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Continued need for print distribution from government

If you read my govdoc-l posting on this topic on October 12, 2005, there’s not much new here other than a few more links. I’m offering these thoughts here because Free Government Information does have readership outside of the govdoc-l community.

As part of the government information community takes this week to consider the future of government information, I wanted say a few words about the need to continue the option of tangible (i.e. print and microfiche) distribution for which agencies still produce a tangible product. Print is still used and needed.

“Wait, Wait! Congress decided awhile back that everything was going to be digital only. Besides the gov’t can’t afford it!”

I’m not talking today about what is politically convenient or easily affordable. I’m talking about needs. For example, it is neither easy nor cheap to provide medical care to the poorest Americans through Medicaid, but the need is there. Our nation may choose not to meet that need, but that doesn’t make the need go away. Ok?

So why do I think that government information in tangible format is still needed?

A. Print is alive and well in the general society, the GPO sales program notwithstanding.

Sales of printed materials are rising, not falling in this country. According to the latest figures (2004) from the American Association of Publishers, book publishing is a $23.7 Billion industry whose sales grew at 1.3% as a whole. The adult trade book segment, the one I regard as closest to government documents grew much faster – Adult trade hardbound gained 6.3 percent ($2.61 billion), while paperbound sales were also up 2.8 percent ($1.51 billion). This seems to me to be a sign of a growing market, not a shrinking one.

According to the vendor organization Book Industry Study Group, the Internet is driving a whole new market in used books. People are finding out about older books on the web — and ordering physical copies. The Internet could do the same for document usage, especially with the Open WorldCat project. For example, a user might come across a government pub on the web through Open WorldCat, like the Pocket guide to the Arabian Peninsula. In an ideal world, people would have their choice of buying the printed guide from GPO, downloading a free PDF copy, or visiting their nearest depository and checking out the book. I believe some people would take advantage of each option.

B. People are still visiting libraries in large volumes and checking out physical items.

Nationwide, people are still visiting libraries in large numbers and often. The NCES publication Public Libraries in the United States, 2003 reported “Nationwide, library visits to public libraries totaled 1.3 billion, or 4.6 library visits per capita.” These users are checking out tangible items. Library Journal reports that “Libraries are hardly losing pace with the public, since per capita circulation rose from 8.46 to 8.78 in FY04, an increase of 3.8%.” With better inclusion in catalogs and marketing, tangible government documents could be a growing part of this mix.

C. Millions of citizens are either offline or Internet-underserved

As I’ve written elsewhere, tens of millions of Americans are either not online at all, or have low-bandwidth connections that make using many PDF files unsuitable. What are we saying to these fellow citizens if we cannot provide government information in a format they can use?

D. Tangible backups of digital materials are still best practice.

What did the Census Bureau do with the computerized Census 2000 questionnaires that by law it must produce for genealogists in 2072? They microfilmed them. They understood that the only way to GUARANTEE that data will survive for many decades is to provide a tangible backup.

Security and preservation of data is the reason that there is still a healthy Computer Output Microfilm market for large organizations’ data storage. I’m not saying we should write everything to microfilm, but we should be paying attention to what organizations with critical legal needs to preserve data are doing with it.

I’m expecting a solution to digital preservation in digital formats, if not in my lifetime, then in the next generation. By spreading enough digital copies around the country, I think enough copies will survive media and format degradation long enough for a centuries-long solution to be applied. But at present, only what is tangible is guaranteed to survive into the 22nd Century. All else is guesswork. Having many guesses/copies make it more likely at least one guess will be the right one, but we do not know.

People are still buying book and visiting libraries. Tens of millions of Americans do not have effective access to the Nation’s electronic information. Preservation current best practice is tangible backup. But some agencies have given up on paper. That’s why I think the government has a responsibility to continue to provide tangible items to libraries willing to take responsibility for them AND to provide electronic deposit of files to libraries willing to take responsibility for them.

Not practical? Is turning our back on tens of millions of Americans while risking the loss of our scientific, cultural and historical heritage practical?

Not affordable? The story of the last five years is that anything the government *thinks* it can afford, it does. It’s a matter of priorities. It’s up to us and our user communities to remind Congress that disseminating the research and information gathered by our government AT OUR EXPENSE, and often under coercion, is a basic responsibility. It is not a handout. It is receiving the products we have paid for with our tax dollars. Once that responsibility is understood, funds will follow.

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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