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The value in being a depository library

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[UPDATE 6:45PM 7/17/2014: I’ve had 2 other examples of document loss or potential loss emailed to me this afternoon. I’ve added ERIC and USGS in the comments. Readers are encouraged to leave other examples in the comments. Thanks! JRJ]

In the govt information library community, the question of the value of being — or remaining — a federal depository library is a zombie meme. This question was again posted to GOVDOC-L a couple of days ago. We thought we’d share our response to this question. So here goes.

Hi _______ et al,

I think you are right: this question has come up more than once on this list and seemingly ad nauseam at depository library and ALA conferences. I don’t have a reference to the last time it did, but, if you don’t mind, I can give you my take on it. I apologize for this rather long response, but I think the question requires it.

I think that there are really two questions we should be asking ourselves; (and I think we need to have a ready answer on hand to both questions when our administrators ask us):

1) What is the value of the depository to my library’s users?


2) How does a library measure its value?

The same answers to these questions hold today as held in the print era. Because just “being a depository” (getting boxes of books) didn’t have any value (or prestige) in the print era. Right? Of course, just unpacking the boxes did increase the number of volumes in a library in the days when volume count was a major way that libraries measured their value. But most depository libraries did more than this. They selected items in order to build collections that were useful to their users, they cataloged the collections and provided finding aids, they hired and trained staff focused on govt information, they provided specialized services. The result of all this was that users got value from the work libraries did. Libraries added value.

(And, yes, volume count is less relied on today as a measure of a library’s value. But having actual digital content that the library selects and preserves and for which it provides services, is becoming increasingly a measure of the value of libraries. Look at any commercial information vendor and ask why users find them valuable: it is not because the vendors point to stuff they do not have (see “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting”); commercial vendors combine collections of digital information with services and users find that valuable. Libraries are beginning to understand that and do it.)

Let’s put this in perspective: even in the print era it cost money and resources to be a depository. Your users got value (and “convenience” too) from the collections and the services that those resources enabled and the library was valuable to users by providing those services and collections.

So what has changed in the digital age? Why do we keep hearing this question about the value of being a depository? I would guess that there is an implied assumption behind this question and it goes something like this: “In the digital age my users have access to govt information on the web without my doing anything” and that leads to the question, “What does my library gain by being a depository?”

But is that assumption really true? Let’s think it through. Let’s assume that a lot of good government information is on the web and freely available and even findable with commercial tools like google.

Do you — or more importantly your administrators — really believe that your users can find everything they need easily and use it just because it is on the web *today*? Do you add value to your library by doing nothing and pointing your users to the web? Does your library add value for its users if you do nothing?

Do your users know that the government has a wealth of information that touches on all aspects of our lives? Can they tell the difference between archives.gov and archive.org? Or between the FCC and the FTC? Or between a House Committee Report and a staff report of one party of a Committee? Now imagine what effect it would have on your users’ ability to find what they need if you select the information you know they need and put it into their collection for them? They would find valuable government information in the course of their searches for other topics if that information were in your collection and accessible via your library catalog — and through OCLC, GPO’s Catalog of Govt Publications (CGP), and other utilities, users’ access is amplified.

I know a lot of librarians like to say that “All govt information is accessible on the web!” But can we count on either short-term or long-term access?

We live in a time when Congress has shut down the government numerous times, resulting in a loss of access to most online government information. Congress has stopped creating important information (by shutting down the Office of Technology Assessment, defunding the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia unit and ceasing publication of the Statistical Abstract and several other critical statistical resources, etc.). It is trying to shut down the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) (because, you know, “just google it”!), and has turned off all access to NASA technical reports because there might be one that would be “dangerous.” We live in a time when anti-government sentiment is so strong that agencies are sometimes just so broke that they cannot reliably maintain their purl servers. These are real problems, not speculations. Bad things have happened just in the recent past. Does this give you confidence that you can tell your users — much less your administrators! — “everything is accessible on the web”? Can any of us rely on such a government really guaranteeing access to the information that your users need? The government does not know your users; you do.

And what about long-term preservation of information and free access to it? Do you believe that a government that won’t repair bridges or provide adequate funding for education, or even keep our water and air and food clean and safe will keep everything “free on the web” for your users forever? Read the US Code for your favorite agency some time and hunt for the terms “preservation” or “long-term” and you will not find them. But hunt for the terms “fees” “cost recovery” and “self-supporting” and you’ll find that most agencies are specifically authorized by Congress to charge for the information they provide you. “Free on the web”? Do not count on it! If we make decisions assuming that everything our users need will always be there for them, easily findable and free, we will be making decisions that, in the long run, will hurt our users. They will not thank us for it. They will ask us why we did nothing when we could have done so much.

But wait! A key aspect — if not The Key Aspect! — of the FDLP is that 1200+ libraries together do provide a preservation safety net of historic govt publications distributed around the country that is needed for long-term preservation and access — and ought to do the same for born-digital govt information. There is a huge value to the public in that, whether or not the public knows it. My advice is: do not be part of the erosion of that safety net. Do not wait until the safety net is gone to find that your assumptions were wrong.

Turn the “value of a depository” question around and ask the same question of any of your other collections. Is there a value in your collecting materials in political science or engineering or biology or YA fiction? Of course there is! So why should we have to ask this about government information? Is it because government information is “free”? But the initial cost of acquiring a book is probably the smallest cost in the lifetime of that book. The organization, shelving, cataloging, preservation, management, and service is where the real costs come. Is government information less valuable to your users? Easier to find and use and understand? Can we really honestly say that it is worth adding value to our YA lit or political science collections and not worth adding value to govt information?

As a government information librarian, you know how much useful information is available from government agencies. If there’s a chance that your users will want or need current or historical statistical resources or reports from an agency which directly impacts their lives, or access to government regulations, or if they want to write a report for a class on topics from A to Z, you know they can find some of what they need in the govt information collection, but your users will find value in your library if and only if you have government information in your collection — regardless of whether the information is in paper or digital format. There’s a symbiotic relationship between your library’s collections and its services to its community. And since all of these things will no doubt be necessary at one time or another, then it behooves every library to have at the very least some govt information in their collections AND cataloged in their opacs — and the easiest/cheapest/most effective way to do that is to be a depository library! — and have someone on staff who knows how to find and use govt information. Your library is a springboard to the world of govt information. Simple as that.

Being a depository in the digital age costs resources and takes time and effort and thoughtful application of your skills. “Value” is not free. But your users will find value in your library if it contains govt information.

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


  1. I thought I’d add other examples of document loss that have been emailed to me:

    There are many other examples of federal agencies who have put a large amount of historical digitized content on their Web sites (the US Geological Survey Publications Warehouse comes to mind http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/ ) I know that many academic libraries are withdrawing entire runs of USGS series (Bulletins, Professional Papers, etc.) because they believe they can depend on the Publications Warehouse to provide perpetual access to that content. But, quite frankly, I don’t trust any federal agency to provide perpetual access to historical publications.


    Your mention of the take down of the NASA technical reports reminds me of another major example: the ERIC full-text online library. So many depositories threw away their collections of ERIC microfiche when ERIC put most of the content on their Web site. When ERIC pulled off the content for many months, those depositories were left high and dry because they had discarded their locally-held collections in the foolish belief that they could depend on the Dept. of Education to keep the ERIC content perpetually available.

    • Wow, I just re-read the “FGI response to the Ithaka draft values proposition for the FDLP”. It points out nearly the same thing as this most recent letter re the value of being a depository library. That is, “value” shouldn’t be defined as something libraries receive, but as something *users* receive from libraries doing the work of collecting, preserving and giving access to govt information over the long term. Especially salient was this section:

      First, the draft report’s focus on the value to libraries results in a skewed and even misleading understanding of the history and future of the FDLP. In the report’s description of the value of the FDLP, it repeatedly uses the phrase “many libraries” (by my count, nineteen times in eleven pages). This phrase implies that there is either a consensus among libraries, or demonstrable trends in one particular direction, or a consistent motivation for changes to the Program. But neither this report nor the earlier FDLP Modeling draft reports document any such consensuses or trends or motivations. If anything, the reports document the diversity of motivations in the FDLP community. In fact, this use of the phrase “many libraries” masks the existence of other views of the value of FDLP. The report tells the story about the historical value of the FDLP from only one perspective — that of participating libraries and, more specifically, from the point of view of library management (i.e.., “What does my library get out of participating in FDLP?”). This narrative of the value of FDLP to libraries is plausible as far as it goes, but it is seriously incomplete. There are other narratives that are as important if not more so.

      A different narrative, from the point of view of users, for example, would tell a completely different story. It would tell how libraries have helped users find and use government information and have ensured the preservation of that information. It would tell the story of how users are happy today with the access they have to government information on the web directly from agencies. It would also provide a librarian’s view of the future of free public access for users and compare the benefits and risks of different models. Such a narrative would illuminate what the different models would actually mean to users, rather than to library managers. Among other things, it would demonstrate the need for building many user-focused services supported by and integrated with specific, user-focused collections. It would result in models that benefit users. Participating libraries would benefit because they would be providing useful services to users.

      Thanks Mr J for pointing this out.

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