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Government recommendations to preserve government information not preserved by government

James and I are writing a book on preserving government information. In the course of researching the book, we find ourselves hunting down government publications that we need but that are not available from the government or from any FDLP library. Each of these documents has its own explanation for why it is missing and each explanation tells a story about the gaps in preservation of government information.

This is one of those stories. Think of this as a long footnote to a future book.

In 2002, Congress established the Interagency Committee on Government Information (ICGI). One of its charges (sec 207 (e)) was to address preservation of government information published on the internet. The law required that the committee submit recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by December 2004. Naturally, we wanted to read those recommendations.

The committee’s recommendations were due two years after the creation of GPO Access (gpoaccess.gov, the predecessor to govinfo.gov), but we did not find any of its reports or documents or recommendations in govinfo. We did find references to two documents with gpoaccess.gov URLs, but we did not find them in govinfo.

We did not find references to any publications of the committee in the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (CGP), including searching “electronic titles” and the “FDLP web archive,” nor by using GPO’s MetaLib cross-database search (metalib.gpo.gov).

Using general web search engines we discovered that the website of the committee had been part of cio.gov (Chief Information Officers Council), but the committee’s pages are now long-gone from that site.

The Internet Archive (IA) crawled the home of the ICGI on cio.gov during the period those pages were present (2004-2009) giving us access to many of the committee’s documents, but not all. There are working papers, drafts, work plans and some documents that appear to be final reports (some labeled “draft”). Despite having a simple and fairly well organized web presence, the committee does not have a clear list of its final reports or what recommendations it ultimately gave to OMB.

Further web searches produced copies of some of the same documents on a variety of websites including those of the American Library Association, The Smithsonian Institution, a company that creates software for higher education, GitHub, LEP.gov (limited english proficiency), and others. Most (but not all!) of these were duplicates of documents available from IA and all were individual items isolated from other documents of the committee and presented without context, metadata, or any clear indication of provenance.

Since the law directed the committee to report to OMB, we wondered if OMB had copies of the documents and had, perhaps, posted them on its website.

OMB’s public documents are posted on the White House website, but each administration tends to re-design whitehouse.gov, which makes it difficult to know if the current OMB website has all the documents from earlier administrations.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has captured snapshots of whitehouse.gov since the mid 1990s – including the OMB part of the site – and makes those snapshots publicly available. The committee was active for two years (2003-2004) during the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2009). Unfortunately, there is only one snapshot of the White House website for the Bush administration and it was taken in January 2009, four years after the committee finished its work. We found none of the committee’s reports or recommendations on the Bush White House archived website, either with general searches or by browsing the OMB section of the website. There were references to some of the responses by OMB to the committee’s recommendations, but even some of those links had not been preserved. (NARA does not claim that its snapshots are complete and has said that web snapshots do not systematically or completely document the actions or functions of a government agency “in a meaningful way.”)

The End of Term Web Archive did not begin harvesting until four years after ICGI ended its work. The Library of Congress has a variety of archives of the White House, the Executive Office of the President, the Presidency, and government information, but we did not find any ICGI publications there. We did not find any of the committee’s documents in HathiTrust or in UNT’s CyberCemetery.

Still, there was a chance that NARA would have the records of the committee. OMB could have scheduled reports that it received from the committee as permanent Records for preservation by NARA.

Since the 1970s, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has taken legal and physical custody of all presidential records, including digital records, when a president leaves office. OMB is part of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). But the laws governing federal records are somewhat complex, with different laws governing “Presidential Records” and “Federal Records.” NARA advises that “within the EOP, some components generate Federal records, while others generate Presidential records.” The records of the Office of Management and Budget are judged to be not “Presidential Records” but “Federal Records.” This is significant because NARA preserves all Presidential Records, but only about one to three percent of Federal Records.

It was also possible that the committee itself could have scheduled its reports and recommendations for preservation by NARA.

After unsuccessfully searching the National Archives Catalog for any records of the committee, we submitted an inquiry to NARA asking if they had the the records of the Interagency Committee on Government Information. We recently received a reply saying that they had been unsuccessful in determining the Record Group for the committee. (NARA uses Record Groups to designate the agency that created them or is charged with maintaining them.) They did search for records of the committee within the records of OMB, but without success. They also searched HathiTrust and the Internet Archive, but did not report finding anything. The reply also noted that “Records that are deemed to be permanent do not become part of our holdings until they are no longer needed for current business. They are then transferred to our legal custody, a process that may take 10-20 years.”

Although we have been on the trail of ICGI off-and-on for a few months, we have not yet exhausted all avenues of research. Using an informal approach, we can ask our colleagues at GPO if they have the documents we are seeking, since GPO participated in the work of the committee. And we could get in touch with individual members of the different working groups (it appears that their memberships were all posted on the web). They may still have copies of their final recommendations. And we still have the formal route of filing FOIA requests with NARA and OMB in the hopes that their Records include the documents we seek.

Findings

We still do not know the final fate of the preservation of the documents of the ICGI. Although it has been seventeen years since the committee dissolved we may have to wait another three years or more for NARA to be able to definitively determine if the records of the committee were properly scheduled and if any were part of the 1 to 3% deemed worthy of preservation. If OMB has those documents among it offline records and still views them as needed for current business, it could be much longer before we know if they will be preserved by NARA.

But we can list what we know about the documents as of 2021.

  • The documents that were made public by publishing them on an official federal government website have been withdrawn from that website and are no longer available from the government.
  • Although it was and is the official policy of OMB that agencies should “Provide electronic information dissemination products to the Government Printing Office for distribution to depository libraries,” that was not done. (OMB Circular A-130, 44 USC 19)
  • Although Congress has given GPO the permission to include documents in govinfo at the request of an agency, apparently, neither the CIO Council nor the ICGI made any such request, despite the fact that GPO was represented on the ICGI. (44 USC 41)
  • Although the records of the committee include the documents it posted on the web (as well as any that it sent directly to OMB whether it posted them on the web or not), those records must be “scheduled” according to NARA rules as having permanent value to be eligible for permanent retention by NARA and as of this year, that has, apparently, not yet happened. (44 USC 31)
  • Those documents of the committee that are still publicly available have been collected and preserved and made available by a charitable organization (the Internet Archive).
  • Although laws, policies, and regulations exist to preserve publications and records of government agencies, there is no indication that they have resulted in the preservation of public documents of a committee created by Congress for the purpose of ensuring the preservation of government information.

Conclusions

It would not be appropriate to draw sweeping generalizations about the the state of the preservation of government information from this one tiny case study. After all, the ICGI only existed for about 24 months and it consisted of probably fewer than one hundred participants who had regular jobs in more than twenty-five different agencies. It was active in a time that was still the early days of the web (Facebook didn’t exist; PubMed, Wikipedia, and GPO Access were all less than two years old; and broadband connections would not surpass dialup connections for another year or two).

But even this tiny case study reveals some important aspects of preservation that resonate with our experiences over the seventeen years since the committee ended.

  • The laws and regulations that define information policies of the federal government and the preservation of government information are complex, sometimes vague or contradictory, and riddled with preservation gaps.

  • Although those laws and regulations have been updated repeatedly, those updates are mostly designed to include digital information into paper-era policies rather than change policies to accommodate the functional differences between paper publications and digital information.

  • In the paper-era, GPO and FDLP were able to provide both access and preservation to a large body of government information by using an existing infrastructure (e.g., printing, physical distribution of books, libraries). No such infrastructure exists yet for the digital age.

These warrant more study, which we intend to address in our book. We welcome your comments and advice.

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.


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