Home » Commentary » Strengthening Title 44, part 4: Preservation

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.

Strengthening Title 44, part 4: Preservation

Preservation

This is the fourth in a series of four posts in which we elaborate on the reasons behind our recent recommendations for strengthening Title 44 of the U.S. Code.

We recommend changes to chapters 19 and 41 of Title 44 that will require the preservation of digital government information.

Recommendation

Require Preservation

Make changes to §1904 and §1905 to explicitly include “digital public information” that GPO will deposit by sending digital files (including metadata) to FDLP libraries. Define “digital depositories” as FDLP libraries that receive, store, preserve, and provide access to digital government information they acquire through the Depository Program. (GPO’s current use of terms such as “digital-only depositories” and “All or Mostly Online depositories” for libraries into which nothing is deposited are misleading to Congress and the public.) In addition, modify the text of §1911 to define a class of FDLP digital preservation libraries. Those FDLP libraries will agree to retain all digital content sent through the depository program, will preserve that content, and will make it available for the free use of the general public. Add text to §4101 requiring GPO to preserve and provide free public access to all the digital content that it adds to its “electronic storage facility for Federal electronic information.”

Current Law

Neither Chapter 19 (FDLP) nor Chapter 41 (govinfo.gov) use the word “preservation” or contain any requirements for the long term preservation of digital government information.

There are retention requirements for selective depositories in §1911 and for regional depositories in §1912, but, by GPO policy, these requirements currently only apply to so-called “tangible” items and exclude so-called “online” items. GPO’s persistent attempts over the last decade to weaken the current retention requirements suggest that it may want to change the law to further weaken or even scrap the existing retention requirements (Jacobs and Jacobs 2017b).

Chapter 41 can be read as implying that digital information will be preserved, but even that is limited in scope. Section 4101 requires GPO to provide access to and store only two digital titles, the Congressional Record and the Federal Register. It leaves it up to the Superintendent of Documents to determine what content is added to — or withdrawn from — govinfo.gov.

Title 44 does have provisions for the preservation of some government information, but these are limited. Chapter 21 establishes the National Archives And Records Administration (NARA) in Chapters 29, 31 and 33 defines the scope of preservation. Chapter 36 gives the Office of Electronic Government some responsibility for overseeing preservation of government information.

Analysis

Chapter 41 of Title 44 does not require GPO to preserve anything. The law can and should be strengthened to make preservation an explicit requirement, not a policy option that could change with the political exigencies of the moment. The law should also be modernized to reflect the reality of born-digital publishing by expanding the scope of what is preserved.

The task of preserving enormous amounts of digital government information is daunting and probably beyond the ability of any single government agency. GPO has recognized and admitted in its National Plan that it needs partners. But GPO’s current policies have effectively blocked FDLP libraries from participating as digital preservation partners — and there is barely a trickle of FIPnet partner libraries agreeing to be “preservation stewards” preserve minuscule numbers of physical documents. GPO has, through policy, even attempted to redefine “depository” libraries as libraries into which nothing is deposited.

The existing laws that define preservation outside of FDLP are limited in scope and effect. The Chapters of Title 44 cited above and the Federal Records Act and similar laws and regulations cover only a portion of the huge amount of information gathered and created by the government. Most government agencies do not have a mission that includes either the long-term preservation of their information or free public access to it. The preservation plans that do exist are subject to interpretation by political appointees who may not always have preservation as their highest priority.

Our recommendations (including broadening the scope of FDLP) would give GPO, along with its FDLP library partners, a clear responsibility for the long-term preservation of and free public access to public government information.

Specifically, our recommendation would prevent GPO from removing content from govinfo.gov once it has been added. It would give FDLP libraries the flexibility to select digital government information and build their own digital collections and services. It would set up a new category of digital-depository preservation-partner that would strengthen long-term digital preservation without weakening GPO or govinfo.gov. These changes would complement, not replace govinfo.gov.

Effects

The recommended changes to Title 44 would have several positive effects.

  • The recommendation would modernize the law to recognize born-digital information by redefining the scope of Chapter 41 to include all federal digital “public information.”
  • By including digital public information in the depository program, GPO would immediately gain dedicated, legally-mandated partners for digital preservation and online access.
  • The changes would enhance access by promoting digital collections in FDLP libraries. When libraries have curated collections that they control, they can develop robust discovery and access services tailored to the needs of the communities they serve. (Jacobs and Jacobs 2016, Jacobs 2009)
  • By explicitly specifying retention requirements for deposited digital government information, the law would enhance digital preservation by putting many digital copies under different technical, administrative, and financial control.
  • The recommendation would modernize the law for the digital age by establishing a new class of FDLP digital preservation libraries.
  • The recommendation would close the loophole in the current law that allows GPO to withdraw content from its digital storage and access facility.
  • By focusing on digital preservation rather than on weakening the existing retention requirements for paper publications, these changes would enhance rather than weaken preservation of all government information.

Endnotes

Authors:
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University

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


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archives

%d bloggers like this: