The OpenHouse Project (a project of the Sunlight Foundation) is discussing ways to “open up the House.” It will suggest changes “where the internet and Congressional procedures come together” to identify areas where Congress can open up and allow all of us to have more information and access.” It is a temporary working group designed to make recommendations to Congress on how to begin making the House of Representatives more open and facilitate communications.
The volunteers at FGI are participating in this discussion and today we sent the following message to the OpenHouse project group suggesting how FDLP libraries can help with this process. This and other discussions can be found on the group’s Google Groups page (groups.google.com/group/openhouseproject).
1000 libraries can help
There is an existing system already doing some of what we are discussing here. It is the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) established over 100 years ago by Title 44 of the U.S. Code. It is still working and has over 1000 libraries, which are Congressionally authorized, and operate under rules and regulations about selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving government publications and making them publicly accessible.
Incorporating Title 44 and the FDLP into our recommendations would, I think, enhance those recommendations in several ways. We could use Title 44 as leverage to help make Congress do what we believe they should do. Proposals that include the depository system can also make use of an existing infrastructure of depository libraries. A system designed around the depository library system can also benefit from the public’s well-known confidence in Libraries for providing “authentic” information. And, the depository system comes with hundreds, if not thousands, of existing government information specialists; (some of you may know Rick McKinney and Bernadine Hoduski for example). Depository librarians already play a key role in helping the public by sleuthing for and compiling information about Congressional Resources and are well trained in the creation, distribution, and use of government information.
I think one way of incorporating FDLP into the recommendations is to do so in the context of access and preservation and service. We could recommend two things that are complementary, not mutually exclusive:
1. An official depository system for digital government information
2. A system that includes the flexibility for anyone (not just those in the depository system) to get and use digital government information either from the original government source or from depositories.
I see the first as the government *actively pushing* content to those who accept responsibility for receiving it and the second as the government *passively allowing* anyone to get what they want — with the onus on the user to identify, locate, and acquire the information.
I see active deposit by the government as essential if we want a system that can ensure that *everything* the government produces — not just what is obvious and prominent today — leaves government servers and has a home on non-government servers where decisions about preservation and access are not made by the government agencies that must be held accountable with that information.
While “passive” accessibility is good (and also essential if we want equitable, free access), it does not ensure that everything will be captured and it puts the onus on the user to spider, crawl, search, identify, compare, acquire, etc. There are high costs associated with those tasks and we can eliminate a lot of those costs by requiring active deposit.
With a little tweaking, (e.g, distributing CRS reports and hearing *transcripts*), the FDLP could quickly make the House more transparent by making more information more available to more people now.
By including digital files as part of the depository program, the FDLP could go further by providing a stable, already funded and staffed infrastructure of institutions whose *primary* responsibility is information access. In addition, provision of this information through libraries would free the information from DRM and fees that GPO and agencies may impose. It would also ensure that the information would be more preservable, and more usable for more people for longer.
Once the House uses the FDLP to build greater transparency, it will be a model for the Senate.
There will be some challenges to using FDLP because it is very much in transition. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is arrogating to itself much of the responsibility that once was distributed across the country to hundreds of libraries; and, FDLP libraries have been slow to accept or demand deposit of digital materials.
But I believe that digital deposits into FDLP libraries are inevitable and the sooner the flow of digital information from the government to libraries starts, the better.
(I am part of a small group of librarians who advocate active digital deposit at the website freegovinfo.info. You can see more background on our work and ideas here: http://freegovinfo.info/issues http://freegovinfo.info/fdlp_digital for more background.)