future of government information in libraries
Jim and I had a great time last week talking with Thomas Hill about FGI, the FDLP, and the future of government information. Tom is a librarian at Vassar College and hosts the Library Café, a "weekly program of table talk with scholars, artists, publishers and librarians about books, ideas, and the formation and circulation of knowledge." Thanks Tom for the opportunity to talk about the future of the FDLP and government information and for allowing us to upload a copy of the audio file to the Internet Archive.
[Editor's note: This is a guest post from Amanda Wakaruk, Government Information Librarian at the University of Alberta Libraries.]
Over the past week, the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) wrote about and then provided the public with access to documentation outlining a Web Renewal Action Plan that calls for the reduction of Government of Canada (GoC) websites from roughly 1500 down to 1 (see FIPA’s blog entries, linked below). This plan appears to exacerbate the problems I noted in an FGI blog post last year: Government of Canada Publications -– It’s About Access, Not Format. For example, there is no publicly available evidence that the GoC has implemented or plans to implement a comprehensive web archiving plan before reducing its web footprint.
As a practitioner, I run into the problem of missing (i.e., unarchived) born digital content on a regular basis. (And no, Library and Archives Canada is not collecting websites for public consumption – these programs stopped in 2009.) The question I lost sleep over last year is more pressing than ever: who is archiving the web content of the GoC?
A group of institutions is working hard to setup a LOCKSS network that will help preserve the content of the Depository Services Program’s (DSP) e-archive (see the nascent CGI-PLN Wiki – email me if you would like to become a member or can help with funding to try and make this content accessible in the event that we lose access to the DSP website). Our first collection -- as important and impressive as it is at over 110,000 pdfs -- only represents a fraction of the content produced by the GoC. (As you might recall, the DSP does not collect html, only pdfs… and the latter format is discouraged by current GoC web protocols).
I am proud of the fact that the University of Alberta Libraries, my home institution, was able to capture select GoC websites using a fee-based (and US-based) Archive-IT account but no single academic institution can afford to act as steward for the output of the federal government. Happily, we have a colleague in the University of Toronto Libraries, who started capturing GoC web content using Archive-IT a few weeks ago as part of a joint “rescue mission” to save the contents of the Aboriginal Portal of Canada before it was deleted from government servers (the results of these crawls are accessible here and here).
The bigger question, of course, is this: If not the government, then who is responsible for collecting and preserving the born digital content of the GoC? If it *is* the academic sector’s responsibility then where will the funding come from? Recent provincial budget cuts in Ontario and Alberta have been hard on this sector, to say the least. If there is a White Knight out there, now would be a great time to step forward!
The elimination of print publications coupled with a lack of web archiving and a directive to make only ‘current’ information available online marks an incalculable loss. Countless students describe the sessional papers as “life changing” and scholars from all walks of life routinely draw on statistical information produced by their governments to help make sense of our place in the world and inform ways to improve it (as an aside, Statistics Canada plans to remove publications more than a few years old from their website). It is unthinkable that future generations will not have access to information produced by their government today… information that should be informing our cultural narrative.
Reaction to Web Renewal Action Plan
- Harper Government Centralizing, Slashing Federal Web Info
- Federal Open Government Minister Not a Fan of Open Government. Vincent Gogolek, Executive Director, Freedom of Information and Privacy Association Huffington Post Canada, British Columbia
- first post includes links to the Web Renewal Action Plan
- Stephen Harper asked Tony Clement to ‘significantly reduce’ number of government websites, says document. Mike de Souza, Edmonton Journal.
- Historical letters not wanted at Library and Archives Canada, critics say. Joseph Hall, Toronto Star
- Tories Restrict Online Data Mining, But Not for Social Media. Globe and Mail
We've been following with much interest and concern the ongoing and unfolding saga going on between the GPO, Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and Association of Southeast Research Libraries (ASERL) (under the heading "future of the federal depository library program"). This post to Govdoc-l from Suzanne Sears (AUL for public services at University of North Texas and former chair of Depository Library Council) on October 20, 2011 is in response to the ARL Statement on Recent USGPO Decisions Concerning the FDLP dated
October 2011 (released October 12, 2011) and attempts to add context and correct some inaccuracies in the ARL statement.
From: Sears, Suzanne
Sent: Thursday, October 20, 2011 2:00 AM
To: Discussion of Government Document Issues
Subject: RE: ARL Statement on Recent USGPO Decisions Concerning the FDLP
I have been reading over and over the statement released by ARL that Larry so kindly posted for everyone on GOVDOCL and feel strongly that there are inaccuracies in some of the statements that need to be addressed. The following is solely my opinion and not meant in any way to offend anybody, just my concern that some things are not quite right and need to be cleared up.
Point 1 refers to long standing precedent for the approval of multi-state regionals. In the meeting this week, Bernadine Abbott Hoduski spoke on this issue. Prior to 2008, there was no legal opinion on the multi-state regionals. In September 2007, then Acting Public Printer William Turri sent a letter to the JCP seeking approval of the Kansas-Nebraska proposal http://www.fdlp.gov/home/repository/doc_download/49-letter-from-acting-p.... The response letter from the Honorable Robert Brady to Public Printer Robert Tapella in February 2008 http://www.fdlp.gov/home/repository/doc_download/50-letter-from-the-hono..., states that the JCP sought legal guidance on this issue from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). It further states "CRS concluded that neither the language nor legislative history of 44 U.S.C. 1914 supports GPO’s interpretation of the statute. After careful review, the Joint Committee finds the CRS analysis persuasive; if the Public Printer may not authorize shared regional depository libraries under 44 U.S.C.1914, the JCP cannot approve such action." Now that a legal opinion exists, GPO cannot simply ignore it.
In point 2, there is a quote from Title 44 regarding the authority of Senators to designate regional libraries. Part of that quote is "within the areas served by them." I am no lawyer, but I do know that Senators serve states, so the areas served by them would be the state that elected them. To me this means that Senators are not authorized to choose a library from outside their state to serve as a regional for their state. This is my opinion.
In point 3, the discussion of regionals and retrospective collections are brought up. The opening third paragraph makes it sound as though the requirement regarding comprehensive collections was decided within the last nine months. This is inaccurate. I served on the Depository Library Council from October 2008-July 2011. In a presentation given by Cindy Etkin at the Fall 2009 DLC meeting, she stated the following "regionals are required to retain what’s distributed to them and there is not an obligation to go back and collect materials prior to when they became a regional? As I’ve shown, it’s been in the guidelines and brought forward; and even as it is today, the regional itself does not have to hold the materials." She also discussed how the Depository Library Council developed guidelines around 1973 that recommended regionals collect retrospectively. After the meeting, the DLC asked Ric Davis to investigate this issue was it required or just a guideline. We were told during a phone conference call that the Legal Counsel's opinion was that it was a requirement. This was in 2009, not 2011.
I have to admit that point 4 totally confuses me. I do not understand where the legal opinion that multi-state regionals are not supported in the language of Title 44 precludes collaboration across state lines. GPO encourages collaboration among depositories. The Digitization Projects Registry is just one of the many tools GPO has developed to help foster collaboration between depositories, both selectives and regionals. Although the FDLP community may not be used by everyone, it is an attempt by GPO to bring depositories together to collaborate on topics.
Point 5 refers to "new unfunded mandates and requirements, especially without consultation." I am extremely confused with this point. I have had discussions with several individuals at the DLC meeting this week and the only thing I can figure out that point 5 is referring to is the new document that GPO released in June 2011 "Legal Requirements and Program Regulations of the Federal Depository Library Program." This document was released by GPO after consultation with the Depository Library Council. The DLC had been requesting GPO clarify the legal requirements since the Spring 2009 DLC meeting in Tampa. We had heard from the community that the FDL Handbook was too cumbersome to go through to pull out the regulations and that a more compact publication containing only the legal requirements was needed to discuss with our directors and deans. GPO created this document with feedback from the DLC and published it in June 2011. To be clear, these are long standing legal requirements and regulations that have been compiled into a new publication.
My issue with point 7 can be considered more an opinion rather than fact, based on my three years on DLC and my 27 years working with depository collections. I feel that GPO spends considerable time and effort on ways to engage and facilitate partnerships with the community for expanding the digital content. They are restricted in what they can do because of budget and law. They operate within strict legal parameters. For instance, the community has requested that GPO offer grants for digitization. GPO has no legal authority to do so, therefore they can not help in this way. The Digitization Projects Registry is improving due to constant consultation between the community and GPO. It is a tool for libraries to use to collaborate on digital efforts and to avoid duplication of effort.
I do understand the issues facing depositories, both selectives and regionals, regarding their individual institutions needs and the demands on budgets, staffing, and space of a depository collection. Like everyone in the depository community, I am desperate to find a successful solution to these problems to ensure the viability of the program. I am hopeful that the day long discussion Thursday will result in some positive solutions within the framework of Title 44. I want to echo my colleague Dan Cornwall's statement in his blog "Back from the Brink" http://freegovinfo.info/blog/17, developing a model for the future of the FDLP is going to require cooperation from libraries in the program and GPO. Now is the time we need to pull together and find a common ground for a workable solution. We need to work together to clear up misinformation, rumors, and innuendos that are causing several members of our community to feel personally attacked. As a community, we have disagreed many times over the years on what is the best solution to many problems, but we have never brought it to the point that it is now. I am extremely concerned that the contentious situation we find ourselves in is going to create an atmosphere among Legislators that the program is not worth spending tax payer dollars on and considerably effect the appropriations for vital services like FDSys and the FDLP.
Assistant Dean for Public Services
University of North Texas Libraries
1155 Union Circle #305190
Denton, Texas 76203-5017
Public Printer at House Oversight Comm: "GPO – Issues and Challenges: How Will GPO Transition to the Future?"Submitted by jrjacobs on Fri, 2011-05-13 21:17.
On Weds May 11, 2011, Public Printer Bill Boarman and others submitted written testimony to a hearing of the Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight (PDF). the hearing was titled "GPO – Issues and Challenges: How Will GPO Transition to the Future?" Here's the GPO press release about the Public Printer's comments (anyone else wish GPO put out their press releases in xhtml rather than pdf?! It's hard to find them after the fact! but I digress). (Unembeddable) Video of the hearing is also available.
- William J. Boarman, Public Printer of the United States, Government Printing Office
- James Hamilton Group Director, InfoTrends
- Eric D. Belcher, President and Chief Executive Officer, InnerWorkings, Inc.
- Eric Petersen, Specialist in American National Government, Congressional Research Service
Full disclosure: I talked last week with Reynold Schweikhardt, Director of Technology Policy for the Committee on House Administration -- Mr Schweickhardt was organizing the hearing -- in preparation for the hearing and to discuss with him some of the issues surrounding GPO, the FDLP and access to govt information in the 21st century.
I shared with him a few pieces that my FGI colleagues and I had written over the last several years to help inform the hearing and future discussions about the GPO and govt information in general. Among them are:
- "GPO must not go" argues for reasons why GPO is important to the govt info ecosystem.
- Public Printer's Letter to President Obama Regarding Open Government argues for a continued need in a distributed model to assure long term access and preservation.
- iConference presentation on the future of govt information
- Critical GPO systems and the FDLP cloud
- Several link rot articles
- Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs and Shinjoung Yeo. Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 31, Issue 3, May 2005, Pages 198-208. lays out roles for GPO, fed agencies, libraries and others in assuring long term access to and preservation of govt information.
"Printing" seems to be a big issue these days -- witness the recently introduced bills H.R. 1626: Prevent the Reckless, Irresponsible, Needless Typography (PRINT) Act of 2011 and S 674: Congressional Record Printing Savings Act of 2011 -- and printing was discussed at the hearing. Yes, "printing" is (mostly) no longer necessary (and mostly no longer done) -- though it remains a far better mode of access for many publications (Statistical Abstract is a case in point ) -- but the role of "producing standard, preservable, authentic information output" still exists and remains critical to an informed citizenry. Drastically defunding GPO because of no need for printing would be throwing out the baby (standard preservable authentic information production) with the bathwater (printing press).
I stressed in our dialog that GPO's role hasn't changed, just the means. It's far cheaper to fund one agency that partners with libraries and provides valuable services to other agencies than to defund that agency, lose the distribution/service/access/preservation that libraries do largely w/o federal dollars, and face the same information budget issues agency by agency -- and the increasing expenditure requests at every agency. Every congressional district has a stake in maintaining funding for gpo/fdlp and should be supportive of the public service that libraries provide to their constituents.
It's also important to note GPO's critical role in cataloging government information regardless of format or FDLP status and the role PURLs play in reducing link rot. Even if printing vanished tomorrow, there is a real need for the active management of description of federal resources, and this is something that only a couple of agencies other than GPO do -- OSTI is one that comes to mind.
In the end, I think a strong argument can be made that 1) GPO is a vital piece of the govt information ecosystem; and 2) GPO should be a focal point within govt for distributing govt information out to the public and to libraries; 3) the issues of digital preservation are too large for GPO to do alone and libraries, as they have done historically, can and should play an active role in access to and preservation of govt information. Libraries and librarians hopefully will continue to have a key role to play in govt information and transparency processes.
That is all.
Unfortunately, I won't be going to ACRL 2011 in Philadelphia next month. But I'd recommend that folks go to this session on Wikileaks and libraries. If anyone is going, we'd love it if you'd volunteer to send us a summary of the panel (which is confusingly listed under "Roundtables".
Session Title: Wikileaks, war, and the web: where do academic libraries fit?
When Wikileaks released the Iraq and Afghan War Diaries it raised ethical questions for academic libraries. Join the discussion and help provide guidance to such questions as: What are libraries' responsibilities regarding leaked classified information? Should libraries link to leaked classified materials? How might Wikileaks be used in an instruction session?
Time: 8:30AM - 9:30AM
Location: Roundtable 3 (Exhibit Hall A, Pennsylvania Convention Center)
[UPDATE: I added the slides for Tom Bruce's talk]
Shinjoung and I submitted a panel on the future of govt information for iConference 2010 in Champaign, IL. We had a good far-reaching discussion with Tom Bruce (Cornell Legal Information Institute), Daniel Schuman (Sunlight Foundation) and Cindy Etkin (GPO). Below are my slides and notes. I've also attached the notes and abstract as PDFs. As Tom tweeted, "World's problems: solved."
If the other panelists agree, I'll post their notes/slides as well. This is of course an ongoing conversation so please feel free to leave comments, questions, rants etc.
--that is all!
3:45 - 5:15 pm Thursday, February 4, 2010
Roundtable 4 : : Technology Room
"Gone today, Here tomorrow: assuring access to government information in the digital age." ShinJoung Yeo, University of Illinois; and James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
- Shinjoung Yeo, Moderator
- James Jacobs, Stanford University Library
- Thomas Bruce (Legal Information Institute, Cornell University)
- Daniel Schuman (Sunlight Foundation policy director)
- Cindy Etkin (Govt Printing Office)
[SLIDE 1: govt documents]
Right up front, I'm a librarian and a collaborator in the LOCKSS distributed digital preservation project (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe). I've been in academia/education my whole life as a student, teacher, librarian and technologist. I've been a government information/FDLP librarian since 2002 and currently am serving a 3 year term on the Depository Library Council, the body which informs and advises the Govt Printing Office regarding issues of the Federal Depository Library Program (which Cindy talked about). So my mindset/perspective/bias is from one who assists in the scholarly communication process, one who believes that libraries have a place in the digital information landscape, and one who believes strongly in the idea that access to govt information is a fundamental right. As Ralph Nader has said, “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” And there can be no citizenship without access to government information.
[SLIDE 2: mmm documents]
With that in mind, I'd like to talk about the underlying historical ideals of the FDLP, discuss how those ideals have been under fire from both within and without the library community and argue that those ideals applied to today's information landscape give us the best chance at access to and long-term preservation and assurance of govt information.
[SLIDE 3: FDLP logo]
The federal depository library program (FDLP) has been around since 1813 in one form or another. The basis underlying the need for an FDLP is to give the public free access to government information. Depository libraries have long safeguarded the public's right to know by cooperating with and receiving for free the govt publications published by the Govt Printing Office (GPO), organizing, maintaining, and preserving those publications, assisting users in accessing said information in a geographically dispersed system and most importantly, assured that govt information is freely available and tamper-proof -- think Napster for govt information. Taken together, the collections of the 1238 depository libraries make up the historic corpus of govt information available for free to every citizen. Jessamyn West of librarian.net, recently called the FDLP the longest running open source project. I would add that it's the longest government-run public-centric open-source project to support the democratic ideal.
[SLIDE CHUCK QUOTE]
Over the last 20-30 years, developments in publishing and Internet technologies have affected the way government information is produced, disseminated, controlled, and preserved. These changes have affected the policies and procedures of the GPO and, in turn, have affected the depository library program. Despite the often-heard promises that Web technologies will bring more information to more people more quickly and easily, the actual effects have been decidedly mixed. The highly visible, short-term successes of rapid dissemination of single titles directly to citizens (e.g., the large number of downloads of the 9/11 report) mask the loss of a secure infrastructure (GPO's Federal Digital System (FDsys) notwithstanding) for long-term preservation of and access to government information as more and more agencies publish content on their own Web sites rather than using the GPO conduit (which librarians call "fugitive documents") and very few agencies publish to any standards or have policies in place that deal with archiving and preservation. As Chuck Humphrey, a data librarian friend of mine, once said, “there seems to be an inverse relationship between convenience of dissemination and preservation standards.”
In addition to this lack of a secure infrastructure, the growing din of the call for digitization of historic govt publications (most recently the Ithaka/ARL report "Documents for a Digital Democracy: A Model for the Federal Depository Library Program in the 21st Century"), while no doubt a boon for access today, is somewhat of a red herring that makes library administrators believe that they will soon be able to dispose of their physical collections and use that space for today or tomorrow's buzz word. This call for digitization may instead have the deleterious affect of damaging the long-term preservation of govt publications.
Lastly, the growing trend toward privatization of govt information has actually caused a decrease in public access despite it's digital nature. This is not a new trend. Herbert Schiller noted this in 1986 in his book "Information and the Crisis Economy." Speaking of machine readable formats, he wrote that, "Library information capability is greatly enhanced. Yet this benefit is accompanied by the abandonment of libraries' historical free access policy. User charges are introduced. The public character of the library is weakening as its commercial connection deepens. No less important, the composition and character of its holdings change as the clientele shifts from general public to the ability-to-pay user."
[SLIDE: GAO contract]
We've seen over the last 30 years a disturbing rise in Federal Agencies entering into contracts with private companies whereby public domain govt documents are digitized and then taken out of the commons via licensing agreements. See for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)'s deal with Thomson-West whereby Thomson-West digitized the GAO's 20,597 legislative histories of most public laws from 1915-1995 and in return received exclusive license to sell access to the content. GAO received nothing in return but an account on Thomson's service while the public received nothing at all.
Rapid technological change and the misplaced assumption that "it's all in google" have caused some in the FDLP community to question the need for the FDLP and some others to drop out of the program altogether. I believe that the inherent nature of digital information actually increases the need for a distributed network of dedicated, legislatively authorized libraries. It would be prudent to draw upon the existing infrastructure of FDLP libraries and the almost 200 years of cumulative experience of these institutions in assuring preservation of and access to government information. We must reinforce FDLP’s traditional mission of selection, collection, free access, and preservation of government information in the digital era in order to assure free access to this information into the foreseeable future. Some in the depository community, like my library, are doing just that by participating in the LOCKSS-USDOCS network, harvesting digital govt information -- for example, harvesting openCRS that Daniel mentioned along with other sites that post CRS reports -- and yes digitizing parts of their collections. But we need more libraries not less.
[SLIDE: FDLP ecosystem]
Nobody knows for sure how to preserve digital content for the long-term. This means to me that a loosely coupled, independently administered, distributed ecosystem is the best way to assure long-term preservation -- many organizations with many funding models and a distributed technical infrastructure(s) have a better shot at preservation than 1 or 2 organizations -- especially if one of those organizations has a tenuous budget, or is a private corporation etc.
Imagine if you will 2 future govt information systems: on the one hand, the system where there are one or two digital collections (say for example GPO's Federal Digital System (fdsys) and Portico, the dark archive currently housing digital journals); and on the other hand, one with many digital collections in fdlp libraries. How would each of these deal with or react to different stress situations or threat models (e.g., reduced budgets, increased demand for privatization, increased demand for censorship or control or removal of information, media/hardware/software/network failure, natural disaster, organizational failure etc.)? It's easy to see that a highly replicated, distributed FDLP model of preservation would deal with these situations much better than a centralized model. A web is much stronger than a silo.
[SLIDE: Federal Register XML]
law.gov, Carl Malamud’s proposal for a registry and repository of all legal information -- from what I've seen and heard and read, is a compelling proposal for a significant piece of the federal (and state) legal information ecosystem. What we ought to be doing is a) figuring out how to make law.gov a reality; b) figuring out how to expand it beyond legal materials to include ALL federal information -- information from all 3 branches of government, federal agencies as well as the regional and local offices of those agencies, data and statistics, the entire Congressional/legislative process including the funding that goes into that process to grease the skids so to speak, and making sure public information stays in public control; and c) MOST IMPORTANTLY from my perspective as a librarian, figure out how to preserve that ecosystem for the long term so that the public can inform itself not just today or tomorrow but 100 years from now. Now the 4 of us on this panel are just 4 players with dogs in this fight. But if we agree on the goals, then we ought to work together to proceed toward them and mobilize our communities and the public to support this endeavor.
It's going to take the government (and not just GPO) being serious about transparency and funding the necessary changes in its own federal information distribution system to include open format standards with no DRM, bulk data channels, indexing, description, collection and authentication of information resources, multiple digital preservation strategies to not only assure preservation but also to insure against tampering and deletion of vital information (which, as I've stated earlier, the FDLP historically has done very well!). It's also going to take libraries being serious about and applying the ideals of the FDLP to build a distributed digital infrastructure that takes into account access to as well as preservation of digital govt information.
I agree with Tom and am absolutely convinced that the changes in the information ecosystem that are needed should not be left to the market because the information market leans heavily toward monopoly, proprietary standards, licensing restrictions, lack of access, "rights management" and the like.
If an evolving ecosystem that is free, open, standards-based, authenticated, and privacy-protecting is built and sustained correctly then citizens, libraries, non-profit watchdogs, hackers, activists, AND government will thrive.
[SLIDE 7: THANKS! lockss, archive-it]
digital changes a lot of things about information, but it doesn't change the need to fund it, collect it, share it, preserve it, and give access to it. As my friend and colleague Jim Jacobs recently stated, "lots of collections keep stuff safe!"
A recent article reports on a survey of ARL library directors and their vision of their libraries' roles in the depository library program:
- The Federal Depository Library Program in 2023: One Perspective on the Transition to the Future. Peter Hernon and Laura Saunders. College and Research Libraries, July 2009, Vol. 70, No. 4). [In the interest of academic discussion and openness, we've posted a copy of the article on FGI.]
The survey asked directors to choose among several future scenarios for the FDLP and their role of provision of government information. The authors are explicit about their intentions saying that "the study neither directly addresses whether the depository program itself will exist fifteen years hence nor offers a vision of what future will emerge after 2023." They also note that the survey explicitly focused on the question "how many libraries want to remain in the depository library program and what role do they intend to play?" This focus predetermines the outcome of the survey somewhat. It doesn't tell us what FDLP should be or how libraries could have a role in ensuring the long term, free access to government information. Instead we get a lot of information about what directors worry most about: money and resources.
The authors point out that no other study has systematically surveyed library directors for their perspective on the FDLP. This is particularly interesting given the rumors, gossip, and scuttlebutt going around about how many university librarians want to get rid of their depository collections, don't trust their depository librarians, and see depository status as costing more than it is worth.
The study reinforces some of those stereotypes and provides some evidence that some ARL library directors do indeed think that way. Sample quotes: "Several directors look forward to a time when they can 'dump the print.'" "Although some directors believe they have 'forward-thinking' documents librarians, others feel the opposite. As the director of a regional depository explains, 'the more that directors know about the program and a library's responsibilities, the less likely documents librarians can bluff about the legal obligations and seek to maintain the status quo.'" "The burden of participation in the program, including that of cost, is a recurring theme." "The directors I talk to all want to get rid of the [depository] collection and drop out of the program as soon as possible."
Not surprisingly, the directors who think that way are apparently part of the minority (13% that chose "scenario 1") who believe that libraries should withdraw from the depository program or that the program will simply wither away.
What the survey documents for the first time, however, is how much value ARL directors put in government information and digital collections. Many of the directors see government information as essential to their academic communities and have serious concerns about how to ensure its availability. Fully half the respondents envision (scenarios 3 and 4) some sort of digital collections as part of their responsibility -- either in partnership with GPO or separate from GPO if GPO does not provide adequate leadership.
While this survey is very interesting and provides much food for thought, it is far from the final word on the future of the FDLP, GPO, or government information. It leaves many questions unanswered and raises other questions. For example:
- The survey's use of the term "digital depository" is confusing at best and misleading at worst. One of the "scenarios" presented to directors in the survey describes "digital deposit" as the library providing "a digital feed of government information resources to its Web site, thereby becoming a portal for access to e-government information resources. The library receives, but does not create, digital content." We wonder how directors interpreted this? Did they think that "receiving" digital content meant getting copies of digital files that they would keep in a digital collection? Or did they think that "providing a feed" and "becoming a portal" was a passive job of pointing to content at GPO or elsewhere? The article does not make this clear and we would have to guess that directors may not have provided responses that we can interpret consistently. (And, we would have to ask the authors, whose work we respect, why they chose the outdated word, indeed the outdated concept, "portal"? Does anyone really believe that users want or will use "portals" anymore?)
- Another term that is used in a confusing way in the article (at least I was confused by it) is the term "dark archive." We normally associate this with digital archives such as Portico (which archives digital copies of journal articles but is "dark" because no one can see the articles unless a particular kind of event -- such as a publisher going out of business -- allows the archive to make articles available). In this article, the authors use "dark archive" in that sense but they also use it to refer to print collections that have copies of last resort. Was this confusing to the surveyed directors? Did different interpretations skew their answers?
- Some of this confusion is evidently apparent to the authors. When they analyzed the directors' comments, they discovered that there was some "imprecision" by directors in choosing a scenario. Some were unable to place their institution fully in one of the provided scenarios. There were many reasons for this, but it makes it harder for us to interpret and understand the results.
- The survey did not specifically present a scenario of real digital deposit in which GPO sends (i.e., deposits) authentic digital files to depository libraries. As noted above, the survey focused on two different but related questions: who wants to remain in the FDLP and what role do they intend to play. Combining those two questions may have further muddied the responses and left out options (e.g., true digital deposit).
- One theme mentioned several times in the article is the need for a shared digital archive of digitized materials similar to the JSTOR model. To me, this seems to be an indication that the directors value digital information, see a need for a trusted repository in addition to GPO, and would support shared responsibilities for such an archive. This should spark some good discussions at the next DLC meeting.
- The survey seems to perpetuate and even reinforce misleading concepts about the permanent availability of digital government information. Although the authors acknowledge that "government entities often do not retain all resources permanently on their homepages, and content can be difficult to find and can be subject to removal, redacting, or alteration", they also passively quote directors who say they will rely on search engines and other libraries and government web sites to provide government information for them. There are certainly some libraries (even among ARL libraries) that will not have large digital collections of government information, but the survey does an injustice by passing along these comments without follow up questions to those directors about who will ensure access.
- Another questionable idea that came out of the survey was about staffing. Several directors said "they would cease to employ separate, dedicated government documents librarians. They assume the specialized knowledge will be passed to reference librarians." Shouldn't ARL directors be thinking about the need for new skills to manage digital deposit and digital preservation and digital access to locally held files? Shouldn't they be concerned about the special skills that will be needed to locate government information and provide reference service for it if they do not have a collection that they control?
In summary, the article provides much to discuss and good opportunities for further research. It also provides some clear evidence that the rumors that ARL directors want to dump their depository collections and drop their depository status are well founded, but that these directors are in the minority. Most ARL directors highly value government information and are looking for smart, efficient ways to ensure long term access to digital collections.
In his continuing series about Government Information Liberation, John Shuler considers the role of collections in libraries. One particularly revealing moment in his discussion is his day 60 post in which he describes a series of questions that he poses to his graduate students to get at the "fundamental things we do."
The Question and Conclusions
Can doctor still be a doctor without a hospital? They usually answer -- of course. Can you be a lawyer with out a courthouse? Again -- affirmative. Now the money shot -- Can you be a librarian without a library? Dead silence.
One would hope that the questions prompt a discussion and don't just end in "dead silence." Although John doesn't tell us what the discussion, if any, was, he does give us his conclusions: possession of "material" might have once been central to the purpose of libraries but, in the digital age, possession is much less important part of what libraries do.
Even though John qualifies his conclusions to allow for some limited role of collections for some libraries, he overwhelms his caveats with assertions that collections begin and end with the physical ownership of "material" and that "we will not own (possess) much of the material." He even coins the phrase "Gutenberg Librarians" to deprecate "possession and/or control" (66) of information by libraries.
So, John's essential, bottom-line conclusion, regardless of his caveats, comes across clearly: The net, John says, has brought on "the beginning of the end" of library collections (35).
I think his conclusion is wrong and the question he asks is misleading. You can see how misleading the question is by turning it around and realizing that the professions/institutions he uses are not parallel:
- Do doctors build hospitals? (No)
- Do lawyers build courthouses? (No)
- Do librarians build libraries? (Yes)
But the real problem is that the question implies a shared understanding of what a library is -- a shared understanding that I think we need to articulate explicitly. I think that, before one asks "Can you be a librarian without a library?" one should ask "What is the role of the library is in the digital age?" John has been outlining what he thinks the role of librarians should be and he apparently wants to separate the role of librarians from the role of libraries. Very well: let's examine the roles of both with some discussion, not dead silence.
I think John is implying is his series of posts that librarianship in the digital age will be about helping people navigate a complex, networked maze of shifting, changing information. Librarians will help users "connect the dots" and find connections that are not otherwise explicit (47). While there is nothing wrong with this view, and there is much to recommend it, it doesn't go far enough and it misses a key role for libraries.
As John portrays it, this view accepts that libraries will be less about selecting and preserving information and building digital collections and more about providing services for information over which librarians have no control. Librarians, in this view, are valuable precisely because they have no control over information.
This view accepts that information will be tightly controlled by producers and distributors. What is available, who can use it, under what conditions it may be used, and when it becomes no longer available will all be controlled by government agencies, publishers, individuals, organizations, and other "content" producers.
John also proposes that "librarianship" will be more important than "libraries." To me, this sounds like librarians will be analogous to travel agents who, because they deal every day with the complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected systems, are better able than the traveller to navigate these systems and find the best flight at the best price. So librarians, in this view, will help casual information users navigate a variety of complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected, public-freely-available and proprietary-and-licensed information systems. Just as travel agents have no control over what flights or trips are available or what they cost or what restrictions are placed on them, so librarians will have no control over what information is available or what it costs or what restrictions are placed on its use.
In this view, librarians will not manage collections but will license the right to read from those who control information. Whether the license comes in the form of payment of dollars to a commercial vendor and a written contract that licenses access, or an FDLP designation, or a contractual "partnership" with GPO, or the anointing of permission by Google Books legal department, the result is the same. As a recent article in Library Hi Tech says, "In future, librarians will no longer manage media, they will manage rights" (Böhner, Dörte. Digital rights description as part of digital rights management: a challenge for libraries. Library Hi Tech 26, no. 4 (2008): 598-605). This view reshapes the role of librarians from information providers to information gatekeepers; from information curators to business-officers who sign contracts and pay bills.
Who would want to go into that field?
John hasn't said much about the role of libraries except to assert that, for many people, the digital environment is now the "default library" [emphasis added] that supports broad access to a "collection" of government information (51).
But, shouldn't we be asking about the future, not just describing the present?
Shouldn't we be asking about the relationships between doctors and lawyers and information? Certainly doctors and lawyers need a body of literature to practice their professions. Instead of asserting that users have access today, shouldn't we be asking, "Who will build and manage and preserve those collections and ensure long-term, free access to them?"
Shouldn't we be asking what guarantees we have that the information we want today will be available if we want it tomorrow? Shouldn't we be asking who controls access to that information and what are their reasons for providing access? Shouldn't we be asking who will pay for long-term preservation and access?
Just because users who are not familiar with information policy, information economics, or information technologies are happy with current access to information does not mean that they will be happy with the access (or lack of it!) tomorrow or in ten years or a hundred years. Providing easy access at one point in time does not guarantee easy access at a future point in time and can actually mask problems of long-term access.
It is one of the roles of librarians to think beyond today and one of the roles of libraries to guarantee access for tomorrow. We need to think about the long-term. Using short-term convenience as a reason for avoiding that kind of thought is evading one of the key roles of librarianship. And assuming that producers and distributors will have the same values and ethics and practices as librarians is to confuse the role of producers with the role of currators.
Maybe the real questions we should be asking are:
- Can lawyers practice without libraries?
- Can doctors practice without libraries?
- Can libraries exist without librarians?
The word "library" does not mean "I have some information." If it did, bookstores would be libraries and publishers would be librarians. We need libraries in addition to publishers and bookstores (and government agencies that distribute information as a by-product of another, primary, mission).
It is all about control
Let's be clear, then. Even in the paper and ink world, libraries and their collections were about wresting control of information from producers and distributors and granting control to local communities and information users. A publisher could take a book out of print, but a library could keep it available. A user could purchase a book and pay for magazine subscriptions, but could use the information for free at the library. Libraries leveraged economies of scale for the benefit of the community, enabling every community member to have benefits of access to information that no individual could possibly afford.
The need for wresting control of information away from those who wish to control the access to and the use of information has not changed in the digital world. But the battle lines have shifted and we need librarians in the fight to keep free, open, usable access.
"Content providers" want to replace copyright with license agreements. Producers want to charge for every single use and dictate who can use information, under what conditions, and in what way. Governments want to be able to alter and even withdraw information after it has been released. And the proliferation of requirements to register to read or use information portends a world in which people will not have the right of privacy when reading.
It is ironic that, given technologies that enable almost unlimited use and re-use of information and that enable information to be distributed and used and re-used almost without cost, we face a horde of stakeholders who want to limit access, charge for every use, restrict re-use, and look over your shoulder to see what you're reading.
More inaccurate conclusions
As noted above, John hedges his conclusion a bit. His wording is that "possession is much less exclusive or destiny for any one institution" and preserving and organizing the information sources "will remain important -- but is no longer our exclusive responsibility" (66). He expands on that idea:
- [G]overnments are taking back their possession of information sources. (60)
- [M]any other web sites [are] capturing the lost or deleted pages. (60)
And from these, he draws conclusions:
- [Information will] remain with the producers or be delivered directly to the users by the producers. (50)
- [W]e will not own (possess) much of the material we mediate on behalf of our user communities. (51)
- Possession ... is no longer a social good that is dominated [by] the dominion of libraries. (60)
To me, these summarize one possible scenario out of many. And, IMHO, this scenario is not one librarians should be content to accept or embrace. Why? Because it almost certainly guarantees that a lot of bad things will happen: loss of access, loss of free access, licensing constraints, DRM constraints, loss of information, loss of usability of information, and more.
Different Questions, A Different Answers
In a separate post, I will examine those issues in more detail, but I'll close this post with some assumptions and a couple of final rhetorical questions as a way of addressing John's question, "Can you be a librarian without a library?" The assumptions:
Society needs: organizations that select that information that deserves preserving from the plethora of information that surrounds us; organizations that then acquire, organize, and preserve that information; organizations that provide trusted, free, private, secure access to and service for that information.
Society needs organizations that have the complete mix of all of these roles as their primary mission (not a secondary mission or a by-product of publishing, or dissemination, or making money). In the case of government information in a participatory democracy it is particularly important, even essential, that society has such organizations.
Reliance on those who have some, but not all, of these roles will ensure that some of these roles will go unfulfilled. Reliance on organizations that have some or all of these roles as a secondary mission or by-product of another mission will endanger free access to information, preservation and integrity of information, and the privacy of readers, and will increase the risk of the loss of information.
The rhetorical questions:
- What would you call an organization that fulfills all the roles listed above but "The Library"?
- Why would libraries want to abandon these roles to organizations that do not have these roles as their primary mission?
- If libraries do abandon these roles, what is the risk that society will lose free, open, access to its essential information?
I think those questions lead us to conclusions that are very different from the the ones John reaches. I will examine this in more detail in another post.
Another day of transition, spending most of it talking about the future of government information and the federal depository library system. Now waiting to go home and think about everything -- again.
One note of interest -- this is the first time in years (and I am talking about the time before 2001) -- that I felt there was an edge of hope to the future of a robust, accessible, permanent and freely available system of government information distribution. It isn't just the technology -- its the people I met that reminded me again of why we do this. We might disagree on the details of structure and purpose, but the goals are astoundingly similar.
Jet lag strikes.
See you on Day 63