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Government shutdown causing information access problems

Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).

Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.

Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)

There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.

Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.

Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.

This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”

The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.

Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.

This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.

When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.

Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.

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.


4 Comments

  1. Many documents librarians have asked their library directors to give them the support to bring gov info into the library’s collection and not risk the loss of important information because politicians do not even think about the harm a shutdown does to access to gov info. That is why Congress established the regional depository system as a means of preserving gov info permanently, not trusting the government to do it. We need to support funding for libraries willing to protect and preserve our government information.

    • you’re so right about funding needed for this work. Unfortunately, the regional model no longer works for born-digital information (I have long argued that “micro formats” listed in Title 44 *include* born-digital, but GPO and regionals don’t seem to think so ;-)). We need many librarians advocating in their libraries for digital deposit, digital collection development etc. Control of information is key to preserving and giving access to it.

  2. Here (link at end) is another aspect of the harm the shutdown has done to the availability of government information. It may not even get collected in the first place! Maybe ever, once a certain amount of time has passed.

    Apologies if you’ve covered this. I’m retired now and don’t read regularly anymore, but I saw this on Naked Capitalism and thought, “this might be interesting to share on GOVDOC-L. But I unsubscribed to it when I retired, and then I remembered you guys. NC said the article was originally posted on The Coversation.

    https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2019/01/vital-economic-data-likely-lost-shutdown-heres-matters-americans.html

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