Home » Library » Back from the brink! Recent discussions and the future of the #FDLP

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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Back from the brink! Recent discussions and the future of the #FDLP

We are concerned that in some recent informal comments on twitter and some more formal discussions of the MN/MI regional proposal and ASERL project, the tone has taken on a decidedly confrontational, even hostile tone with implications that GPO is being obstructionist. We are concerned that a few libraries may be in a rush to set the agenda for the FDLP in a way that best suits their interests. We are writing in hopes of calming the discussion so that, at the upcoming Depository Library meeting, we can have constructive discussions and avoid rushing into important decisions and the setting of agendas. The stakes are too high to oversimplify the issues facing GPO, the FDLP, the Regional Depositories, and the Selective Depositories with one-word epithets, emotionally loaded characterizations, and name-calling. It is essential that the conversations at DLC not be dominated by a few well-organized, vocal Regionals.

1. At the DLC meeting this month, when the future of the FDLP is discussed and the specific proposals by MN/MI and ASERL are sure to be raised, it is very important that we differentiate the issues that Regional Depositories face (with their special legal requirements, comprehensive collections, and support of selective depositories) from the issues that selectives face. The issues overlap but it would be unwise to let the agendas of the Regionals (or, worse, just some of the Regionals) set the agenda for all of the FDLP.

Regionals face unique problems, and solving their problems will not necessarily “save” the FDLP any more than a failure to solve their problems will “kill” the FDLP. Even the defunding and privatization of GPO will not “kill” the FDLP: it will just make it that much more difficult to build and maintain FDLP collections and services.

It is particularly important that we examine the context of the proposals currently on the table. As Ithaka S+R has assiduously described in its recent reports, many library directors and administrations are actively seeking ways to weed their paper-and-ink collections, and some want to decrease their commitment to the FDLP because they no longer believe that there is an institutional value to depository status. Regardless of the efficacy of such policies, FDLP librarians should recognize that those policies, even if justifiable for an institution, have little if anything to do with a commitment to long-term, free, public access to government information. At best, designing policies based first on local needs will only yield value for the FDLP as a by-product; at worst, it will diminish the FDLP’s value to users. Ithaka S+R’s report already made the case for just such an approach and GPO has (wisely, we believe) rejected it.

GPO and the FDLP collectively need to maintain the long-term preservation of and access to government information as a first priority and need to keep the needs of information users, not individual institutions, as our collective highest priority when modeling the future of the FDLP. Policies based on such an approach will yield value to users as a direct result of their implementation, not as a by-product.

In our deliberations on the future of the FDLP, we need to clearly state our justifications for new policies and procedures and separate those that are demonstrably good for the FDLP and government information users from those that are tied to local needs — such as budgetary constraints and the desire to weed paper-and-ink collections. Obviously, each library has to take its own needs into account, but, just as obviously, we should avoid making system-wide decisions based on the needs of a few libraries.

2. Developing a model for the future of the FDLP is going to require give-and-take and cooperation. Name calling and hostility will not serve the needs of anyone or result in positive solutions.

Libraries must work with GPO — and vice versa. Libraries need to accept that GPO operates under legal constraints. When GPO asks legitimate legal questions, it is not attacking or resisting change; it is fulfilling its legal obligations. Characterizing GPO’s responses as “protecting the status quo” are neither helpful in this difficult transition time, nor accurate.

That said, we also urge GPO to be as flexible as it legally can be and also as creative as it can be in order to come up with innovative solutions that strengthen information preservation, public access and the ongoing management of regionals and selectives. We believe GPO should push its policies and procedures to the limit of the law, not look for the most conservative possible interpretation of the law. We remember all too vividly how the introduction of microforms into the FDLP took almost 7 years, but it was done with leadership from GPO.

Just as GPO must work within a legal framework, so individual libraries must work within their own constraints. We urge FDLP libraries to be as flexible as possible and come up with plans that reflect the needs of a broad community of users and that will guarantee long-term preservation and access of government information in all formats. The digital-shift provides libraries new opportunities to do more than they ever have before. While it may seem easy to come up with procedures that reduce collections, minimize numbers of copies, increase costs to users and Selective Depositories, and reduce services to users, such “solutions” are, we believe, short-sighted and inadequate to the task at hand. It will be harder but, we would argue, much better to develop innovative solutions that will expand what libraries do to meet needs of users. Libraries are not as constrained as GPO is by Title 44: we can do more than GPO/FDsys can do by building collections that are beyond the scope of Title 44. Digital makes this possible and provides new opportunities; it should not be used as an excuse to trim services and collections.

We at FGI yield to no one in our desire for a fully functional digital FDLP. We have been advocating that for seven years and are just as anxious — if not more so — as anyone to move forward to the next phase of the FDLP. Over the years, we have criticized GPO and its policies — and will continue to do so when we believe such criticism is warranted. But our intention has always been to challenge GPO to do more and to do better, and to work with FDLP libraries, not work against them or arrogate responsibilities from them. Just as we want GPO to work with FDLP libraries, we want FDLP libraries to work with, not in opposition to, GPO. We at FGI believe that the future of the FDLP will be most secure if GPO and FDLP libraries work together to a common end.

We urge all participants in these conversations to deal with each other collegially and cordially and seek common solutions that will benefit all — not just a few libraries. We urge all parties to refrain from over-simpification of complex issues. We urge thoughtfulness and cooperation toward what should be our common goals of high-quality long-term preservation of and access to government information, driven first and foremost by the needs of users.


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