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More on GPO’s “public-private partnership RFI”

The questions I have about the current RFI relate less to how GPO and FDLP and the bookstores and sales program worked and interacted in the past and more to how new partnerships and plans might affect free, fully-functional, permanent access to government information in the future.

I am concerned that GPO’s business strategies and its new “Strategic Vision” will affect free public access to digital publications as well as to paper-and-ink documents.

In terms of paper-and-ink documents, it is possible that a robust, successful paper-and-ink sales program would benefit FDLP by getting more publications into the FDLP distribution stream. On the other hand, it is possible that successful sales will lead to the removal from FDLP of publications that can earn a profit as they migrate into the private sector. And, as Scott Matheson pointed out here recently, it is also possible that less profitable documents would not be ordered for the sales program, and if not very popular, not ordered for depository distribution.

I don’t think we can make a reliable prediction of what might happen economically, but I do think it completely appropriate for FDLP librarians to reiterate to GPO their own values of free access to such paper-and-ink publications. I think that hoping that economics will work out to the benefit of free access, or assuming that the past practices and procedures will govern access in the future are not adequate strategies for ensuring free access.

There are too many reasons to believe that those hopes will not be fulfilled. Mr. James has characterized Congressional funding for public dissemination of public information as “a hand out” and not as a legitimate, essential, role of government. He said that giving information free to the general public is not “a sustainable model” and that GPO is “going to have to invent a new way” of doing business. The private sector believes the role of government in disseminating public information for free or fee should be very limited. The interests of the public (and libraries), it would seem, are not well represented in the current environment.

My concern in this area is not ameliorated by Ms. Russell’s calling our attention to the historic mission of the GPO sales program of giving the public “the option to purchase products that they do not chose to use through the depository libraries or by downloading the information from the Internet.” While GPO is pushing the sales program aggressively, it is simultaneously pushing to greatly reduce the volume of materials deposited in FDLP libraries.

Concerning digital publications, GPO’s commitment to free permanent public access is weakened by its failure to guarantee in its Strategic Vision document that it will deposit digital publications with depository libraries, its failure even to guarantee that it will make fully-functional digital content accessible to libraries, and its failure to guarantee that the public will be able to download or print digital materials without paying a fee.

In short, it is all well and good to say that users will have an “option” to purchase government information, but if there is no *guarantee* that users can get fully functional digital information, then purchasing becomes the only “option.” The ConOps document, by the way, is “policy neutral” — which means that the GPO plan for “access” will *by design* be able to change overnight from free to fee or from downloading to viewing, etc.

I’m sure we would all welcome hearing GPO say that such concerns are unfounded, that GPO has an expilict plan to make government information available without charge, That GPO will push digital content to libraries not just to the private sector, and that GPO will guarantee libraries and the public more than “access” and “viewing” of documents without charge. The DLC meeting next week presents yet another opportunity for GPO to do so.

I think, therefore, that it is completely legitimate and appropriate to use the DLC meeting as an opportunity to ask Ms. Russell and Mr. James and others from GPO for specifics about how they will support permanent, public, free, *fully-functional* access to government information. I think it completely appropriate to use this forum to challenge GPO to explain how its mission of providing digital information “on a cost recovery basis” can be accomplished while providing “free and ready public access” to fully functional digital information.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


2 Comments

  1. Speaking for myself alone, it’s important not to confuse most documents librarians strong opposition to private, for-profit companies owning and/or controlling the distribution of BASIC government information, publications, etc with opposition to ANY role for the private sector at all. The private sector has an important role in adding value to government information.

    For example, American Statistics Index, published by CIS/Lexis/Nexis, provides INCREDIBLE indexing to government information. Their indexes provide access by demographic groups, geographic area, report number and many other ways that are far more helpful than a free text search of a bunch of government-issue PDF files would be. They charge a lot for this service, but its one of last things I’d give up at my library. Since the gov’t has a hard enough time just getting the documents out, I think it is very appropriate for LEXIS to do the indexing. I believe that nonprofits should be able to create their own indexes and share them over the Internet, but I don’t know that they could do as good a job as LEXIS does.

    Also, while I think LEXIS has every right to protect its indexing, it would not be right for them to prohibit further distribution of the underlying report if their microfilm copy ever became the last copy available — something possible under the GPO Strategic Plan.

    Bottom-line: Everyone should have access to taxpayer-funded government information, but there is room for the private sector to add value. If they really add value, we will pay for it. If we can do better ourselves, we should be able to.

  2. I agree with Daniel and will just reiterate what we said in our paper

    There is no inconsistency between, on the one hand, the government and libraries providing fully functional digital government information for free to the public and, on the other hand, the private sector adding value to that government information and creating new information products. GPO could even enable such services by providing profiled products to the private sector for repackaging and could do this without competing with the private sector and without reducing the functionality of its own information products.

    Thanks Daniel!

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