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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.

Information sharing and the National Plan

(Background here: http://freegovinfo.info/node/10285)

At the 2015 Depository Library Council meeting on October 20th, Mary Alice Baish, Superintendent of Documents, informed the depository library community that in July, GPO had formally requested permission from the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) to allow Regionals to discard documents in tangible formats that have been retained for seven years when an authenticated, digitally signed version is available on FDsys. The response GPO received in early August approved this request, setting the additional condition that a minimum of four physical copies of each document be maintained within the FDLP, and suggesting the use of existing Census regions to ensure the geographic dispersal of these copies.

According to GPO’s presentation, the process for approving the withdrawal of tangible items at Regionals and identifying the geographically dispersed copies retained in tangible format will be conducted for the time being based on GPO’s ten existing print procurement regions. Six libraries have been identified to pilot the process, and GPO staff will work with these institutions to begin withdrawing materials in January 2016.

The presentation was webcast live and is available as a recording; the Regionals meeting later in the evening was also webcast live and is also available. Following the conference, GPO released the letter from GPO Director Davita Vance-Cooks, and the reply from Congressman Gregg Harper, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing. No final version of the policy has been made available at this time.

It is clear that GPO has listened to the community to some extent: the presentation identifies specific GPO activities that address community concerns including seeking trusted repository certification for FDsys and prioritizing bibliographic control projects for the national collection. Still, the available documentation suggests that there has been very little information shared between GPO’s request for feedback and discussion in April 2014 and the announcement of the policy’s implementation in October 2015, other than a request for information regarding intent to discard from Regionals.

Setting aside the wisdom of identifying a minimum number of tangible copies, let alone such a low number, and also setting aside the question of how preservation and access copies will be identified and maintained, this project represents a pattern in how FDLP initiatives are discussed and documented.

At the same DLC meeting, the FIPNet update was a lively discussion of various collaborative projects undertaken by individual libraries and library consortia. The second part of the program featured a presentation from Dr. Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of the Educopia Institute, on the value of collective action, which is a key element motivating any project that must be carried out on a widely distributed basis. Both recordings are linked below.

While the variety of approaches to preserving government information is laudable, only the University of North Texas has signed a formal FIPNet partnership agreement. To the best of my knowledge, no other organization has formally announced its intent to join FIPNet yet. Anecdotally, it seems that at least some potential partners are waiting to see what a partnership would entail, prior to committing. There are two opposing forces at play: on the one hand, GPO has stated its intention to be flexible and open to partnership opportunities, which precludes providing structured articulations of what FIPNet participation entails. But the lack of documentation and specifics makes it more difficult for potential partners to identify the roles or responsibilities they wish to take. While I hope there are a substantial number of closed-door discussions between GPO and potential partners, we have no way to know.

Both FIPNet and the implementation of the Regionals discard policy are part of the National Plan. But the Plan itself is not a plan: instead, it is a strategy outlined in presentations, with a few key diagrams available in handouts and slides posted on the website. In my experience, community members are still asking each other “Where is the National Plan? What is FIPNet? Is it here yet?”

We’re all in uncharted waters here, but the community outside of the Depository Library Council (DLC) is at a particular disadvantage. It’s understandable that GPO leadership would be cautious in formal public commitment to specifics for programs that are under development, especially a program like FIPNet, which has few existing precedents. However, when the only detailed documentation for a project or initiative are recorded conference sessions, it is hard to both believe and persuade others that this is a fixed course of action for GPO.

It is vital for the depository library community to understand projects and initiatives to communicate about them with library administrations and those working outside of government documents. Still, many (and perhaps most) depository librarians are simply not sure how to explain the National Plan or FIPNet. Without a formal guiding document, anyone trying to understand these developments must wade through a maze of recorded presentations and handouts. Even clearly-labeled draft or discussion documents would be an improvement in access to this information.

I have an enormous amount of respect for all of the work that Library Services & Content Management (LSCM) does on behalf of the FDLP: this office has some of the hardest-working, most dedicated librarians I’ve had the fortune to meet, and asking for more documentation means more time spent writing, editing, approving, and publishing documents that will become outdated as the systems develop and progress. Still, it is the documentary trail that we need to rely on for our shared understanding of where the FDLP is, and where it is going. Otherwise, we are doing the best we can by word of mouth alone — and that may not be enough.

Selected Bibliography

Martin Halbert et al. “FIPNet and Stratigies for Utilizing the Collective Impact Model.”  http://login.icohere.com/public/topics.cfm?cseq=1328. Updated 19 October 2015.

Federal Depository Library Program. “Regional Meeting.” http://login.icohere.com/public/topics.cfm?cseq=1328. Updated October 20, 2015.

Library Services & Content Management. “Implementing the National Plan: Focusing on Users and Services.” http://login.icohere.com/public/topics.cfm?cseq=1328. Updated October 19, 2015.

Library Services & Content Management. “New Regional Depository Library Discard Policy.”  http://login.icohere.com/public/topics.cfm?cseq=1328. Updated October 20, 2015.

Library Services & Content Management. “JCP Approves Regional Discard Policy.” http://www.fdlp.gov/news-and-events/2403-jcp-approves-regional-discard-policy. Updated October 22, 2015.

Katherine Skinner. “From Collaborative Action to Collective Impact.”  http://login.icohere.com/public/topics.cfm?cseq=1328. Updated October 19, 2015.

One year later…what’s happening with Regionals and discards?

In April 2014, GPO presented a draft policy (also known as an “SOD” or “Superintendent of Documents Public Policy Statement”) that would create a mechanism for Regional depository libraries to request permission to substitute specified tangible holdings for authenticated electronic holdings in FDsys. FGI has already responded in detail to this proposal (see “Why GPO’s proposed policy to allow Regionals to discard is a bad idea”).

Library associations and organizations also published letters in response to the proposed policy. As FGI has documented (see “Library associations weigh in on GPO’s proposed policy to allow Regionals to discard”), both those supporting and opposing this policy outlined steps that GPO should take so that the FDLP can continue to meet its obligations for permanent access to the national collection of U.S. government information. Given that many of these projects will be the focus of updates at the upcoming 2015 DLC Meeting and FDL Conference, I want to summarize what information we have so far on GPO’s activities as they relate to some of these recommendations and suggestions.

GODORT Recommendations

In its letter dated August 18, 2014, GODORT requested that GPO take four major steps prior to the adoption of any policy allowing Regionals to substitute electronic versions of authenticated publications hosted on FDsys.

  1. GPO and the FDLP community should jointly develop a national inventory of historical federal publications held in depository libraries.
  2. GPO and the FDLP community should use a research-based approach to making decisions regarding the appropriate number of tangible copies of a publication needed for access, re-use, preservation, and re-digitization.
  3. FDsys should undergo the Trusted Repository Audit and Certification (TRAC) audit process.
  4. GPO should adopt a quality assurance (QA) process for digitized and born-digital publications made available for substitution.

(Full disclosure: along with James R. Jacobs, I was a member of the group that drafted GODORT’s response letter, and I was also a member of the Steering Committee that voted on the final letter.)


Government information and #critlib

I was fortunate to be able to attend the 2015 #CritlibSF Unconference, hosted at the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library in conjunction with the American Library Association’s Annual Conference last month. While the discussion predominantly, although by no means exclusively, focused on teaching and learning within the academic library context, the event and broader conversations within the #critlib community have given me a lot of food for thought as a government information librarian.

One of the themes in these discussions is how work within libraries can reinforce or oppose the power structures within society. It is stating the obvious that government is one of the most recognizable, and perhaps most pervasive, signs of power in our daily lives. Even an introductory narrative of government function engages with power as a concept, whether in the language of rights, democracy, or checks and balances. With the supposed consent of the governed, the government has the ability to affect (or, if you prefer, engage with) nearly every aspect of life.

Unimpeded and unmonitored access to government information is a core theme in ALA’s Key Principles of Government Information, and librarians have championed these rights for generations. Still, those of us who work with government information are frequently engaging with the firehose of content as it comes to us, however it comes to us. The publications collected and distributed through depository programs are only a small subset of the content published by agencies to websites, databases, and social media, which is itself only a portion of their informational products. If public discourse can only take place in the context of the narratives and threads of information selected by the government and those in a position of authority as being worthy of capture, it could be less representative, less inclusive, and by extension less nuanced.


Overview and review of FR 2.0: FederalRegister.gov

Officially launched on 26 July 2010, FederalRegister.gov is a collaboration between the Office of the Federal Register and the Government Printing Office. This prototype takes the XML feed of the Federal Register hosted by FDsys and delivers it in a friendly format for public consumption and review. The site is seeking feedback, and for now is not considered a legally official presentation of the Federal Register.

FR 2.0 divides the content into six major topics: Money, World, Business & Industry, Environment, Science & Technology, and Health & Public Welfare. Each entry is linked with a descriptive title, such as “National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan”. These entries can also be browsed by date, by agency, by topic, and by entry type (notice, proposed rule, rule). RSS feeds are available, and many entries are illustrated with photos from Flickr.

The faceted search works quite well. Searches can be narrowed by topic, agency, date, and even zip code. I was able to use the Events search to find a recent public informational meeting to plan research concerning the effect of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in Canonsburg, PA, which is about 125 miles from where I am in Akron, OH.

Within each entry, every paragraph has a marker that provides a direct link and the FR citation, along with tools to share on Twitter, Facebook, and digg. The Table of Contents makes it easy to navigate through the entry, and he font size and style (serif or sans-serif) are easy to change. All of the links and email addresses are active, and both the official PDF and the XML itself can be accessed with a single click. For items open to comment, a single click takes the user to Regulations.gov.

Some minor technical faults are present. It’s easy to accidentally bring up the marker box, and difficult to dismiss it. There is a notice on the visual navigation page that there are 33 comment periods ending soon, but I had to navigate into the major topics or use the faceted search to discover these. A few times, I noticed the font preload in one size, then display in another. Finally, the summaries are still not given in plain English. It’s nice to be able to quickly get to citations, but the terminology is still quite technical. The summary posted on the headline page removes some of the technical language, but can’t be accessed from the entry page.

Overall, I think FR 2.0 demonstrates careful planning and consideration of the needs of the expanding audience for the FR. I’d like to see more granularity in the major topic groupings, but sometimes the more simple approach is the best way to please everyone.

If you see any problems, be sure to share them on the Site Feedback link. Also, please post here with your thoughts and reactions to this new tool.

Congressional hearing on access to publicly-funded research

According to the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a public hearing is scheduled for next Thursday, 29 July 2010, on the topic of access to publicly-funded research. The hearing will be held by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives to understand the challenges, impact, and opportunities for increased access.

More details are available on the press release: