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Daniel’s Take: Managing Collections and Delivering Content

The comments below reference the Managing Collections and Delivering Content section 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

Prior comments on this discussion paper:

Of all the sections in the DLC discussion paper, Managing Collections and Delivering Content is the most disappointing. This was the place for a ringing endorsement of local, geographically disbursed, deposit of fully functional electronic files free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that local depositories could make available on the Internet. I hope and pray that such a vision of the future can embrace such a simple, yet essential element. If not by the Depository Library Council, then by ALA GODORT or some other documents-oriented organization.

But that isn’t what we got. In keeping with my promise to highlight positive aspects before bringing up the negative aspects of the DLC Discussion paper, let me give you some good news.

On page 8, the discussion paper states that GPO’s plan for long-term access to materials regardless of format rests on the National Bibliography and the National Collection. Both of these efforts are commendable and hopefully the long-delayed National Collection will be established in physical and electronic shelving soon. Succeeding pages talk about the Future Digital System (FDSys), which I support as long as it is not the sole source of fully functional electronic government information.

I credit the DLC authors of the discussion paper for acknowledging a legitimate case for Federal Depository Libraries (FDLs) to build local digital collections. On page 9 they cite six points made by Richard Luce of the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab research library in support of building local (though web accessible) digital collections. The discussion paper also mentions the GPO LOCKSS pilot, though without endorsement.

Another positive aspect of the discussion paper is its endorsement of some number of “light archives” for tangible formats. The authors also cite ongoing (and needed) efforts to provide more granular selection criteria for depositories. This will reduce waste and I commend the DLC for including this in their vision.

Finally, I commend the authors for calling DRM enabled files what they are – crippled (p. 13). They explicitly reject disabling features such as downloading, searching and extraction (i.e. copying and pasting).

Before I criticizes specifics of the Discussion paper’s “managing collections” section, here are two points that I want you to keep in mind in future visioning discussions:

  • A “depository library” that receives no materials or has no collection in its custody is not a depository library. It can
    be a government information service center, and I believe there is a place for those, but it is not a depository library.

  • Let’s stop this talk of “It’s visiting the FDL” OR “It’s going on the web.” If there was a system of deposit of fully functional electronic files served to the Internet through local depository libraries, we could have a “information anywhere” future where privacy and access to existing data could be assured indefinitely.

One possible major flaw of the “managing collections” section is that the otherwise positive condemnation of DRM software comes with this odd statement (emphasis mine):

The GPO should work with agencies to ensure that the standard for web-publishing is fully-enable digital files that can be distributed to depositories and incorporated and fully exploited within their local digital environments.

If the phrase “local digital environment” means “In-library use only” or “Accessible remotely only to library-authenticated users”, then DLC is in fact advocating crippled files. By their own admission, DLC believes that few people visit FDLs anymore. So what use will our “fully-functional” electronic files be if we cannot offer them freely and remotely? At least with proprietary vendors we can negotiate statewide home-access contracts! If “local digital environment” means something more innocent, I hope a DLC member will step forward and let us know what it does mean.

There are two definite major flaws to this section. The first is the language used to talk about proponents of local deposit versus those who are willing to accept a centralized electronic documents solution. While the DLC authors did not directly quote any librarians endorsing a centralized approach, they say that “many depository librarians” believe “that their libraries should focus on serving as information centers for Federal Government Information” and that “development of costly digital information architectures for managing digital content will not be supported or required by their institutions.” (p. 10-11). On the other hand, while the DLC authors quote two individuals on the value of local deposit of electronic government information, proponents of such an approach are refered to as “some” (p. 9) and “these voices” (p. 10). This approach makes supporters of centralization seem more numerous than supporters of a geographically distributed approach.

So far, the only measure of library willingness to accept local deposit of electronic files is our unscientific poll at Free Government Information, which currently indicates 90% support for local deposit of electronic files. So I think it is premature to speak of “many depository librarians” wanting nothing more than to be information service centers.

One thing I should make clear is that I wholeheartedly accept the concept of the FDSys. I see it as a last resort repository providing metadata and fully functional electronic content to depository libraries. People on the web might find a depository copy of a file, an agency copy, or even a FDSys copy. They won’t have to care, but the redundancy will assure that information remains available no matter what sort of disaster strikes our country or if Congress moves the Government Printing Office to a cost-recovery model like it has for the National Technical Information Service.

The second major flaw of this section is treating depository acceptance of digital files as optional, as stated on page 11:

The choices that existing and potential FDLs make in the area of digital collecting will inevitably reflect local needs and interests. There is no “one size fits all” solution. A viable and dynamic vision of a digital-era FDLP must support and sustain the full range of needs reflected in the continuum above, ranging from those libraries that wish to locally load content and metadata to those that wish to rely exclusively upon a more centrally managed model of preservation and access to Federal Web-based content.

While I agree with many librarians, including Charley Seavey, that all libraries can become “government information service centers”, if desire and need are present, I do not accept that you can have a depository program without depositories, or with “depositories” that have no custody of materials. Depositories require deposits. Non-depository libraries can certainly access a lot of government information and build expertise in that, but we really don’t need a government program for that. Also, without tangible benefits, what benefit would acrue to a library keeping government information specialists on staff? Especially if FDLs are successful in getting to where our users are – whether on the web, by phone, or in the offices of their local government?

I suppose that GPO could offer non-depository libraries incentives to be “government information service centers”, like in-library fee-database access or specialized training, but then it should explicitly establish a new category of library service centers. I’d be willing to accept a smaller number of Federal Depository Libraries if there was true deposit of some materials in all depository libraries.

One final, but minor problem with this section is that discussion of “light archives” appear to center on a number between two and ten as in this quote on page 11:

A small number (fewer than 10) of geographically-dispersed “light archives” supplied by GPO with the full range of paper products offered by the GPO might appropriately provide the ongoing need for paper products in an environment where digital versions exist for the entire publishing output of federal agencies.

As far as I can tell, this choice of “fewer than 10” is never justified in the discussion paper. How do we know this is an optimal number for preserving materials? Where did this number come from? I think I first heard it from SuDoc Judy Russell, but at the time it seemed like the number was randomly chosen. I think the final vision paper should ask for research on an optimal number of light archives. Additionally, if GPO presses on with it’s picture of a depository system without deposits, the least it can do is establish a like number of digital “light archives.” If redundant copies are important for print, they are even more important for the far more fragile digital materials.

That’s all for now. Sunday or Monday I will post on “deploying expertise”, the last area of the DLC discussion paper.

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