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John Oliver is a national hero, always talking about issues of importance in clear and exasperatingly funny ways. Take last night’s show in which he highlighted “environmental racism” – a term used to describe environmental injustice that “occurs within a racialized context both in practice and policy” (thanks wikipedia!). He clearly shows the connection with historical “red lining” — in which people of color were, through official government policy(!), denied the ability to purchase homes in certain areas and therefore kept segregated in many cities — and current environmental policy which often designates those same areas as “sacrifice zones” where heavy industry, toxic waste and superfund sites tend to be located.
Oliver does a great job in analyzing government policy, states that the Biden Administration has said publicly that it will focus on environmental justice — EPA even has an environmental justice website! — but also notes that the administration is not meeting its promises on this front and needs to do more.
One thing he failed to mention — and I don’t blame him because it is after all tangential to the issue of environmental racism — is that the EPA plans to sunset its online archive! According to the Verge article — which cites our pals at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI)!:
Come July, the EPA plans to retire the archive containing old news releases, policy changes, regulatory actions, and more. Those are important public resources, advocates say, but federal guidelines for maintaining public records still fall short when it comes to protecting digital assets.
It’s clear, as Oliver notes, that it’s going to take really big steps to address environmental racism. Local environmental groups will continue to be critical in pushing for changes in government policy and regulation, but they will continue to need access to environmental government information and that’s where librarians can and should do everything in their power to assist in addressing this horrible problem.
As a follow-up to our recent post, “Some facts about the born-digital “National Collection,” we want to suggest some specific actions that GPO and FDLP libraries can take to do a better job of collecting and preserving born-digital content for the “National Collection”.
For context, our starting assumption is that GPO and FDLP have two connected priorities: preservation and user services. The two go hand-in-hand. To be “preserved,” content must be discoverable, deliverable, readable, understandable, and usable by people. Broadly speaking, this can be understood as “user services.” Addressing these priorities at scale will require innovative, collaborative approaches. Old solutions that do not scale will not work.
With regard to preservation, digital objects have to be under sufficient control of the preservationist to be preservable. As we pointed out in our previous post, the vast bulk of born-digital government Public Information is not being preserved by GPO or FDLP libraries. But, worse than this, GPO and FDLP have no active plan to address that gap in preservation. While there are lots of projects to digitize historic paper documents in FDLs, there is no active project to acquire, describe, store, manage, and preserve — ie., curate! — the bulk of born-digital content (the End of Term crawl notwithstanding). Regardless of what minor steps GPO is taking, the results are, at best, insignificant when compared to the scale of the problem. What is needed is a recognition of the problem of the huge gap in digital preservation and a specific plan for developing active strategies to address the problem. Waiting for agencies to deposit with GPO doesn’t work. Simply advertising GPO’s publishing services is not enough. GPO needs new strategies.
The two most important aspects of user services are “discovery” (providing tools that enable users to find the information they need) and “usability” (providing tools that enable users to use the content they discover). The two approaches GPO uses for discoverability (catalog records in the Catalog of Government Publications and a hierarchical presentation of agencies and publication types and dates in govinfo.gov) are woefully incomplete in the 21st century. One resembles a legacy card catalog and the other resembles a 1990s Yahoo!-like directory interface. Each has some utility, but they are not sufficient. GPO needs to work with FDLP libraries to develop new user-centric tools for discovery.
As for usability, GPO’s approach is still very document-centric, being designed to deliver one document at a time for reading. It should be evident to all that there are many more potential uses of government information than simply retrieving one document at a time. 21st century users are more sophisticated and have more use-case needs than that. We believe that GPO should continue to provide the services it does through Govinfo, but it should supplement that work by developing programs, tools, and support for FDLs to develop new uses built on the specific use-case needs of Designated Communities of users — and potential users. Doing that will have the additional benefit of helping drive collection development — and preservation.
GPO already has policies in place that can be read to include the broader vision we offer here. For example, GPO’s Draft Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2023 Through 2027, while explicitly mentioning digitizing paper collections also includes the vague phrase “focus on adding new collections and filling the gaps in existing collections.” Although, in the context, it seems to imply filing in gaps of paper/digitized collections, it could be taken as a broader mission to address the real preservation gap of new, born-digital content. Nevertheless, vague phrases, are not enough. Policies and projects need to specifically address the massive and growing born-digital preservation gap with action plans.
Given our assumptions and priorities, here are some suggestions for steps GPO can take now.
- Publicly and explicitly, acknowledge and publicize the born-digital preservation gap.
- Develop an aggressive, active strategy for gaining agreements with executive branch agencies to deposit their born digital content with GPO. Work with Congress to provide funding to agencies for providing those deposits and to GPO for receiving and processing them;
- Develop an aggressive, active strategy to promote and enforce existing OMB A-130 policy (“making Government publications available to depository libraries through the Government Publishing Office regardless of format”) for depositing executive branch content with GPO. The policy exists, but OMB does nothing to enforce it. The strategy could include working with NARA, the Federal CIO Council, the Federal Web Archiving Group (consisting of GPO, NARA, Library of Congress, the National Library of Medicine, the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Education, and Department of Heath and Human Services) to support OMB enforcement of that policy and set new policies and regulations for preserving federal agency publications and data;
- Develop an aggressive, active strategy for the development of new tools for harvesting and processing Public Information and metadata, and for the processing of that harvested data for the automated generation of rich metadata for the description, management, preservation, discovery, delivery, and use of harvested data and metadata. Develop tools, workflows, and policies to help FDLs preserve born-digital government information. This can include identifying and acquiring unreported documents, new methods of selection to build digital collections, metadata creation, and the development of digital repositories connected by APIs and a robust system of stable Permanent Identifiers;
- Develop a plan for active, continual harvesting of born-digital content that remains undeposited by agencies with GPO. Develop new strategies for targeting content by document and file-type, use-case, and source. Develop workflows to allow FDLs and other libraries and harvesters to feed their web archiving activities into the National Collection through ingest or cooperative metadata creation, or both;
- Develop next-generation tools and methods for extracting digital objects and metadata from existing Web archives for inclusion in the National Bibliography;
- Develop an active plan for obtaining federal funding to fund libraries, agencies, and GPO to do this ongoing and critical work.
Now THAT’s an “all-digital FDLP”!
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
We want to contribute a couple of facts and context about the born-digital “National Collection” to help inform the discussions on the priorities of GPO and FDLP libraries at the upcoming spring 2022 Depository Library Conference as well as discussions surrounding the work of the all-digital FDLP task force.
We believe these facts lead to an unavoidable conclusion: GPO and FDLP need to explicitly state a strong priority of how to deal with unpreserved born-digital government information.
Here are the facts.
Who produces born-digital government information?
We have been examining data from the 2020 End-of-Term crawl. We found (not surprisingly) that, by far, the most prominent types of born-digital content on the web are web pages (HTML files) and PDF files. We counted just unique web pages and PDF files from the government web in EOT20 and found more than 126 million web pages and more than 2.8 million PDF files for a total of more than 129 million born-digital items. More than 80% of that content is from the executive branch.
What is GPO preserving?
GOVINFO: There are roughly 2 million PDFs in Govinfo. These items are secure and preserved in GPO’s certified trusted digital repository. By our count, 74% of the born-digital PDF content in Govinfo is from the judicial branch, 24% from the legislative branch, and only 2% from the executive branch. In other words, GPO devotes almost 3/4 of its born-digital preservation space to the judiciary, which produces only about 2% of all born-digital government information. Conversely, GPO devotes only 2% of its born-digital preservation space to the executive branch, which produces more than 80% of born-digital government information.
FDLP-WA. The FDLP Web Archive on the Internet Archive’s Archive-It servers had 211 “collections” or “websites” when we counted earlier this year. Most of the content of the FDLP-WA is from the executive branch (by our count, it only includes 3 congressional agencies and one judicial agency). GPO describes its web harvesting as targeted at small websites. By our count, using the EOT20 data, there are 23,666 “small” government websites and altogether they contain only .06% of the public information posted on the government web. By contrast 99% of Public Information on the government web is hosted by 1,882 “large” websites, none of which GPO is targeting.
GPO also stores some copies of some cataloged web-based content on its permanent.fdlp.gov server. We do not have exact figures on the quantity of content stored, but we do know that, on average, GPO catalogs just over 19,000 titles a year. As a percentage of just the PDFs on the government web in 2020, that is less than 1% per year.
GPO has a few “digital access” partnerships (NASA, NLM, GAO and a couple of others), but there’s only 1 digital preservation stewardship agreement: with University of North Texas (UNT) libraries (check out the difference between a “digital access partner” and a “digital preservation steward” here).
Although we do not have data on how quickly content on the web is altered or removed, one study determined that 83% of the PDF files present in the 2008 EOT crawl were missing in the 2012 EOT crawl.
GPO is doing a good (though not comprehensive) job of preserving born-digital content from the judicial and legislative branches but, by our rough estimate, this accounts for only about 15% of born-digital government information.
GPO is preserving very, very little of the born-digital content of the executive branch, which is where about 80% of born-digital publishing is being done.
To ensure the preservation of this executive branch born-digital government information, GPO needs an active program to acquire and preserve it. Depository Library Council (DLC) should create a strong statement recognizing this huge gap in digital preservation and recommending that GPO prioritize developing plans for addressing it.
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
Here’s an interesting dataset to bookmark. After a 10-year moratorium on earmarks, the House Appropriations Committee recently released PDF tables of fiscal year 2022 congressionally directed spending projects. But those PDFs aren’t actually usable for any sort of deeper data analysis. So the Congress Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center has just released the Congressionally Directed Spending FY2022 Dataset. It’s a database of all the FY22 “Final Funded Projects” in H.R. 2471, with some additional member data included (the original tables often only include last name). Check out the Congress Project’s blog post for more on how they extracted and cleaned the data. Good work by the Bipartisan Policy Center!
Data is plural newsletter posts 2 amazing govinfo datasets: House Comm witnesses and 1900 census immigrant populations
I love my Data Is Plural newsletter, Jeremy Singer-Vine’s weekly newsletter of useful/curious datasets! You can check out his archive from 2015(!) to present and also explore the archive as a google spreadsheet or as Markdown files (a dataset of interesting datasets :-)).
Today’s edition was especially good on the govinfo front: 2 really awesome datasets on House Committee witnesses (1971 – 2016) and a high-resolution transcription and CSV file of the Census Bureau’s 1900 report on immigrant populations. Check them out, and don’t forget to subscribe to the Data is plural newsletter!
House committee witnesses. Political scientists Lauren C. Bell and J.D. Rackey have compiled a spreadsheet of 435,000+ people testifying before the US House of Representatives from 1971 to 2016. They began with a text file scraped from a ProQuest database, provided by the authors of a dataset that focused on social scientists’ testimony (DIP 2020.12.23). Then, they determined each witness’s first and last name; type of organization; the committee, date, title, and summary of the relevant hearing; and more.
Immigrant populations in 1900. The 1900 US Census’s public report includes a table counting the foreign-born residents of each state and territory — overall and disaggregated into a few dozen origins, which range from subdivisions of countries (Poland is split into “Austrian,” “German,” “Russian,” and “unknown” columns) to entire continents (“Africa”). It’s officially available as a low-resolution PDF. Reporters at Stacker, however, recently transcribed it into a CSV file for easier use.