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Daniel’s Take: Library Roles in the Non-Exclusive Environment

The comments below reference the Library Roles in the Non-Exclusive Environment of the September 2005 Depository Library Council publication The Federal Government Information Environment of the 21st Century: Towards a Vision Statement and Plan of Action for Federal Depository Libraries. Discussion Paper

My general comments on this paper appeared in another blog posting.

As I work through each section of the discussion paper, I’ll start out with positive aspects and then move onto what I view are problems with the DLC paper. I strongly believe in finding common ground whenever possible. We shouldn’t turn this discussion into a “us vs. them” dynamic.

The DLC rightly points out that the government information environment is much more diverse than in the past. They also point out correctly in my view that most people’s first approach to locating government information is trying the web. The authors also sensibly ask what it means to be a depository library when so much government information is available on the web.

I believe there are a few mistaken assumptions/arguments in this section of the discussion paper.

First, the authors appear portray the end-users’ options as either visiting their local depository, OR getting their information from a gov’t web server. I don’t see any other way to spin the assertion:

The public increasingly favors direct access to Web-based federal information over the alternative of visiting a local FDL. (p. 3)

But this is a false choice even if everyone wanted all of their information over the Internet. If depositories accepted deposit of fully functional electronic files, these could be mounted on their servers, which would then be available to the Internet at large. People wouldn’t necessarily know or care they were getting a depository copy of a web document, but preservation, access, and privacy would be served by having multiple copies outside the total control of one institution.

I’m not sure that believing that most everyone goes to the web for gov’t information is necessarily true either. I acknowledge that many people do their information seeking online. To deny this is madness, even though 32% of Americans do not use the Internet at all, and 44% of Americans with Internet access have dialup which is NOT suitable for downloading large PDF files. We may also be missing the 74% of Americans over 65 who do not use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

While not a majority, these offline users represent over 66 million Americans who are disproportionly older and rural. One can argue these folks aren’t interested in government information, but how do we know that? Has anyone tried to measure knowledge or interest among offline users? Perhaps we need more research before making sweeping generalizations.

The discussion paper talks about “smart indexing” from Google and other search engines to find government information. I’d like a definition of this general term. While Google is good for many things, it has some specific weaknesses as an index to government information:

  • It’s secret algorithm relies heavily on links to materials to indicate relevance. While this isn’t much of a problem for popular topics and resources, solid but less well known resources won’t be ranked as high as commerical sites with similar key words.
  • Google is unable to index the deep-web and password protected databases, so users might not get appropriate information from STAT-USA and other databases.
  • It can be hard for the general user to distinguish between government provided and commercial or advocacy group data.

Another problem I see with this section that abounds thoughout the whole paper is a confusion between Federal Depository Libraries and what I’ll call “government information service centers.” I personally feel that it is misleading to call something a depository when it is not receiving materials. Having links in your catalog is different from having custody of the materials. If DLC or GPO wants to establish a new class of libraries, they should say so clearly.

As this commentary is getting long, I’ll conclude with a final false choice of the discussion paper – The three futures of for the FDLP cited on page four. These “futures” are Fold, Status Quo, and Proactive. While the “Proactive” future is a little brighter than the other two, the depository program still becomes “moot.” This “mootness” comes despite the assertion that “Some FDLs build digital collections as light archives or as LOCKSS (or alternative future technology) participants.” If the status of FDLs become increasingly moot, it sounds like the “light archives” are done by libraries on their own and not under a formal program.

I would like to see an option in the final paper that provides a formal system of light archives built with the active cooperation of the Government Printing Office and other agencies. Call it the “To infinity and beyond” option if you want, but please include it as an option.

Tomorrow I will look at adding value.

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