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FDLP in the past tense

An article by Mike Wash, chief technical officer for the Government Printing Office, has two interesting implications for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP).

First, every time Wash mentions the FDLP he uses the past tense (e.g., “GPO’s partners in the Depository Library Program then assumed the responsibility for preserving the printed publications and providing permanent public access to these publications.”).

Second, every mention of FDLP ties it to print. Wash does not mention that there are digital libraries. He does not mention that there are libraries that have and manage and preserve and provide service for digital content. He essentially provides a vision in which libraries are apparently unaware of the digital age and are completely irrelevant to it.

Wash articulates the GPO vision of the FDLP as well as anyone has in the last decade. The GPO vision of the future is one where, because printing is no longer a priority, so “distributing publications is no longer the primary mode.” It is a vision where digital content is “managed” and made “available” online, and for “managed” we can read “controlled.” FDLP libraries in this vision will have no collections to manage.

While the Future Digital System and its monolithic, comprehensive collection is a laudable goal, it is simply bad policy to rely on it and nothing else. To do so puts all public access to all government information at risk of a single-system run by a single government. Any technical problems, or human error, or policy changes, or budgetary constraints, or political decisions could mean the withdrawal, alteration or loss of “availability” of information in an instant.

In this vision it is the responsibility of GPO — to the exclusion of FDLP libraries — to preserve digital content in perpetuity and make it permanently accessible.

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  1. The Mellon Foundation doesn’t think the idea of depository is such a 19th century idea. In their report, Urgent Action Needed to Preserve Scholarly Electronic Journals, they say (speaking of scholarly journals)

    “[R]esearch and academic libraries and associated academic institutions must effectively demand archival deposit by publishers as a condition of licensing electronic journals. Standard form clauses need to be crafted and implemented that require publishers to transmit all files upon publication either directly to a qualified archive or to the licensing library for deposit in a qualified archive.”

    See more here: New Mellon Report on Digital Deposit

  2. I didn’t find Wash’s use of the past tense when discussing the FDLP particularly noteworthy. The concept of a “depository” library is a 19th century construct. The 21st century idea of “depository” is very different simply because most information in PDF is downloaded, thus deposited on to your computer. The notion of an electronic depository library program is rather redundanct because if it is available to a single user, then they have their own “depository library”.

    This may sound like I am arguing semantics, which I hope I am not.

  3. I find this notion of user download as depository library troublesome. It’s like saying that when a person buys a book at their local bookstore, they are creating a Library. The only way this would be a “Library” is if that person gave long-term access to their personal books to the public and the only way a person’s hard drive would be a “Library” is if everyone described their downloaded documents and then made them searchable and retrievable via BitTorrent or some P2P network. Download most certainly does not equal deposit — download is passive, user-centered and haphazzard; deposit is active, information-producer-centered, and programatic.

    IMHO, the real problem with using FDLP in the past tense is the complete disregard for the importance of libraries inherent in the statement. Libraries have provided a vital service and worked in concert with govt agencies to provide access to and preservation of govt information for a *long* time. This “19th century construct” is just as vital today when information is in bits rather than paper. In order for libraries to continue to provide the services they’re famous for (and NOT be put in the past tense!), Librarians need to learn how to deal with the digital the same way they learned how to deal with paper, microcards and microfiche.

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