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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.

Here we go again: GPO wants to change Title 44

In case you missed it, in a simple announcement after the 2017 annual ALA meeting GPO Director Davita Vance-Cooks asked the Depository Library Council (DLC) to make recommendations for changes in Chapter 19 of Title 44 of the U.S. Code (Title 44 Modernization: Contribute Your Ideas, FDLP (June 27 2017).

This is a big deal. Chapter 19 of Title 44 is the very core of the FDLP. It not only defines the FDLP but it is the only legal guarantee that the government will provide its information for free to the General Public.

Changing the U.S. Code is a complex, lengthy, political process. The results of suggesting changes to the law are unpredictable. Even if you begin the process with clear, unambiguous, and lofty goals, the outcome can end with very, very bad unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, we are beginning the process without clear, unambiguous, much less lofty, goals. GPO threw this curve ball out without expressing any reasons or goals, and with an extremely short timeframe for comments.

That leaves it up to the government information community to respond and respond clearly to GPO. Is this something we want? Why? What will it accomplish? What are the potential unintended consequences and how do we avoid them?

Fortunately, the government information community has experience with this process. There have been many proposals to change Title 44 over the years (see GPO 2008 and O’Mahony) and just as many publicly made arguments for NOT changing the law (see Abbott-Hoduski and McKnelly, 2009). In 2011, then-Superintendent of Documents Mary Alice Baish summarized nicely the points that Daniel P. O’Mahony made at a session on “Creating Our Shared Vision” at the Fall 2011 DLC meeting. O’Mahony explained what was needed to successfully reform Title 44 while navigating all the “legal, political, logistical, and emotional issues”:

  1. A clear sense of what needs to be changed.

  2. The library community must speak with a united voice.

  3. There must be one or more champions in Congress to lead and shepherd a proposal through the legislative process.

Unfortunately, GPO is not providing the leadership necessary to meet those criteria. So, even if you think that Title 44 really really needs revisions — and we’ve been clear and very vocal against opening up that pandora’s box! — you should pause and ask a few very practical questions.

What does GPO Want?

The first and most important question is: What does GPO want to accomplish by changing Chapter 19? Unfortunately, GPO has not told us what they want or why or if they were directed to do this. It has not told us what parts of Chapter 19 they think need to be changed or why they need to be changed. It has not told us what changes it wants or what it would wish to accomplish with those changes. Did the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), the Congressional committee charged with oversight of GPO, ask for changes?

GPO’s announcement invites comments, but says that DLC will not release a draft of recommendations until the DLC meeting in October. It also says that the depository community will have an opportunity to comment before the final version is submitted to the GPO Director, but it gave no other timeline or intentions or procedures.

Is GPO waiting for DLC or the community to develop goals? If so, this would be a crazy cart-before-the horse approach. (“Let’s decide we need to change before we decide why we need change or what change we need!”). Or, has GPO told DLC what it wants? Does GPO have specific goals in mind but does not wish to share them yet?

Whatever the answers are to those questions, we are certainly entering a complex, unpredictable process without meeting the first two requirements of having a clear sense of what needs to be changed and speaking with one voice.

The only hints GPO has given so far is found in two words in the announcement: flexibility and modernization. Here are the relevant excerpts from that announcement:

  • “revisions that provide depository libraries more flexibility
  • “suggestions for modernizing the Federal Depository Library Program’s statutory authority”

What does GPO mean by these words? Let’s examine them.

“Flexibility”. This word is both odd and troubling. It is odd because “flexibility” has, for nearly a decade, been a euphemistic buzzword for the desire by some Regional depositories to discard their paper collections. GPO used the term this way in 2008 in a draft report on Regionals in which GPO refered to sections 1911 and 1912 of Chapter 19 as “Legacy Sections of Title 44.” (GPO uses the word “legacy” to mean “unwanted”—Jacobs.)

Schonfeld & Housewright used “flexibility” more than 30 times in the 2009 Ithaka S+R report on the FDLP (which was rejected by GPO on submission). In 2013 Cynthia Etkin, the Senior Program Planning Specialist in the Office of the Superintendent of Documents, said that one of the major findings of the FDLP Forecast Study was that libraries needed more flexibility than Title 44 permits. Mary Alice Baish repeated that claim in a 2015 presentation about GPO’s National Plan. And, of course, the need for “flexibility” was in the 2015 letter to JCP that requested approval of GPO’s discard policy, which some Regionals had long sought.

One might reasonably assume that those libraries got the “flexibility” they wanted when GPO instituted that policy last year. But, no. In April of 2016, after the policy was approved, a DLC working group used “flexibility” in a report outlining several new models for Regional Depositories, some that would require changes to Title 44—including eliminating regionals entirely.

And, so, GPO’s use of this term is also troubling in the context of changing Title 44. What additional flexibility is needed? Why it is needed? What parts of Chapter 19 needs to be changed to get it? The fact that GPO is asking for change to the law without answering those questions is unnerving. We also wonder how GPO will respond if the community asks for “flexibility” that GPO does not want or does not have the budget or staff to deliver (e.g., “digital deposit” or grant-making authority to help FDLP libraries with physical conservation and digitization). Is GPO’s desire for change open or closed?

Add to this the fact that FDLP libraries already have lots of flexibility that GPO is not using and you have to wonder what GPO’s agenda is (Jacobs 2016).

“Modernization.” GPO’s use of this term is so vague that it could mean anything. Worse, it can have diametrically opposed interpretations. (It could mean that GPO wants to continue on its current path — which is twenty years old. Or, it could mean — dare we hope? — that GPO realizes it needs to come up with a new, more modern plan that fits the state of libraries and the information landscape in 2017 better than GPO’s 1996 model.) We don’t know, but we do have two hints as to GPO’s intentions.

First, there is the clear pattern noted above of advocating “flexibility” so that a few Regionals can discard their paper copies of their FDLP Historical Collections. It is possible that those Regionals are upset that they have not been able to discard a single volume yet — two years after GPO issued its discard policy. If so, the next step in this decade-long mission would be to change Title 44 so that even the weak rules of the discard policy can be ignored and Regionals can finally begin discarding the volumes they once pledged to preserve.

Second, GPO may be trying to instantiate into law its belief that the whole concept of “depositories” is obsolete. GPO first articulated this idea in its 1996 study proposing a “more electronic” FDLP, but it has used it to guide its policies and behavior ever since. These policies favor several characteristics: minimizing the responsibility and role of depository libraries, maximizing the role of GPO, and using contracts and negotiated agreements with “partners” instead of Title-44-based depositories for preservation and access.

Until GPO shares its goals and rationales and intentions with the community, all we can do is speculate. And that is not a promising way to enter into legislative change.

What Does the “General Public” Want?

If GPO is silent about what it wants, it seems blind to the needs of the General Public (44 USC 1911). There is no mention of “users” or “the public” or “communities” or any other indication that these changes are aimed to enhance access or utility of information for people. There are mentions of changes that would benefit “libraries” and “the program” — but nothing about people who use the information that the program and libraries are supposed to serve. Unfortunately, this is not surprising given GPO’s recent history of making administrative changes that ignore the effects of those policies on public access or explicitly reduce public access to government information.

What do we want?

In an age when so much information is easily accessible — but not so easily collected, described and preserved! — and when many librarians struggle to articulate the value of libraries, it will be up to government information professionals to analyze, describe, and give voice to the needs of users. When we express what we, as librarians, want, we have to speak not for the narrow interests of our individual institutions, but for the users (and potential users) of government information.

It is, frankly, premature to start making a list of what users need at a time when GPO is anxious to put the change-cart before the reasons-horse. When we begin making such a list, we can start by reviewing recent attempts to change Title 44. Some of those attempts have had some excellent goals. For example, there have been attempts to amend Title 44 to explicitly include digital government information in the scope of depository items. This would be nice, but GPO has shown that it can “deposit” digital information without Title 44 authorization as it does every day in the “USDocs” private LOCKSS network. We can also analyze known weaknesses and threats in the current system (Jacobs and Jacobs 2016). Perhaps the single biggest problem for FDLP is how to provide long-term, free public access to born-digital “fugitive” documents — those documents, reports and data that agencies create but do not send to GPO. As we have argued here before, this may be better tackled with administrative rules and regulations than by tampering with the US Code (Jacobs and Jacobs 2017).

But before we start enumerating goals (and then determining if changing Title 44 is the best way to accomplish them), we should pause to remember the existing strengths and opportunities of the current system. The most important strength of Chapter 19 is its instantiation into law the concept of Free Access for the General Public (Section 1911).

Free Access for the General Public

Chapter 19 of Title 44 is unique in mandating free public access to government information. Indeed, it contains the only legal mandate for the government to provide government information to the General Public for free.

Other chapters of Title 44 explicitly allow charging for government information. Chapter 17 enables GPO’s sales program (Section 1702). Surely, any attempt to “modernize” Title 44 would recognize that the sales program is both unnecessary and redundant in a digital age and “modernize” it right out of existence? But GPO has expressed no interest in modifying Chapter 17. And Chapter 41, which is the basis for FDsys and govinfo.gov, allows GPO to charge the pubic for their use (Section 4102), but, again, GPO has expressed no desire to change that.

If you are relatively new to FDLP, you may not be aware of the long history of recommendations to privatize government information and commercialize GPO (Jacobs 2011). As recently as 2013, the National Association of Public Administration (NAPA) report on GPO recommended that GPO consider charging for access to FDsys. These efforts have had moderate success (e.g., in privatizing individual publications such as the Statistical Abstract). Most (but not all) Public Printers (now “Director of the Government Publishing Office”) have opposed such efforts and even attempted to gain depository access to fee-based government information (e.g., “cooperative publications” [44 USC 1903], PACER, Public Health Reports).

But the legal basis for free government information is Chapter 19. Asking Congress to change this Chapter (and calling section 1911 a “legacy [unwanted] section”) is an invitation to those who wish to privatize, commercialize and impose “cost recovery” requirements on all government information.

Thinking Short-term and Long-term

The reason we find GPO’s vague call to change Title 44 so ominous is that changes to Title 44 have long-term effects. It would be short-sighted to recommend changes to Title 44 in order to meet the demands of a few FDLP libraries without examining the long-term consequences of those changes. It would be irresponsible to assume that we can ask Congress for changes to Title 44 and expect Congress to lay aside its own political agendas. (Remember the “Let Me Google That for You Act”? [Coburn])

Does GPO wish to maintain free public access to digital information? At this point in time, yes. In 2013, Davita Vance-Cooks explicitly rejected the NAPA recommendation to charge for access to FDsys.

But the only protection we have against the next Director of GPO who is privatization-happy or an advocate of cost-recovery, the only protection we have against a budget-stingy or corporate-friendly Congress is Chapter 19. And keep in mind that GPO’s twenty year old “electronic” strategy moves all access from Chapter 19 to Chapter 41 — where fees are explicitly permitted.

And, if you think that free-access could never be removed from Chapter 19, you should review the last 40 years of Congressional hostility to government services.

Does GPO have Congressional support for protecting free access? Is protecting free access more important to GPO than “flexibility” and “modernization”? We do not know. But we shouldn’t start this fraught process without knowing.

Time is short; comments are due to DLC by August 31, 2017. Send your comment soon!

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


Endnotes

A rare opportunity to make a long-term difference

(Editor’s note: this post is the second of two guest editorials on Libraries Network, a nascent collaborative effort of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) spurred by the work of the DataRefuge project, End of Term crawl, and other volunteer efforts to preserve data and content from the .gov/.mil domain. The first post was pointed to libraries, the second to govt agencies. Please leave a comment of what you think! JRJ)

This moment in history provides us with a rare opportunity to go beyond short-term data rescue and set the much needed foundation for the long-term future of preservation of government information.

Awareness of risk. At the moment, more people than ever are aware of the risk of relying solely on the government to preserve its own information. This was not true even six months ago. This awareness goes far beyond government information librarians and archivists. It includes the communities that use government information (our Designated Communities!) and the government employees who devote their careers to creating this information. It includes our colleagues, our professional organizations, and library managers.

This awareness is documented in the many stories in the popular press this year about massive “data rescue” projects drawing literally hundreds of volunteers. It is also demonstrated by the number of people nominating seeds (URLs) and the number of seeds nominated for the current End of Term harvest. These have increased by nearly an order of magnitude or more over 2012.

EOT Year nominators seeds
2008 26 457
2012 31 1476
2016 >393 11,381

Awareness of need for planning. But beyond the numbers, more people are learning first-hand that rescuing information at the end of its life-cycle can be difficult, incomplete, and subject to error and even loss. It is clear that last minute rescue is essential in early 2017. But it is also clear that, in the future, efficient and effective preservation requires planning. This means that government agencies need to plan for the preservation of the information they create at the beginning of the life-cycle of that information — even before it is actually created.

Opportunity to create demonstrable value. This awareness provides libraries with the opportunity to lead a movement to change government information policies that affect long-term preservation of and access to government information. By promoting this change, libraries will be laying the groundwork for future long-term preservation of information that their communities value highly. This provides an exceptional opportunity to work with motivated and inspired user communities toward a common goal. This is good news at a time when librarians are eager to demonstrate the value of libraries.

A model exists. And there is more good news. The model for a long-term government information policy not only exists, but libraries are already very familiar with it. In 2010, federal granting agencies like NSF, National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy started requiring researchers who receive Federal grants to develop Data Management Plans (DMPs) for the data collected and analyzed during the research process. Thus, data gathered at government expense by researchers must have a Plan to archive that data and make it available to other researchers. The requirement for DMPs has driven a small revolution of data management in libraries.

Ironically, there is no similar requirement for government agencies to develop a plan for the long-term management of information they gather and produce. There are, of course, a variety of requirements for managing government “Records” but there are several problems with the existing regulations.

Gaps in existing regulations. The Federal Records Act and related laws and regulations cover only a portion of the huge amount of information gathered and created by the government. In the past, it was relatively easy to distinguish between “publications” and “Records” but, in the age of digital information, databases, and transactional e-government it is much more difficult to do so. Official executive agency “Records Schedules,” which are approved by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), define only a subset of information gathered and created by an agency as Records suitable for deposit with NARA. Further, the implementation of those Records Schedules are subject to interpretation by executive agency political appointees who may not always have preservation as their highest priority. This can make huge swaths of valuable information ineligible for deposit with NARA as Records.

Government data, documents, and publications that are not deemed official Records have no long-term preservation plan at all. In the paper-and-ink world, many agency publications that did not qualify as Records were printed by or sent to the Government Publishing Office (GPO) and deposited in Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) libraries around the country (currently 1,147 libraries). Unfortunately, a perfect storm of policies and procedures has blocked FDLP libraries from preserving this huge class of government information. A 1983 court decision (INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 952) makes it impossible to require agencies to deposit documents with the Government Publishing Office (GPO) or FDLP. The 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. §§ 3501–3521) and the Office of Management and budget (OMB)’s Circular A-130 have made it more difficult to distribute government information to FDLP libraries. The shift to born-digital information has decentralized publishing and distribution, and virtually eliminated best practices of meta-data creation and standardization. GPO’s Dissemination and Distribution Policy has severely limited the information it will distribute to FDLP libraries. Together, this “perfect storm” has reduced the deposit of this class of at-risk government information into FDLP libraries by ninety percent over the last twenty years.

The Solution: Information Management Plans. To plug the gaps in existing regulations, government agencies should be required to treat their own information with as much care as data gathered by researchers with government funding. What is needed is a new regulation that requires agencies to have Information Management Plans (IMPs) for all the information they collect, aggregate, and create.

We have proposed to the OMB a modification to their policy OMB Circular A-130: Managing Information as a Strategic Resource that would require every government agency to have an Information Management Plan.

Every government agency must have an “Information Management Plan” for the information it creates, collects, processes, or disseminates. The Information Management Plan must specify how the agency’s public information will be preserved for the long-term including its final deposit in a reputable, trusted, government (e.g., NARA, GPO, etc.) and/or non-government digital repository to guarantee free public access to it.

Many Benefits! We believe that such a requirement would provide many benefits for agencies, libraries, archives, and the general public. We think it would do more to enhance long-term public access to government information than changes to Title 44 of the US Code (which codified the “free use of government publications”) could do.

  • It would make it possible to preserve information continuously without the need for hasty last-minute rescue efforts.
  • It would make it easier to identify and select information and preserve it outside of government control.
  • It would result in digital objects that are easier to preserve accurately and securely.
  • It would make it easy for government agencies to collaborate with digital repositories and designated communities outside the government for the long-term preservation of their information.
  • The scale of the resulting digital preservation infrastructure would provide an easy path for shared Succession Plans for Trusted Digital Repositories (TDRs) (Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories [ISO Standard 16363]).

IMPs would provide these benefits through the practical response of vendors that provide software to government agencies. Those vendors would have an enormous market for flexible software solutions for the creation of digital government information and records that fit the different needs of different agencies for database management, document creation, content management systems, email, and so forth, while, at the same time, making it easy for agencies to output preservable digital objects and an accurate inventory of them ready for deposit as Submission Information Packages (SIPs) into TDRs.

Your advice?

We believe this is a reasonable suggestion with a good precedent (the DMPs), but we would appreciate hearing your opinions. Is A‑130 the best target for such a regulation? What is the best way to propose, promote, and obtain such a new policy? What is the best wording for such a proposed policy?

Summary

We believe we have a singular opportunity of awareness and support for the preservation of government information. We believe that this is an opportunity, not just to preserve government information, but also to demonstrate the leadership of librarians and archivists and the value of libraries and archives.

Authors:

James A. Jacobs, Librarian Emeritus, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Federal Government Information Librarian, Stanford University

A Long-Term Goal For Creating A Digital Government-Information Library Infrastructure

(Editor’s note: this post was a guest editorial on Libraries Network, a nascent collaborative effort of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) spurred by the work of the DataRefuge project, End of Term crawl, and other volunteer efforts to preserve data and content from the .gov/.mil domain. This is the first of 2 posts for the Libraries Network. The second one will be posted tomorrow. JRJ)

Now that so many have done so much good work to rescue so much data, it is time to reflect on our long-term goals. This is the first of two posts that suggest some steps to take.

The amount of data rescue work that has already been done by DataRefuge, ClimateMirror, Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) projects and the End of Term crawl (EOT) 2016 is truly remarkable. In a very practical sense, however, this is only the first stage in a long process. We still have a lot of work to do to make all the captured digital content (web pages, data, PDFs, videos, etc) discoverable and understandable and usable. We believe that the next step is to articulate a long-term goal to guide the next tasks.

Of course, we do already have broad goals but up to now those goals have by necessity been more short-term than long-term. The short-term goals that have driven so much action have been either implicit (“rescue data!”) or explicit (“to document federal agencies’ presence on the World Wide Web during the transition of Presidential administrations” [EOT]). These have been sufficient to draw librarian-, scientist-, hacker-, and public volunteers who have accomplished a lot! But, as the EOT folks will remind us, most of this work is volunteer work.

The next stages will require more resources and long-term commitments. Notable next tasks include: creating metadata, identifying and acquiring DataRefuge’s uncrawlable data, and doing Quality Assurance (QA) work on content that has been acquired. This work has begun. The University of North Texas, for example, has created a pilot crowdsourcing project to catalog a cache of EOT PDFs and is looking for volunteers. This upcoming work is essential in order to make content we rescue and acquire discoverable and usable and to ensure that the content is preserved for the long-term.

As we look to the long-term, we turn to the two main international standards for long-term preservation: OAIS (Reference Model For An Open Archival Information System) and TDR (Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories). Using the terminology of those standards our current actions have focused on “ingest.” Now we have to focus on the other functions of a TDR: management, preservation, access, and use. We might say that what we have been doing is Data Rescue but what we will do next is Data Preservation which includes discovery, access and use.

Given that, here is our suggestion for a long-term goal:

Create a digital government-information library infrastructure in which libraries collectively provide services for collections that are selected, acquired, organized, and preserved for specific Designated Communities (DCs). 

Adopting this goal will not slow down or interrupt existing efforts. It focuses on “Designated Communities” and the life-cycle of information and, by doing so, it will help prioritize our actions. By doing this, it will help attract libraries to participate in the next stage activities. It will also make long-term participation easier and more effective by helping participants understand where their activities lead, what the outcomes will be, and what benefits they will get tomorrow by investing their resources in these activities today.

How does simply adopting a goal do all that?

First, by expressing the long-term goal in the language of OAIS and TDR it assures participants that today’s activities will ensure long-term access to information that is important to their communities.

Second, by putting the focus on the users of the information it demonstrates to our local communities that we are doing this for them. This will help make it practical to invest needed resources in the necessary work. The goal focuses on users of information by explicitly saying that our actions have been and will be designed to provide content and services for specific user groups (Designated Communities in OAIS terminology).

Third, by focusing on an infrastructure rather than isolated projects, it provides an opportunity for libraries to benefit more by participating than by not participating.

The key to delivering these benefits lies in the concept of Designated Communities. In the paper-and-ink world, libraries were limited in who they could serve. “Users” had to be local; they had to be able to walk into our buildings. It was difficult and expensive to share either collections or services, so we limited both to members of our funding institution or a geographically-local community. In the digital world, we no longer have to operate under those constraints. This means that we can build collections for Designated Communities that are defined by discipline or subject or by how a community uses digital information. This is a big change from defining a community by its institutional affiliation or by its members’ geographical proximity to an institution or to each other.

This means that each participating institution can benefit from the contributions of all participating institutions. To use a simple example, if ten libraries each invested the cost of developing collections and services for two DCs, all ten libraries (and their local/institutional communities) would get the benefits of twenty specific collections and services. There are more than one thousand Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) libraries.

Even more importantly, this model means that the information-users will get better collections of the information they need and will get services that are tailored to how they look for, select, and use that information.

This approach may seem unconventional to government information specialists who are familiar with agency-based collections and services. The digital world allows us to combine the benefits of agency-based acquisitions with DC-based collections and services.

This means that we can still use the agency-based model for much of our work while simultaneously providing collections for DCs. For example, it is probably always more efficient and effective to identify, select, and acquire information by focusing on the the output of an agency. It is certainly easier to ensure comprehensiveness with this approach. It is often easier to create metadata and do QA for a single agency at a time. And information content can be easily stored and managed using the same agency-based approach. And information stored by agency can be viewed and served (through use of metadata and APIs) as a single “virtual” collection for a Designated Community. Any given document, dataset, or database may show up in the collections of several DCs, and any given “virtual” collection can easily contain content from many agencies.

For example, consider how this approach would affect a Designated Community of economists. A collection built to serve economists would include information from multiple agencies (e.g., Commerce, Council of Economic Advisors, CBO, GAO, NEC, USDA, ITA, etc. etc.). When one library built such a collection and provided services for it, every library with economists would be able better serve their community of economists. And every economist at every institution would be able to more easily find and use the information she needs. The same advantages would be true for DCs based on kind of use (e.g. document-based reading; computational textual-analysis; GIS; numeric data analysis; re-purposing and combining datasets; etc.). 

Summary

We believe that adopting this goal will have several benefits. It will help attract more libraries to participate in the essential work that needs to be done after information is captured. It will provide a clear path for planning the long-term preservation of the information acquired. It will provide better collections and services to more users more efficiently and effectively than could be done by individual libraries working on their own. It will demonstrate the value of libraries to our local user-communities, our parent institutions, and funding agencies.

James A. Jacobs, Librarian Emeritus, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Federal Government Information Librarian, Stanford University

Rescuing Government Information: The Long View

There is a lot of activity going on to ensure that government information on government servers does not get altered, deleted, or lost during the transition between administrations. As we have pointed out before, this is not a new issue even if the immediacy of the problem is more apparent than ever before.

Much of the effort going into these activities has to deal with the inherent problems of how federal government agencies create and disseminate information. There is, for example, no comprehensive inventory or national bibliography of government information. Agencies do not even provide inventories of their own information. This makes it hard to identify and select information for preservation. Also, some information is in databases or linked to Web applications that are not directly acquirable by the public. Finally, the "digital objects" that we can identify and acquire are often not easily preservable.

The inherent problem is that agencies are not addressing digital preservation up front. Librarians and Web archivists are left trying to solve the digital preservation problem too late in the life-cycle of information. We are trying to preserve information long after its creation and "distribution" — in the absence of early preservation planning by the agencies that created the information. This is understandable under current government information policies because most government agencies do not have a mission that includes either the long-term preservation of their information or free public access to it. The Federal Records Act [Public Law 81-754, 64 Stat. 578, TITLE V-Federal Records (64 Stat. 583)] and related laws and regulations only cover a portion of the huge amount of information gathered and created by the government. In addition, the preservation plans that do exist are subject to interpretation by political appointees who may not always have preservation as their highest priority.

What we need is a better approach to government information management that includes preservation planning at the beginning of the information life-cycle and that guarantees its long-term preservation and free public access to it even if the agency has no more need for it, or if Congress has no more funding for it, or if politicians no longer want it.

How can that be done?

At FGI, we believe that a long term solution will require a change of government policy. That is why we have proposed a modification to OMB Circular A-130: Managing Information as a Strategic Resource that would require every government agency to have an Information Management Plan.

This seems to us to be a reasonable suggestion with a good precedent. The government agencies that provide research grants already require researchers to have a Data Management Plan for the long-term preservation of data collected with government research grant funding. A modification of A-130 would simply put the same requirement onto information produced at government expense by government agencies that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other government funding agencies put onto the data produced by researchers with government funding.

Here is an draft of such a requirement:

Every government agency must have an “Information Management Plan" for the information it creates, collects, processes, or disseminates. The Information Management Plan must specify how the agency’s public information will be preserved for the long-term including its final deposit in a reputable, trusted, government (e.g., NARA, GPO, etc.) and/or non-government digital repository to guarantee free public access to it.

We believe that such a requirement would provide many benefits for agencies, libraries, archives, and the General Public. It would make it possible to preserve information continuously without the need for hasty last-minute rescue efforts. It would make it easier to identify and select information and preserve it outside of government control. It would result in digital objects that are easier to preserve accurately and securely. It would accomplish many of these goals through the practical response of vendors that provide software to government agencies. Those vendors would have an enormous market for flexible software solutions for the creation of digital government information that fits the different needs of different agencies for database management, document creation, content management systems, email, and so forth, while, at the same time, making it easy for agencies to output preservable digital objects and an accurate inventory of them ready for deposit in Trusted Digital Repositories (Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories [ISO Standard 16363]) for long-term preservation and access.

Perhaps most important for FDLP Libraries, we believe that this OMB requirement would provide a clear and practical opportunity for libraries to guarantee long-term free access to curated collections of government information to their Designated Communities. And this, we believe, will drive new funding and staffing to libraries and digital repositories.

Authors
Jame A. Jacobs and James R. Jacobs.

Vigilance and Action in Uncertain Times

During this past week, there were many reports about the Trump administration’s actions that appear to be either removing information, or blocking information, or filtering scientific information through a political screen before allowing that information to be released.

How concerned should government information specialists be about these developments? Very.

What can we do? First, let’s be cautious but vigilant. As librarians, we are well aware that today’s information environment bombards us with fragments of news and demonstrably false news and speculation and premature interpretation of fragmentary speculation of unverified news. We should neither panic nor dismiss all this as noise. There is so much happening in so many areas of public policy right now that no one can keep up with everything; one thing that government information specialists can do is keep up with developments about access to government information so we can keep our colleagues and communities informed with accurate information.

We also need to evaluate what is happening critically. The Trump administration has attempted to normalize last week’s actions, saying, essentially, that removal of information and control of information is a normal part of a transition. On Tuesday of last week, for example, White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed concerns about reports of censorship at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by saying “I don’t think there’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, we’re going to review the policies.” And on Wednesday, Doug Ericksen, the communications director for the President’s transition team at the EPA, said “Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA.” In short, this explanation is that the new administration is just updating and transitioning and making sure that information from agencies conforms to its new policies. This is “business as usual.” Nothing to see here; relax; move on. Even some govinfo librarians minimize the significance of what is going on.

This sounds reasonable on the surface. Indeed, since even the entire Executive Office of the President, which includes the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, has been offline since Inauguration day and a temporary page asks us to “Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov,” perhaps we should just be patient? Surely those will be back, right?

I think we need to realize that this actually is pretty odd behavior. And we need to help our communities who still need access to important policies (like OMB Circular A-130 [IA copy]) that are gone but, presumably, still in effect.

We need to be aware that this administration presents difficulties for the public in just figuring out what it is actually doing. It appears that the administration has reversed or modified some of its initial information policies or that they were incorrectly reported, and that these reversals — if they are reversals and if they are permanent — seem to have come about because of public outcry.

I think we need to take the administration’s actions seriously and let them know when they are doing something unacceptable or uninformed. We need to stand up for public access and transparency.

I suggest that it is our professional duty to address these issues. I suggest that the communities that our libraries serve expect and need us to do this. This administration is doing many troubling and controversial things and everyone cannot fight every battle. Ensuring long-term free access to government information should be a job responsibility for every government information librarian.

Actions

What can we do? What should we do? How can we best allocate our resources?

  • We need to keep our library administrators informed. We can do that by putting Government Information on committee agendas and preparing accurate and well-informed briefings that address how political changes will affect the library’s ability to provide content and service and how they will affect library users’ ability to find and get and use government information.
  • We need to talk to our user-communities. We need to provide them with accurate and well-informed information about how political changes are already affecting their ability to find and get and use government information. We need to provide alternate sources where necessary and update library guides and catalogs. We need to learn from them when they identify issues and problems and solutions.
  • We need to keep our professional colleagues informed through local library meetings, informal communication, and professional activities.
  • We can still contribute to the EOT. There are lots of things you can do.
  • We can make the case for digital collections.

    We need to realize and understand that the underlying issues of long-term free access to government information are not new and they are not limited to this administration

    • We need to remind our administrators that when we depend on pointing instead of collecting we lose information.
    • We need to remind them that even though preservation sites like obamawhitehouse.archives.gov and the 2016 EOT crawl are worthwhile and valuable, they still create the problem of link rot. We need to remind library administrators that pointing to remote collections that move is not a cheap way to provide good service. It is a time-consuming, never-ending task that is neither easier than nor as reliable as building local digital collections.

Sample of News Stories

  • Reports of Federal Government Agencies Directed Not to Communicate with the American Public
  • Trump Administration Restricts News from Federal Scientists at USDA, EPA By Dina Fine Maron (January 24, 2017)
  • Information lockdown hits Trump’s federal agencies By Andrew Restuccia, Alex Guillén and Nancy Cook (01/24/17)
  • USDA lifts gag order: report By Paulina Firozi (01/25/17)
  • How far will President Trump’s media blackout spread? The Sunlight Foundation is trying to find out By Kelly Hinchcliffe (January 25, 2017)
  • Trump officials suspend plan to delete EPA climate web pages By Robin Bravender (Jan 25, 2017)
  • USDA Calls Scientist Gag Order a “Misunderstanding” By Dina Fine Maron (January 25, 2017)
  • The USDA Says That Trump Didn’t Send Its Order Restricting Scientists
  • by Dino Grandoni (Jan. 26, 2017)

  • EPA science under scrutiny by Trump political staff
    By MICHAEL BIESECKER and SETH BORENSTEIN (Jan. 26, 2017)
  • What’s Up With the Office of Management and Budget Website? by Frank Konkel (January 27, 2017)
  • Science off to a rough start in the Trump administration (Jan 29, 2017)
  • Agencies Halt Public Releases USDA and EPA Both Go Quiet Following Orders from Trump Administration Emily Unglesbee (1/30/2017)
  • Archives