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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.

FGI comment on GPO RFC re Regional Online Selections Draft Policy

Last fall, GPO announced a new Superintendent of Documents (SOD) draft policy statement “Regional Depository Libraries Online Selections.” GPO surveyed regional depository libraries and released the results of that survey in February, 2021. They’re also asking the wider library community and interested parties for comment DUE MAY 16, 2021.

FGI has submitted a comment regarding this proposed policy change. Below is the text of our comment. In short, this policy change could negatively impact the preservation of and long-term access to the National Collection. Our suggestion was to change the policy and add a “digital deposit” requirement:

“Regional depository libraries may select “online” as a format IF AND ONLY IF regionals participate in a “digital deposit” program and agree to receive, host, and provide access to digital FDLP publications.”

We hope others will submit comments BY MAY 16, 2021!

Thank you for requesting comments from the Federal Depository Library community for this proposed major policy change for regional library collection management.

Suggested edit of draft policy:

“Regional depository libraries may select “online” as a format IF AND ONLY IF regionals participate in a “digital deposit” program and agree to receive, host, and provide access to digital FDLP publications.”

We at FGI have 2 concerns regarding this proposed policy change.

The first concern has to do with the current practice described in the background section of the proposed SOD:

“…they [regionals] no longer are receiving all new and revised tangible versions for all titles through the FDLP. Nor are regional depository libraries necessarily retaining a printed or microfacsimile version of what they receive.”

According to 44 U.S. Code § 1912, Regional libraries are required to receive and “retain at least one copy of all Government publications either in printed or microfacsimile form.” How many regional libraries are no longer following the requirements of the statute? What is GPO doing to assure that the letter and spirit of Title 44 are being followed by regional libraries? Rather than codifying this bad behavior, GPO should be doing more to help regionals fulfill the requirements of the statute and assure the long-term viability of the FDLP for all of the libraries and the wider public that rely on regionals. Any proposed SOD should seek to correct this unfortunate situation.

Our second concern has to do with the proposed policy change itself.

“Regional depository libraries may select “online” as a format, without having to make a corresponding tangible selection, for titles or series accessible through GPO’s system of online access, a trusted digital repository, or from official digital preservation steward partners.”

One of the primary functions of regional libraries is to participate in the long-term preservation of US government publications. Indeed, retention (ie., preservation) is written into 44 U.S. Code § 1912 itself. Selective libraries across the country rely heavily on this regional requirement to manage their FDLP collections.

The existing law is clear: “In addition to fulfilling the requirements for depository libraries” regional depositories must “retain at least one copy of all Government publications either in printed or microfacsimile form (except those authorized to be discarded by the Superintendent of Documents).” The only other mention in the law of the Superintendent being able to authorize discarding is for “superseded publications or those issued later in bound form which may be discarded as authorized by the Superintendent of Documents” (§ 1911).

As the Senate Report on the bill stated, “Complete document collections would thus be accessible to all the regular depositories within the State, enabling them to be more selective in the items they would request” (S. Rep. 1587, 87th Cong., 2d Sess. 1962). The legislative history is clear that the establishment of Regional Depositories was designed both to allow selectives to discard publications after five years and to ensure that all publications would be available from a Regional.

The law has not changed and this policy would contradict both the letter and intent of the law.

Although GPO continues to promulgate policies that wrongly equate “online access” with “deposit,” no change in the law allows this. We welcome online access and the efforts GPO is making to ensure preservation of digital government information, but, as GPO’s draft policy says, the policy is rooted in the past, in choices made twenty-five years ago. It would be wiser and more sustainable to base new decisions in the current and developing capabilities of FDLP libraries rather than on the past. We suggest that there is a better path that conforms to the existing law, enhances preservation, and improves access and use of digital government information. Our suggested edit looks to a future of GPO and FDLP libraries collaborating together to preserve and give access to the National Collection.

We suggest that, until Title 44 is changed, GPO should choose a simple and effective alternative that will accomplish more than GPO’s proposal.

We recommend a policy of allowing a regional depository to choose digital copies of government publications (instead of printed or microfacsimile) IF AND ONLY IF it agrees to actually receive, host, and provide access to those digital files. The SOD could do this by, for example, making regional selection and deposit format-agnostic or adding digital formats to the list of currently anachronistic “tangible” formats.

Our suggestion begins by respecting the existing law, which mandates that multiple copies of government publications be held for both preservation and access by libraries outside the government. For “access” our suggestion will allow libraries to provide digital services for specific designated communities. For preservation, it ensures against intentional or unintentional loss of access, corruption of content, or outright loss of information in the government’s care.

Our suggestion is also compatible with the work of the The Digital Deposit Working Group of the Depository Library Council (on which James is participating), which is currently working on recommendations for digital deposit based on FDLP community feedback which would directly contradict GPO’s proposed regional policy. Our proposal looks to a future of digital deposit. Indeed, ten regional libraries are already receiving and preserving all content published in govinfo.gov through the LOCKSS-USDOCS program. Our proposal provides GPO the opportunity to create a policy that will lay a solid foundation for the digital FDLP, increase participation by FDLP libraries, and enhance services for the National Collection.

It has long been established that the preservation of born-digital government information is a challenging endeavor. It also should be clear that a one-size-fits-all model of “access” without digital services is inadequate in the digital age. GPO cannot and should not go it alone. GPO needs multiple partners to participate in digital preservation and in the provision of digital services.

GPO’s proposed SOD, rather than strengthening the long-term viability of the digital FDLP, erodes its very foundation by literally erasing the critical, legislatively-required job for which regionals were created. Any library or individual can do what the draft SOD suggests (point to govinfo.gov), but FDLP libraries could do so much more. They can complement what GPO does by providing official, legislatively-mandated, redundant preservation, and by providing enhanced digital services targeted to specific OAIS designated communities.

FGI’s guide to “unreported” FDLP publications

Introduction

“Unreported” publications (which were, until recently, called “fugitive” publications) are those that are within scope of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) but for various reasons have slipped through the cracks and not been collected and cataloged by the Government Publishing Office (GPO), distributed to FDLP libraries, or included in the “National Collection” (See a partial list of historically “unreported” publications below).

We here at FGI consider “unreported” publications as the paramount problem facing the FDLP today. FDLP librarians, with their critical information skills and expertise about the structure and publishing activities of the federal government, are a vital piece of the solution to this vexing problem. The National Collection is at the core of what FDLP libraries have done for the last 200+ years, so “unreported” publications erode that very foundation. During the spring 2021 virtual Depository Library Conference, I challenged every FDLP librarian to search for, find, and report to GPO five “unreported” documents every month. I’d like to reiterate that challenge here on FGI. If every one of the 1100+ FDLP librarians were to find and report 5 documents each month, through this iterative process we’d soon put a dent in this existential “unreported” documents problem.

Four easy steps to reporting “unreported” publications

To that end, we’d like to share some simple steps for how to find and report “unreported” documents to GPO:

  1. find an interesting federal document or information product like a report, data set, video, or slide deck (see the “strategies” section below for tips and tricks for finding documents);
  2. Search the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) to see if GPO has cataloged it;
  3. If it’s NOT in the CGP, go to askGPO and fill in the “unreported document” form. See appendix for how to fill out the askGPO form;
  4. Rinse and repeat!

Strategies for finding “unreported” documents (more tips and tricks!)

  1. Read the news with an eye toward those news items and sources which cover federal policies; (See for example, https://federalnewsnetwork.com, https://www.govexec.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com, etc.)
  2. Set up Google search and news alerts for publications from your favorite agency(ies), especially the Inspector Generals’ offices of those agencies (Inspector General reports are an especially critical and long-standing type of “unreported” document! Only a portion are even posted publicly on Oversight.gov);
  3. Find and report documents you use to answer reference/research consultations;
  4. Bookmark and visit the publications- and/or press release page of your favorite agency(ies);
  5. Follow on social media your favorite agency(ies), heads of agencies, your state’s Congressional delegation, known people within the executive branch, and Federal watchdog groups. New publications are often announced on government social media accounts.

Historically “Unreported” materials of particular interest

  • Agency Inspector General reports;
  • Executive branch agency publications. See the LostDocs project for examples of documents that have been reported to GPO;
  • Communication/Letters from members of Congress to executive branch agencies;
  • Communication/Letters from federal officials to a Presidential administration;
  • Public datasets;
  • Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports* (*CRS reports were, until 2018, considered “privileged communication” between Congress and the Library of Congress and were therefore never released via the FDLP. Here’s the back story).

History of the problem

Since 1813 when the FDLP started, there have always been “unreported” documents which slipped through the cracks and were lost to the sands of time (until very recently, these were termed “fugitive” documents) [Footnote 1]. This problem has grown exponentially as executive agencies’ publishing operations have exploded, now that they can easily and freely distribute content online, and very few if any of them follow Title 44 regulations and send their documents to GPO as they are required to by law. Only a minuscule fraction of born-digital executive branch information is cataloged in the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) or makes it into the “National Collection.” This means that every year, thousands — if not hundreds of thousands! — of Federal documents, datasets, maps, and other born-digital materials [Footnote 2] — are never preserved and are lost to the fog of history as websites are updated and historical content removed [Footnote 3].

Depository librarians reporting found publications are a critical part of a holistic solution to the “unreported” documents problem. By identifying federal information resources that are important to their local constituents, librarians are making sure that these documents will be cataloged, captured, and made accessible to a wider audience. Reporting documents also adds to a National Collection pipeline for long-term access and helps to make sure that what is collected and preserved reflects the needs and interests of the wide-ranging communities and the public which libraries serve.

Many hands make light work. Won’t you join in the effort? Please contact us if you have questions or comments at freegovinfo AT gmail DOT com.

Footnotes

1. See “‘Issued for Gratuitous Distribution:’ The History of Fugitive Documents and the FDLP.” James R. Jacobs. Article in special issue of Against the Grain: “Ensuring Access to Government Information”, 29(6) December 2017/January 2018.

2. My back of the napkin estimate is that well over 1/2 of the “National Collection” is unreported! The executive branch is far and away the largest portion of the National Collection, and is almost completely “unreported.” See slide 5 of my 2018 Canadian Govinfo presentation for some context. Jim Jacobs’ chart cites the 2008 End of Term crawl for context on how many born-digital government publications are on the Web. The 2016 End of Term crawl nearly doubled the 2008 crawl and went from 160 million URLs to 310 million URLs harvested. I expect the 2020 End of Term crawl happening at the time of this post’s publication to far surpass 310 million!

3. FGI has written about “link rot,” “content drift,” and other issues which make it difficult to collect and preserve born-digital information.

Appendix: how to fill out the askGPO form

The AskGPO form can be used for single documents or for reporting multiple documents, for example, those listed on an agency’s publications index page. See below for the steps to filling out the askGPO form. If a site is extremely large and/or complex (eg., the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reports site) send the URL and description of the site to the GPO Web archiving team at FDLPwebarchiving AT gpo DOT gov.

  1. Log in to ask.gpo.gov (This will automatically fill in your contact information and depository library number in the form if you have used the system before);
  2. Click on “Federal Depository Library Program”;
  3. Select category “Fugitive Publications” (which will soon be changed to “unreported publications”);
  4. Choose single publication or multiple publications (there’s an excel template if you prefer to collect multiple documents and submit them all at once!);
  5. Enter title, publishing agency, publication URL, format (other fields are not required). Use your best guess if you are not sure;
  6. Upload PDF file as attachment (not required but helpful for GPO staff to have the document “in hand” when cataloging);
  7. Add any additional context that you think may aid GPO staff;
  8. Do the reCAPTCHA “I’m not a robot” test;
  9. Submit the document(s)!

Analysis of GPO’s proposed Title 44 changes to FDLP and FGI’s suggestions

As we noted last week, there is another effort underway to update Title 44 and “modernize” the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The Government Publishing Office (GPO) has put together a proposal for Legislative Revisions to Title 44 U.S.C., Chapter 19 and have asked for comments by MARCH 5, 2021.

As always, we approach changes to Title 44 and GPO policies with the user in mind. We ask of every change, “How will this affect people who want and need government information?” With that in mind, here are our comments on GPO’s proposed revisions.

While there is a lot that is good about GPO’s proposal, we believe that there are also some significant problems and gaps. Below, we outline these. Separately, we have compiled a revision of GPO’s proposal with specific word changes that we recommend.

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GPO’s Collection Development Plan falls short of the “National Collection”

The Government Publishing Office (GPO) recently released its updated document entitled GPO’s System of Online Access: Collection Development Plan (here are the 2016 and 2018 Plans for comparison) which is “revised annually to reflect content added to govinfo in the preceding fiscal year, in-process titles, and current priorities.” The Plan explains GPO’s designated communities for govinfo, the broad content areas that fall within scope of govinfo, and the various codes — basically Title 44 of the US Code and Superintendent of Documents policies (SODs) — which undergird GPO’s collection development activities. While there is no mention in this document of the “National Collection”, it describes the three major pillars of GPO’s permanent public access efforts as govinfo, the FDLP, and the Cataloging & Indexing program (which produces the bibliographic records for the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP)).

The central part of the Plan is where GPO defines the govinfo collection depth level — defined in Appendix A of the Plan as collection levels modified from the Research Libraries Group (RLG) Conspectus collection depth levels and going from Comprehensive, Research, Study or Instructional Support, Basic, Minimal, to Out of Scope — of the various public information products of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the US government.

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Threshold Concepts for Government Information

There’s an interesting thread on the govdoc-l listserv regarding “threshold concepts” for government information — core concepts which, once understood, “transform perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience” or as someone on govdoc-l stated “concepts that are so foundational that people immersed in a discipline take them for granted.” We think some of the issues being discussed there can benefit from making explicit some of those foundational ideas of govinfo that we probably all hold in common but that we rarely articulate or discuss. Here are seven of them:

1. Public Information.

The U.S.Code and the Office of Management and Budget define different categories of government information. Perhaps most familiar to government information specialists are the categories of "records" and "publications." But these are just two of six categories — each one narrower than the one above it. The six categories are defined in OMB Circular A-130 (pp. 26‑37).

Information
…… Federal Information
………… Records
……………… Public Information
…………………… Information dissemination product
………………………… Government Publication

In discussing threshold concepts, we believe it is essential to have a clear understanding of this hierarchy of information and the difference between levels.

As we have suggested before we believe that the most appropriate of those levels when discussing library policies is that of "Public Information," as defined in Chapter 35 of Title 44:

The term "public information" means any information, regardless of form or format, that an agency discloses, disseminates, or makes available to the public.

2. Information vs. Information Services.

While it is certainly true in the digital age that the federal government provides access online to much of its public information and "organizes" it for access and use, we should understand that there is a difference between such services and the actual content provided by those services. These days, it is common to speak of the services as "e-government."

E-government is a service. It is like the gate at a national park. The park is a resource and the gate is a service that protects the resource and provides access to it — but is not the resource itself. Agencies keep their resources in silos and decide how to organize and present that information through their websites.

Public information is a resource, like a national park, and government websites are like the gates at national parks. When the government controls the resource by keeping it in its own information silos and allowing access only through its gates, the government controls what we can use. We lose access to the information during a government shutdown or when an agency takes information offline. Agencies can alter and move information or impose fees or restrictions on access when they control the only copy of the information resource. And no agency can guarantee that its siloing or its organization and presentation of its content will meet the needs of every community of users, or of user communities in the future.

We have analyzed this issue in more detail here: Information is not a Service, Service is not Information and here: FDLP: Services and Collections.

3. Public Information is essential to democracy.

In order for a democracy to function, it is essential for citizens to have an accurate record of its government including authentic government records of its actions and the data it collects, creates, and uses.

Familiar examples include Congressional debates and hearings, laws and regulations (e.g., USC, CFR), official statistics (e.g. GDP, CPI, censuses, surveys), judicial hearings and decisions, administrative records (e.g. aggregations of state records of births, deaths, marriages, crime, health, etc.), position statements, policies, press releases, and transcripts of press conferences.

Such records need to be accessible to the public in order for citizens to be able to hold government accountable. Citizens also need these records to be preserved over time so that they can have an accurate record of the history of government actions, changes in policy, and the data government use to determine those policies and actions.

Such records need to be preserved and accessible in context. For example, a record of a single speech in Congress needs to be preserved in the context of all speeches in Congress; a single law must be preserved in the context of all laws and regulations; the census of the population of a city needs to be preserved in the context of its populations in previous censuses and in the context of the censuses of other cities.

"Context" also includes the methodologies used to measure, collect, aggregate and present raw information. For example, it is important that The Congressional Record makes clear that it is only a "substantially verbatim" record and that Members may revise and extend their remarks after the fact, before they are published.

And it is essential for methodologies used to create economic indicators such as GDP an CPI be part of the record of those indicators.

4. Accuracy.

The records of government must be accurately preserved without alteration and must be accessible in such a way as to assure users that those records are authentic and complete.

Note that government records may contain inaccuracies and both those inaccuracies as well as any corrections to those inaccuracies must be accurately preserved. The official record of a government is the record of "what the government knew" and what officials said at any given point in time. It is only by preserving this record that citizens can hold agencies and officials accountable.

There are many controversies over the methodologies used to create government statistics. Such controversies (and all methodologies) reflect political assumptions and political goals. Preserving the methodologies, raw data, and published statistical indicators, provides the potential for creating better policies with better data and better indicators.

5. Gray areas of information distribution.

In the digital age, "government information" is available from many sources including non-official sources. While the Congressional Record is the official record of Congress, it is easy to find video recordings of what actually happened on the floor of Congress (without revisions or "extensions of remarks") on C-Span and Twitter.

The most notable example of this gray area in current administration is, of course, tweets by the President under his personal twitter account.

The digital age thus often presents citizens with confusing and contradictory information and presents libraries with complex and difficult policy and collection choices.

6. Misinformation, Disinformation, and Propaganda.

It is essential to have accurate and authentic preservation of Public Information in order to counter misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda whether distributed by government or non-government sources.

We do not have to agree on the accuracy or mendacity of official (and un-official) statements, speeches, comments, tweets, etc. to agree that it is essential that "Public Information" produced and created by government agencies and individual officials be accurately preserved. It is only by doing so that citizens will have an accurate record of policy debates and decisions and can contextualize that record within the wider historical record.

It is only by having an accurate and authentic record of Public Information that the truthfulness and accuracy of the content of those records can be determined. It is only by having such a record of Public Information that agencies and officials can be held accountable for their claims, policies, and actions.

7. Role of libraries.

Libraries should accept, continue and maintain their traditional role of ensuring long-term access to Public Information for their own user-communities because government agencies cannot and are not doing so.

Preservation. Although the federal government makes Public Information available through e-government information services, very few government agencies have legal mandates, or budgets, or policies for preserving that information or for providing long-term, free public access to it. Most Public Information is not being adequately preserved or curated. Libraries need to continue their critical societal role in curating government information. They can do this by building their own digital collections of government Public Information.

Access. As noted above, no agency can guarantee that its e-government information service will meet the needs of every community of users. Libraries can address the access and use-needs of specific communities-of-interest, while government agencies attempt to address only a broad, monolithic public.

Service. When libraries build services for their user communities based on digital collections that they acquire and control, they will be able to combine non-government information with Public Information from different agency silos to create unique user-experiences that no government agency can. By addressing the needs of their specific user-communities, libraries can provide more services and better services than any government agency can provide. These services can include both traditional reference services provided by subjects specialists as well as online digital services. We have written more about this idea here: Building a Collaborative FDLP.

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

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