementation documents, a recording of an information webinar, and some other “informational resources.” This provides the FDLP community with the first indications of how GPO is interpreting its new Policy and how it intends to implement it.
There are still many unanswered questions, but we now have the first solid indications of how GPO intends to balance preservation of (and access to) the FDLP Historical Collections while discarding them.
We analyzed GPO’s earlier implementation statements in a previous post. We also asked specific questions about implementation in an open letter to GPO, and, in a separate post, we review the few answers to those questions that we can infer from this new batch of documents.
In this post we focus on the big picture and the most important things FDLP librarians need to understand about GPO’s implementation of the Policy.
In December of last year, sixteen librarians wrote an Open Letter to GPO regarding the Regional Discard Policy in which we asked twelve questions about the approved version of the Regional Discard Policy.
Now that GPO has released several new “informational resources” about progress of the “testing phase” (now referred to as “implementation phase one”) of the implementation process, we have some answers to some of those questions.
More than half of the open letter’s questions focused on one of the five titles originally slated for use during the testing phase, the “GAO Reports and Comptroller General Decisions” (GAO/C-G). We chose that collection because it is a relatively small and well defined collection and is easily browsed on FDsys. It provided an easy opportunity to address broad questions with specific examples.
GPO has now released a new and growing spreadsheet list of titles eligible for discard (strangely dated September 2016!) that includes four of the original five test titles, but not the GAO/C-G collection. So, several of our questions that were specific to those reports remain unanswered and, as far as we know, unaddressed by GPO. Many of the “answers” that we now have to our questions are preliminary because GPO has not addressed them directly. Rather, what we have below is what we can glean and infer from a series of policy documents and draft procedural documents released by GPO in July.
Below, we list the answers we infer from the new documents released by GPO. In a second post, we further analyze and go into the details of what we’ve learned from those documents and the reasoning behind the inferences below.