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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.

Government shutdown causing information access problems

Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).

Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.

Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)

There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.

Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.

Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.

This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”

The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.

Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.

This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.

When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.

Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.

Authors:
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University

Agenda for 2019: Exploring Digital Deposit

As 2018 ends, it is time to start setting the agenda for the FDLP for 2019. This year has a lot of potential despite (or because of) the failure of Title 44 reform, the shutdown of the government, and the general political gridlock of Congress.

2018: The Year of "Modernizing"

The biggest FDLP news in 2018 was the progress of the FDLP Modernization Act of 2018. Although it failed to pass during the 115th Congress, there is a good chance that (more…)

Patrice McDermott posts Draft letter re DOI records disposition request to NARA. Requests comments

We posted about the Dept of Interior records schedule request to NARA and have been actively working on this issue for a few weeks now. Patrice McDermott, Director of Government Information Watch — many of you will have known Patrice from her ALA Washington Office days or laster as director of Open The Government — just posted the request below to govdoc-l so I thought I’d share beyond the govt documents library community. Please check out the draft letter that Patrice and several others in the FOIA/open govt communities have penned. Send any comments or concerns her way. And if you’d like to copy/paste anything from her letter — or from Stanford UL’s letter to AOTUS Ferriero for that matter — for your own comment to NARA, please do so BY NOVEMBER 26!

Here is a DRAFT letter/comments to NARA. Many thanks to the folks who have been working on this – this letter draws heavily on your work.

Thoughts, edits – and specific concerns about particular sets of records – welcomed. Please send to me [email protected]

It dawned on me that T’giving week is almost upon us… I plan to send this Friday 23 November. It is open to both organizational and individual signatories.

Background:

As you may know, the DOI has put in a request to NARA for disposition authority for a large # of record groups. Disposition does not equal immediate destruction; mostly the records would be marked Temporary — with ‘disposal’ dates that vary greatly based on the records, what they document, etc. Very few govt records (1-3%, according to NARA) are designated as Permanent/Archival.

The request is confusing to read & follow because DOI — following NARA guidance of recent years — has moved what used to be discrete series of records with discrete records schedules (as permanent or temporary) into what are being called ‘big buckets.’ The DOI request is essentially cross-walking discrete records series to their new bucket. And made the request for all of the buckets at one time.

The volume aside, there are a number of concerning aspects to this request.

I pulled together an annotated version of the NARA appraisal memo to get a handle on what was requested – and provisionally approved by NARA. I highlighted language in the Appraisal Memo (Blue=Good retention; Green = NARA comments worth noting; Orang(ish) = Concerning), and indicated the #s of Records Groups (not #s of records) covered in each NARA appraisal entry.

One aspect that has troubled me is from DOI’s Request for Records Disposition Authority

Methodology:

This change to a departmental schedule, from individual bureau schedules, moves disposition authority for Record Groups 022 (FWS), 049 (BLM), 057 (USGS), 075 (BIA), 079 (NPS), 115 (BOR), 471 (OSMRE),
473 (BSEE), and 589 (BOEMRE) to 048. (which is Office of the Secretary (OS) – Record Group 048)

Regardless of who the Secretary of Interior is or may be, it gives me pause to put authority for requesting disposal for these sensitive records in the office of a political appointee. So, there is a potential question for NARA (or its Hill overseers).

I am really troubled by the repeated language — by NARA — about “interest to NARA Researchers” (as opposed to??), and that records “do not document significant actions of federal officials”.

The legal definition of Records (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33)§ 3301) is:

RECORDS DEFINED.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-As used in this chapter, the term “records”-
(A) includes all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them

I would welcome your thoughts on particular sets of records/buckets and how they have been appraised — where the appraisal may fail to address the research/legal/etc needs of other communities (other than “NARA researchers”), where data, on which ongoing datasets are built, might be irretrievably destroyed, etc.

Save Government Information!

Library Journal published our opinion piece in its “Peer to Peer Review” section today:

Save Government Information! by James A. Jacobs and James R. Jacobs. Library Journal Peer to Peer Review (March 15, 2018).

In it, we make the case that the impending Title 44 bill does not go far enough to building a truly collaborative, 21st century FDLP.

Suggestions for Revisions to Chapter 5 of the Title 44 Bill

The draft bill to reform Title 44 of the U.S. Code provides some much needed improvements over the current law. It explicitly requires GPO to follow existing privacy laws and would, for the first time, legally require GPO to preserve digital government information. It also removes the provision that allows GPO to charge for online access and requires GPO to offer “no-fee” access to its online repository.

Unfortunately, the bill leaves some big loopholes in these improvements. Some of these loopholes are explicit — such as allowing GPO to delete online information without providing any principles or guidelines or goals to achieve when it does so. Some others, especially in chapters 1 and 3, implicitly and negatively impact GPO’s continued functioning via the privatization of printing and other GPO functions which will slash GPO’s budget and cause it not to be able to do any of the FDLP improvements in chapter 5.

But the biggest flaw in the draft bill is that it puts the burden of digital preservation and access in the sole control of GPO. This “all eggs in one basket” approach to access and preservation is not just risky, it is dangerous — and we do not use that word lightly. The danger comes from failing to distribute the responsibility for preservation and control of the information to trusted partners outside the federal government.

There has been a vocal fear that the current Presidential administration might take important digital government information offline or even destroy it — see for example the recent report from the Environmental and Governance Initiative (EDGI). But the danger of that happening was made possible by the weakness in the model that puts all digital government information under the control of the government. With control centralized, access and preservation are vulnerable to policy changes, financial short-falls, and technical problems of that government. Central control of the information creates a single off-switch that can be tripped all too easily — intentionally or unintentionally. The bill does provide more obstacles to a nefarious or malicious government wishing to delete information, but it does not prevent it. In fact, the bill does not just maintain this single off-switch model that was developed more than 20 years ago. It takes it out of the temporary GPO policies where it resides today and writes it into the much-harder-to-change law of the land, the U.S. Code.

The bill has many good intentions. Virtually every section of Chapter 5 explicitly supports long-term free public access. It also expands the scope of the FDLP to include most of the information that the government distributes. We do not think the drafters of the bill intended to write a law that gives government an off-switch. Nor do we think they intended to draft a bill that endangers long-term preservation of government information. The problem is that the draft would clearly have these effects, regardless of the intentions of the drafters.

We know skeptics of our critique of the weaknesses of the bill will say This Can’t Happen Here. But it can. If Congress changes priorities or does not adequately fund GPO, we could lose access and even lose raw information. If you don’t believe that could happen, look at Title 2, Chapter 15, §472 of the U.S. Code. That is the law that established the Office of Technology Assessment. The law still exists, but the office has not existed since 1995 because Congress simply refuses to fund it. There is a long history of government information being privatized, withdrawn, and otherwise lost in the paper-and-ink world. And we have seen small examples such as our loss of access to GPO services for a week in 2009, and when NASA took its Technical Report Server offline for a week, or when Inspectors General disabled links that documented massive unauthorized spending, or when the Treasury Department scrubbed a techical paper from its website because it did not reflect department policy even though the site explicitly says that such papers are not intended to reflect department policy. As we write this today, GPO just announced that, if the government shuts down this weekend, it cannot ensure that all PURLs will work and that “Federal Register services on FDsys/govinfo will be limited to documents that protect life and property.” In the digital age, it is exponentially easier to lose government information when all it takes is the flick of a switch.

We live in uncertain times, particularly with regards to the role of government and the funding of government programs. Changing the law to require long-term free public access to government information is essential and this bill does that. But supporting a law that assumes that future Congresses and Presidents will fully fund long-term free public access to government information and will refrain from exercising the power to withdraw, redact, or hide information is not just short-sighted; it is being willfully blind to the present.

The solution to the weaknesses of the draft bill is actually simple. The solution is to truly modernize the FDLP to ensure that digital government information, just like paper government documents, are under the control of FDLP libraries in addition to GPO.

We have heard some argue that the bill does modernize the FDLP — by instructing GPO to provide for “digital deposit” as an “option.” It does indeed make digital deposit optional — optional and explicitly segregated from every aspect of the depository system defined everywhere else in the bill. Instead of integrating digital content into the depository system, the bill explicitly describes Selective and Regional FDLP libraries as receiving only “tangible” materials. Instead of describing a depository system in which digital and tangible content are treated equally, the bill goes to great lengths to repeatedly segregate responsibility for “tangible” items (FDLs) from the responsibility for digital content (GPO). If FDLs are to share responsibility for digital content with GPO, the law must integrate that role rather than segregate it as the draft bill does. Our suggestions for changes do just that by making all digital content just as selectable as all paper content.

The good news is we can do all this with small changes to the bill — changes that actually simplify the language of the bill. The small changes that we recommend can ensure that those apparent good intentions of the drafters of the bill will be fulfilled regardless of policy or economic or technical problems in the future.

In the attached document, we suggest specific changes to the draft bill (highlighted text) and provide comments (blue text) explaining them and how they will help. The changes we suggest focus only on Chapter 5, the FDLP chapter of the bill. (We have heard that, because the other chapters of the bill have garnered so much opposition, a bill with just Chapter 5 may be introduced.)

We know that many of our colleagues have hoped for changes that would make the FDLP more “flexible” and that would maintain or increase the number of participating libraries. We believe that such changes should be tactics, not goals, and should be used only if they actually help ensure preservation and long-term free public access. That is why we focus our recommendations around 4 principles: Privacy, Preservation, Free Access and Free Use, and Modernizing the scope of information covered by Title 44. The changes that we recommend do provide FDLs and GPO with more flexibility while focusing on the needs of users. The modernized FDLP we describe will, we think, provide more value to users and therefore more incentives for libraries to remain part of or join the FDLP community.

Authors:
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University

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