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Digital Deposit, Good for All: Vision, Myths, Reality

As many of our readers know, Depository Library Council (DLC) recommended the creation of a working group to explore digital deposit and there was a session on digital deposit at the 2019 Spring Virtual Meeting of the DLC:

Digital deposit should be part of FDLP for the same reasons paper deposit has been for two hundred years: it guarantees preservation of the information and provides services to users of that information. Discusions of digital deposit, therefore, should focus on preservation and users and the technologies that can enable the best digital services.


We’ve come a long way on preservation. GPO has joined and supports the LOCKSS-USDOCS network, which provides a secure, distributed backup of GPO’s digital repository, govinfo. Govinfo itself has received certification as a Trusted Digital Repository. GPO’s National Plan and creation of the Federal Information Preservation Network (FIPnet) outline plans for long term preservation of both the “historical collections” and digital information. The network of “preservation stewards” is beginning to cope with the stress Regional libraries have been voicing for years.

But there is much more to do. As the recent PEGI report noted, it is clear that GPO/LOCKSS-USDOCS is preserving “only a small sliver” of the total of born-digital government information.1 A recent Library of Congress report documented the limitations and limited scope of GPO’s preservation efforts.2 And GPO’s National Plan concludes that “Collaboration and partnerships [including with FDLP libraries] are necessary to accomplish lifecycle management of tangible and digital Government information.3

Digital deposit will help with preservation. Digital preservation depends on those resources being discoverable and usable. Replicating holdings of govinfo in FDLP libraries’ own digitial collections will multiply both discoverability and use.

In addition, FDLP libraries can expand the scope of preservation by complementing what GPO has to resources that GPO does not have the authority or budget to acquire.4

How can it do that? First, by jump-starting the creation of digital government information collections in FDLP libraries. Then, by adding to those collections government information that GPO does not have. FDLP libraries will do this simply by addressing the needs of their communities of users. Those communities will find the value in these services and will help libraries (and library administrators) realize that they are demonstrating their value by providing value not available elsewhere. This will lead to opportunities for expanding those collections in order to expand the value of the digital services. As more libraries provide more value to more users, existing programs and projects (many of which began life focused on sharing print collections), will recognize the opportunities in developing shared digital collections to support complementary digital services. There are many such existing projects (e.g., FIPnet, preservation stewards, ASERL’s Centers of Excellence, the Western Regional Storage Trust, the FDLP Partnerships, and even the use of shared housing agreements5). The result will be a robust network of libraries collaborating to select and acquire and preserve government information that GPO is not able to acquire.

Although we see this scenario as ideal, we do not think it is unrealistically idealistic :-). Rather, we see it as imminently practical because it addresses needs of users that neither GPO nor individual government agencies can address.


To be successful, digital deposit must focus on the needs of users. GPO and individual government agencies are constrained by their missions which limit how much they can respond to the needs of users. FDLP libraries are free from those constraints and are expressly driven by the needs of the user communities they serve.

For example, GPO’s govinfo digital repository serves an essential role in the preservation and access of digital government information, but that role is a narrow one. The recent certification of govinfo as a Trusted Digital Repository made this clear: GPO’s “Designated Community” (its users) are the staff in FDLP libraries and others who “are familiar with the organizations, documents, publications, and processes of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the United States Federal Government.” GPO’s Designated Community omits the General Public. The law does not require GPO to provide digital services to the General Public, but it does require libraries to do so.6

With govinfo, GPO provides an elaborate and detailed producer-centered presentation of — mostly Congressional — government information. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is a strength because it aims to be comprehensive and because it provides the original context of the release of information. It is a weakness because it does not offer a user-centered presentation. Because GPO provides access and services for specialists it does not adequately serve the needs of the General Public — much less specialized communities with more specialized needs. The role GPO serves is important and essential, but it is not the only role that is needed. The presentation of the information is not the only presentation needed by users.

Similarly, each government agency is constrained to providing only its own resources. These silos of information are important, but they are often barriers for users who want information by subject regardless of which agency created it.

FDLP libraries can, if digital deposit is implemented, provide focused subject collections to specific Designated Communities and provide services for those communities. GPO and FDLP libraries should collaborate to meet the different needs of different communities. GPO can not do this by itself and no single user-interface or collection can adequately address the needs of diverse communities. With FDLP libraries as partners we can expand access and services to a wide variety of General Publics. Digital deposit is the first step toward empowering FDLP libraries to do that.


In the print world, libraries tend to focus on communities that are geographically nearby and communities directly affiliated with an institution (e.g., a local government or a college or university). In the digital world, this constraint has been lifted. Digital libraries can provide services to communities with common interests and skills and needs — regardless of their location or institutional affiliation. By developing collections that focus on subjects or disciplines, FDLP libraries can provide services that cut across agency silos and that are more user-friendly than GPO’s agency-focused presentation. By developing collections of different kinds of resources (e.g., individual documents, corpora, data, maps, A/V, etc.), libraries can provide specialized discovery and usability tools for communities that use information differently.

Since digital resources can be stored anywhere and delivered everywhere, libraries can collaborate by efficiently storing files and effectively sharing access to them world-wide. A single file might show up in many specialized collections through the use of services designed around shared metadata. And multiple copies of digital resources can be made available with a single link, thus ensuring access even during government shutdowns and when government policies change.

There are lots of interesting technologies that can turn digital deposit into exciting new services for users.

  • Digital Object Identifiers. DOIs could provide a safety net of access. They provide the same persistence as PURLs, but with more functionality. DOIs can point to more than one location for the same resource. This functionality (called “multiple resolution”) would allow a single DOI (URL) to simultaneously point at (for example) the original source document on an agency web site, GPO’s copy, and each copy stored by FDLP libraries. Users would never be faced with a “404 missing” error message again. This is robust technology that is available and used today.7
  • APIs. Application Program Interfaces allow libraries that do not store a local copy of a resource to provide access and services for resources stored in digital repositories that offer APIs. With robust APIs designed with FDLP libraries in mind, FDLP libraries will be able to provide digital services to different communities. GPO and other large digital repositories could fuel the creation of those services without having to develop services for every community. Even the smallest library with the smallest collection (or no collection at all) would be able to build interesting, useful interfaces with new discovery and usability tools for users for specific communities with appropriate APIs. This is the twenty-first century way for libraries to evolve beyond the primitive discoverability that OPACs, bibliographies, and libguides provide. With digital deposit, every depository could become both a source for other libraries to draw content from and a service drawing resources from other libraries.
  • Selection tools. Digital deposit can be built with robust, flexible selection tools, enabling every library to customize its selection based on the needs of the communities it serves. Libraries could be able to select by format, by agency, by keyword, by topic-modeled-selections, by mentioned-named-entities, by discipline, by subject, by category (e.g., annual reports, slip laws, consumer-advice), etc. etc.
  • Advisory group. Technology changes fast. Digital deposit should be designed to be “consistent, not static.”8 The technologies used by digital deposit should respond to user needs, not the other way around. The needs of FDLP libraries, the needs of the communities they serve, and the evolving nature of digital resources themselves should drive the choice of technologies. The discussion of digital deposit should build in the ability to be flexible. One way to do this is to set up an ongoing technology advisory group.


There are, unfortunately, too many myths and misunderstandings about the concept of digital deposit. Some of these were even repeated or emerged during the session at the DLC meeting. Below, we address some of the most common and egregious ones.

  • Myth: Digital Deposit is difficult to understand.
      Reality: Although there are complex questions to answer about how to implement digital deposit, the concept of digital deposit is as simple to understand as paper deposit. “Deposit” means “to store or entrust with someone for safekeeping.” There is no need to contort the legal concept of deposit for digital resources. Digital deposit is the same as paper deposit: resources are sent to depository libraries.9
  • Myth: We have govinfo.gov, so we don’t need digital deposit.
      Reality: Digital deposit would allow libraries to complement, not replace or duplicate, services that GPO offers through govinfo.gov. With digital deposit, libraries could build their own services around their own collections to deliver services to their own Designated Communities.
  • Myth: We have LOCKSS-USDOCS, so we don’t need digital deposit.
      Reality: The LOCKSS-USDOCS network project is essentially an offline backup of govinfo.gov. This is a significant achievement, but it is not the same as FDLP libraries providing their own digital collections and services to meet the needs of specific online communities.
  • Myth: We already have Online Depositories so don’t need digital deposit.
      Reality: The “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.”10 (referred to as “digital depositories” in GPO’s DLC presentation) do not “collect” any digital resources.11 GPO policy forbids depositing digital resources with these or any FDLP library (SOD 30112). Without digital deposit, FDLP libraries cannot create their own digital collections and services; they can only point to GPO collections and services.

  • Myth: GPO preserves the digital record, so there is no digital preservation role for FDLP libraries.
      Reality: Both GPO’s National Plan and its Federal Information Preservation Network (FIPNet) project say that collaboration and partnerships are required to preserve the digital record. Relying on GPO (and adequate funding from Congress) puts all digital content into a single-point-of-failure situation.
  • Myth: GPO is getting all the available digital content.
      Reality: GPO’s govinfo digital repository is incomplete. Partners are needed to capture, preserve, and provide digital services for the enormous amount of “fugitive” born-digital government information.13 Digital deposit can jump-start that. The quantity of “fugitives” (documents that agencies are supposed to send to GPO, but do not) is enormous. GPO has neither the authority to force agencies to comply with the law, nor adequate resources to encourage them to comply. GPO’s meager and shrinking budget is inadequate to harvest more than a tiny portion of the publicly available government web. FDLP libraries could complement GPO’s actions through partnerships with agencies and with web harvesting.
  • Myth: We have to wait for a major change to Title 44.
      Reality: This is really two myths. First, there is no need to wait. GPO is already doing a primitive version of digital deposit by sending digital files to LOCKSS-USDOCS partners. So, more sophisticated digital deposit can be done today without any change to the law. Second, in order to avoid ambiguity, a small change in chapter 19 could make it explicit that the scope of FDLP includes digital-publications.

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


  1. Environmental Scan of Government Information and Data Preservation Efforts and Challenges. Atlanta, Georgia: Educopia Institute (2018) page 28.
  2. Disseminating and Preserving Digital Public Information Products Created by the U.S. Federal Government: A Case Study Report. Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. (August 2018).
  3. National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information: A Framework for a User-centric Service Approach To Permanent Public Access, U.S. Government Publishing Office (February 2016), page 7.
  4. New Report on Disseminating and Preserving Digital Government Information by James A. Jacobs, FGI (August 30, 2018).
  5. Legal Requirements & Program Regulations of the Federal Depository Library Program. U.S. Government Publishing Office, Office of the Superintendent of Documents (Feb 2018). page 8
  6. 44 USC §41 and 44 USC 1911
  7. Could DOIs Solve Three Depository Challenges? by James A Jacobs (March 24, 2010); Multiple resolution Crossref; Multiple Resolution Applications International DOI Foundation
  8. Design principles United States Web Design System
  9. 44 USC 1903-1905
  10. All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries U.S. Government Publishing Office. Federal Depository Library Program. [Requirements & Guidance/Guidance] (November 20 2014, Updated: February 04 2015). Legal Requirements & Program Regulations of the Federal Depository Library Program. U.S. Government Publishing Office, Office of the Superintendent of Documents (Feb 2018). “Supersedes Federal Depository Library Legal Requirements, 2011.”
  11. “Libraries do not receive digital files or copies of electronic content when they select an online (EL) item number.” (All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries )
  12. SOD 301. Dissemination/Distribution Policy for the Federal Depository Library Program, U.S. Government Publishing Office. Superintendent Of Documents. 2006. “SOD 301” (06/12/2006).
  13. ‘Issued for Gratuitous Distribution:’ The History of Fugitive Documents and the FDLP, by James R. Jacobs. Against the Grain 29(6) (December 2017/January 2018).

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