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

Depository Library Council Vision

In September, 2005 the Depository Library Council (DLC) published Federal Government Information Environment of the 21st Century: Towards a Vision Statement and Plan of Action for Federal Depository Libraries. Discussion Paper. They’re currently collecting comments on their DLC Vision blog. FGI encourages everyone to read this document, post comments to the blog, to FGI, and, if you happen to be going to the Fall, 2005 Depository Library Council meeting in D.C., raise your questions and comments there. FGI’s comments to this first draft of a vision for the future Federal Depository Library Program are below.

We think Daniel Cornwall’s recent comments regarding the DLC Vision statement were thoughtful and thorough. We’d like to add a few additions and stress some of his more important points. We thank the DLC for opening the discussion on the future of the FDLP and offer this constructive criticism in the hope that the DLC will find some information of use to the final draft. We feel that there are strong reasons for having an FDLP into the future.

We believe that the draft could be greatly improved by changing its tone in Part I from a negative focus (“no longer exclusive…,” “superseded FDLs,” “curtain call for FDLP”) to a positive vision of the role of libraries in the future. The tone of the current draft seems to imply that FDLP libraries need to recapture what was once a captive audience.

Rather than focusing only on “access” (and thereby ignoring and diminishing the importance for libraries to select, acquire, organize, and preserve information for a constituency), Part I could describe both the effects and opportunities of digital information distribution including the provision of new and better services. We believe that the vision statement would be improved if it, instead, took a more positive and innovative approach to the future, rather than looking to the past.

Here are some specific changes that could make it both stronger and more forward-looking.

  1. On the effect of the web on access, it would be more accurate to say that the web adds a new, welcome, and very useful way for some (though far from all) citizens to get information.
  2. The DLC vision should describe the opportunities for FDLs to facilitate access to ALL citizens. Many citizens still do not have broadband access, and Americans are now adopting broadband more slowly than they have in the past. Many government web sites are designed to be most effective if the user has broadband access. Therefore, there are opportunities for libraries to facilitate access to all citizens. (This can include providing public broadband terminals and having digital and print copies on hand in local collections.)
  3. The vision needs to recognize that the ability of users to “access” government information is not enough; libraries should make information easier to find and use. Digitally-distributed information provides opportunities for many different aggregations and views of the vast amount of information available from the government. We already see that, for the government itself, one “portal” is not enough. FirstGov, GPO Access, fedrnd.osti.gov, science.gov, Ben’s Guide, and THOMAS are just a few of the “portals” available. We take the view that more-views-are-better because each can cater to a specific user group. Libraries have the opportunity to build such views based on their own collections that include, not just federal government information, but also information from local and international governments, private publishers and institutional repositories. Libraries should encourage and facilitate such use and re-use of government information and should actively participate in such use and re-use. Providing pointers to information on servers that are not controlled by the library is only one way to do this. A more secure and sustainable approach is to build actual digital collections. By building focused, locally controlled, digital collections that include government information as well as non-government information, libraries can make it easier for users to find information.
  4. While the DLC vision addresses some roles for GPO, it omits some crucial ones. One essential role for GPO is to provide no-fee, fully functional digital content. Another is to take an active approach to notifying libraries and the public of all new and changed content. Those looking for government information should not be required to browse or spider government web sites hoping to find new or changed information. The DLC vision statement should clearly state that GPO must actively notify libraries of new information based on library-defined profiles (similar to item lists) and either “push” new content to FDLP libraries or allow for the easy “pull” by libraries of content they select.
  5. The vision needs to identify roles that none but libraries will fulfill. The vision statement could describe at least some of these roles. These could include selecting and organizing and integrating materials from different sources (e.g., the federal government, private sector, other governments) to create integrated collections for particular constituencies; reusing and recombining information to create new information services; and preserving information. While the private sector and the government will certainly provide some useful tools and services, it would be wrong for the library community to assume that government or market priorities will always match the needs of our users. We should not assume that others will fill in gaps left by libraries shirking their responsibilities. Libraries must also recognize that the web has not created an environment where the private sector will assume responsibilities for no-fee, permanent public access to all information for all users forever. While it makes sense to use tools created by others (e.g., Google, GPO collection, private sector products etc.) as long as they exist and are useful, libraries should not ignore their own responsibilities for providing collections, tools, and services.

While the remainder of the draft promotes the concept of “service,” those parts are negatively affected by Part I. Instead of describing a future in which libraries can offer enhanced services by making use of the opportunities of digital information, the services described are rather passive and do little more than piggy-back on services actually offered by others (government and private sector).

We offer some ideas of what might be a fourth “possible future for the FDLP” in our paper, Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program (Journal of Academic Librarianship, May 2005, Vol.31, No.3, pp198-208.) particularly in the sections “The Once and Future FDLP” and “Stakeholder Roles.” We won’t repeat those ideas here, but instead will list a few small examples of possible future FDLP library services.

  1. Information should be used and reused. A first year graduate student created GovTrack.us which draws information from THOMAS, House and Senate pages, Congressional Budget Office, and Federal Election Commission and creates new information for tracking and researching activities of Congress. What if libraries did things like this? Libraries such as Oregon State University and the California Digital Library have done just such projects in the past and can do more of this in the future, especially if digital deposit is part of the future FDLP.
  2. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) (trac.syr.edu) actively acquires information from the government through FOIA and other means and assembles it for public use. Libraries equipped to accept digital deposit would also be able to include in their collections FOIA-acquired information and “fugitive” documents; in so doing they would facilitate projects like TRAC by providing regular updates of public data through their digital selection, acquisition, and delivery technologies.
  3. Libraries regularly find broken “PURLs” and dutifully report them to GPO. If there was digital deposit, libraries could provide pointers to the local copy and the original so that when a PURL breaks, the user still has a copy of the document while the broken PURL is being fixed.
  4. All libraries do not have all the digital amenities of large, better-funded, libraries. Many of the users of such libraries may also lack the tools (e.g., broadband access, up-to-date hardware and software), training, and experience increasingly required to find, locate, and use information on the Internet. But even small libraries could help users by acquiring copies of needed information once and adding that information to a local collection (on a stand-alone PC, or even CD or DVD) so that users could get those documents instantly rather than re-downloading them. Digital deposit could also facilitate innovative collaborations between large and small libraries.
  5. While digital versions of information are often useful, the digital format is not always the most usable for simple reading, browsing, preserving, or even reference. Libraries could acquire ready-to-print versions of digital documents and print them for their print collection or provide a local print-on-demand service.
  6. Academic libraries are increasingly creating Institutional Repositories (IRs) for storing digital versions of academic research. Libraries could use those IRs for storing local copies of digital government information, thus creating integrated collections from multiple sources and providing the same tools for finding and locating government information that they provide for academic research.

It seems to us that the current draft assumes that GPO will provide permanent, no-fee access to all digital government information. GPO, however, does not have the ability to make such a guarantee. Because GPO is a government agency that is subject to rules and budgets set by others, is subject to pressure from the private sector not to compete, and even has a public printer who has characterized Congressional support for permanent public no-fee access as a “hand out” rather than as an essential role of government, the DLC vision statement should not base its possible futures for the FDLP on this assumption.

Finally, we are well aware that, while a few of us have been vocally advocating digital deposit for some time, govdoc-l and other forums have not had extensive discussion of this issue. Many librarians have been quiet while a few have expressed opinions. At freegovinfo.info we did a very un-scientific survey and received 153 (92%) positive responses to the question, “Should GPO deposit digital files in FDLP libraries?” As Daniel Cornwall has suggested (govdoc-l post on 9/22/05, Subject: “85% Library Support for local deposit of federal e-pubs?”) GPO’s own, more comprehensive poll of FDLP libraries shows that there are few libraries (15%) that have little interest in digital deposit which implies that most libraries are interested in digital deposit. Since GPO has explicitly asked FDLP libraries about the delivery of digital content to depositories through “Automatic push of content from GPO,” we suggest that DLC should have in hand the full results of the GPO study before dismissing the option of digital deposit from its vision of the future. If hundreds of libraries express a high or very high interest in this, it would be consistent to offer a fourth possible future of digital deposit.

For over 150 years, the FDLP community has worked collaboratively to inform citizens. There are very few organizations that have lasted as long for such a noble cause. We hope the DLC’s revised vision will reflect this fourth possible future for a strong, vibrant FDLP that we have described.

James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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