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David Rosenthal says “Do it for Preservation!”

David Rosenthal is a member of Stanford’s LOCKSS development team who maintains a blog about his professional work. It is well worth reading and deserves a place in everyone’s list of RSS feeds.

In a June 10, 2007 posting on reasons to preserve e-journals, David explains that multiple, independently hosted government publications are a good thing because they are TAMPER EVIDENT:

The goal of the FDLP was to provide citizens with ready access to their government’s information. But, even though this wasn’t the FDLP’s primary purpose, it provided a remarkably effective preservation system. It created a large number of copies of the material to be preserved, the more important the material, the more copies. These copies were on low-cost, durable, write-once, tamper-evident media. They were stored in a large number of independently administered repositories, some in different jurisdictions. They are indexed in such a way that it is easy to find some of the copies, but hard to be sure that you have found them all.

Preserved in this way, the information was protected from most of the threats to which stored information is subject. The FDLP’s massive degree of replication protected against media decay, fire, flood, earthquake, and so on. The independent administration of the repositories protected against human error, incompetence and many types of process failures. But, perhaps most important, the system made the record tamper evident.

Winston Smith in “1984” was “a clerk for the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite historical documents so that they match the current party line”. George Orwell wasn’t a prophet. Throughout history, governments of all stripes have found the need to employ Winston Smiths and the US government is no exception. Government documents are routinely recalled from the FDLP, and some are re-issued after alteration.

An illustration is Volume XXVI of Foreign Relations of the United States, the official history of the US State Department. It covers Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines between 1964 and 1968. It was completed in 1997 and underwent a 4-year review process. Shortly after publication in 2001, the fact that it included official admissions of US complicity in the murder of at least 100,000 Indonesian “communists”by Suharto’s forces became an embarrassment, and the CIA attempted to prevent distribution. This effort became public, and was thwarted when the incriminating material was leaked to the National Security Archive and others.

The important property of the FDLP is that in order to suppress or edit the record of government documents, the administration of the day has to write letters, or send US Marshals, to a large number of libraries around the country. It is hard to do this without attracting attention, as happened with Volume XXVI. Attracting attention to the fact that you are attempting to suppress or re-write history is self-defeating. This deters most attempts to do it, and raises the bar of desperation needed to try. It also ensures that, without really extraordinary precautions, even if an attempt succeeds it will not do so without trace. That is what tamper-evident means. It is almost impossible to make the record tamper-proof against the government in power, but the paper FDLP was a very good implementation of a tamper-evident record.

You’ll notice that David refers to the depository program in the past tense. He does so because, like GPO itself, he sees the Future Digital System (FDSys) as an inevitable total replacement:

It should have become evident by now that I am using the past tense when describing the FDLP. The program is ending and being replaced by FDSys. This is in effect a single huge web server run by the GPO on which all government documents will be published. The argument is that through the Web citizens have much better and more immediate access to government information than through an FDLP library. That’s true, but FDSys is also Winston Smith’s dream machine, providing a point-and-click interface to instant history suppression and re-writing.

David thinks this is a bad thing, GPO assures us it is a good thing, but both assume this is where we are going.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We in the FDLP are definitely “Not Dead Yet!” We have a vital role to play in continuing to preserve the tangible materials entrusted into our care. Further, hundreds of new tangible titles are being shipped each month by GPO to the 1200 plus federal depository libraries.

And while the depository community hasn’t exactly leaped up and embraced their responsibility to preserve federal electronic publications, individual libraries like the University of North Texas and the New Mexico State Library have. Together with others who have held views on preservation similar to David’s for years these libraries will help build the depository system of the future.

Or we can sit back and let Winston Smith control our government information. If you are a government information specialist, it’s up to you.

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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