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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.

Happy 2023! The state of government information in 2023

Happy new year 2023! We hope all our readers had a relaxing holiday break and are ready to get back to the important work of preserving government information and assuring its long-term access!

In the latest First Branch Forecast — you really should subscribe to this important newsletter if you haven’t already! — a side comment about the findings of the January 6th Committee caught our attention. In discussing the release of the COmmittee’s final reports, as well as the many witness transcripts, Daniel Schuman noted “We’re linking to the PDF on the Wayback Machine because the Committee’s website will be toast in early January.”

This is the troubling reality we find ourselves in. Digital government information turns out to be extremely fragile and reliant on the political winds of Washington DC. The Government Publishing Office (GPO) captured the committee’s final report and various hearings (though NOT the various witness testimony transcripts that the committee has released to its website (of which I’m also linking to the Wayback Machine!)), the final report has already been published by a private company (in this case the New Yorker and Celadon Books), and the report will no doubt be be saved by Library of Congress, NARA, and various libraries around the country. But each of those will have their own URL rather than the official URL from the actual committee that did the work. It would be amazing if there were a system of permanent URLs (called PIDs) that stay permanent and point to all the copies in the same way that DOIs work for journal articles. I and many of my depository library colleagues are working hard on putting a system like this in place for US government information. It was one of FGI’s resolutions for 2020 and I’ve been busy working on the Depository Library Council (DLC) Working Group Exploring the Durability of PURLs and Their Alternatives (charge). The working group is finishing up its work and will soon release its final report and recommendations.

Let’s hope that 2023 is the year that electronic government information is collected, preserved, and made easily accessible for the public!

Government information in the news for 2022

The American Library Association’s Government Documents Round Table (GODORT) (of which I’m a member) has just published a solid list of government publications that made the news in 2022. Many thanks to Susanne Caro for putting together this guide, with submissions by Ben Amata, David Durant, Patrice McDermott, Albert Chapman, Vicki Tate, Ronnie Joiner, and Toby Green! While many of the publications were related to the investigation of documents illegally squirreled away at Mar-a-Lago (and which are helpfully separated in the right column of the guide), there were other publications that one might not even think of as “government publications” including the amazing first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Webb Space Telescope.

First images of the Webb space telescope

Throughout the year government information specialists share document mentioned in the news. One of these individuals is Ben Amata who shares many articles and whose submissions make up the majority of these.

This years submission come from Ben Amata, David Durant, Patrice McDermott, Albert Chapman, Vicki Tate, Ronnie Joiner, and Toby Green.

Andrew Dudash, librarian at Penn State University Libraries has been working on a project to capture federal documents in the news. This great collection includes stories from previous years and is a great resource,

There are 100 stories listed but these are only a sample of documents that made the news. Of these there are 33 that are just related to the investigation of documents at Mar-a-Lago and those are in a separate section to the right.

Yay! Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act included in 2023 NDAA

This week the Senate passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which President Biden is expected to sign.

This year’s $858 BILLION bill is truly an omnibus bill as it provides a 4.6 percent pay increase for service members, increases the maximum allowable income to receive the Basic Needs Allowance, and adds funding to Basic Allowance for Housing. It addresses climate change and bolsters energy resiliency across the Department of Defense, gives new investments in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and offers new support for survivors of sexual assault in the military by further expanding reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

But most relevant for government information and for us here at FGI — who have been following and advocating for this for over 10 years! — the package includes the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, (the text starts on p. 3125 of this huge PDF).

The bill will require the Government Publishing Office (GPO) to create an online database for free public access to reports that agencies are required to submit to Congress, and requires agencies to provide copies of those reports to GPO for that purpose. GPO is directed to establish the database within one year, reusing existing systems to the extent possible. We assume these will live on govinfo.gov. This bill will go a long way toward solving (or at least relieving) the unreported documents issue that we have also been tracking on for many years. Executive branch reports are a particularly egregious problem as almost none of them make it into the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) or are distributed to FDLP libraries.

This is an amazing early holiday present for the FDLP and for everyone who has been working these 10+ years to make this a reality!

Sunsetting FGI Lostdocs project

Lostdocs Project
File this under “all good things must come to an end.” Since 2009, we here at FGI have been posting “fugitive” federal government publications (now called “unreported” documents or those documents that should be part of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) but have slipped through the cracks and remain uncatalogued and unpreserved) and advocating for the community to hunt for and report those documents to GPO. Through these efforts, thousands of unreported documents were sent in to GPO and made available for the long-term through FDLP libraries and GPO. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the many volunteers throughout the FDLP that have sent us their receipts of when they reported those documents to GPO. And we also couldn’t have done it without the dedication of folks like Daniel Cornwall, Jeffrey Hartsell-Gundy, and Meredith Johnston who helped by checking the Lostdocs email acct and posting new publications to the blog. I just archived the site in the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine for posterity. Thanks again everyone for the work that you do in making sure federal publications are curated, described, preserved, and made available long-term! Please keep reporting those documents to GPO. It’s critically important!!

That is all.

FGI’s comments and recommendations for the GPO draft report of the task force on an “all-digital” FDLP

[editor’s note 10/28/2022: we updated the text below about 100% of govinfo being published digitally in order to clarify where we got that number and why we use the 100% number rather than the 97% born-digital that is most frequently cited.]

We want to thank GPO Director Halpern for calling a “Task Force on a Digital FDLP” and for all of the members of the task force for diligently working through the many thorny issues regarding the future of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). Director Halpern has requested public comment on the draft report until October 14, 2022. We at FGI are submitting the following as our public comments.

1. The task force was asked to study “the feasibility of an all-digital FDLP.” The group was charged to define the scope of an all-digital depository program and recommend how to implement and operate it.

Although the task force working groups concluded that the FDLP can and should go “all-digital,” the draft report was also consistent in noting that “all digital” does not mean everything will be available only in digital formats (pp. 7, 10). The final report should emphasize this point and clarify and clearly state that print remains a viable format for some of our most important government publications as well as an important access method – and recommend exploring future print opportunities like “print and distribute on demand” as an option for depository libraries.

2. The draft report has lots of good ideas but we suggest that some clarifications and reorganization will bring the findings and recommendations of the different working groups into better focus.

We suggest that the final report should begin with a clear “problem statement” that the report will then address. We suggest that this should have two points:

  • Currently 100% of government Public Information is published digitally. (We are extrapolating that 100% estimate from table 11 of the 2018 Library of Congress study “Disseminating and Preserving Digital Public Information Products Created by the U.S. Federal Government:A Case Study Report” which showed that only three of the surveyed agencies reported less than 100% of their publishing output was born-digital. This 2018 estimate is no doubt closer to reality for most agencies than the 2009 estimate of 97%.)
  • Only a small fraction of that born-digital government information is currently being curated or preserved in any regular fashion. This has created an enormous preservation (and, therefore, long-term access) gap. Any “all digital FDLP” must recognize and address this enormous digital preservation gap.

    (Note: We base this on the research we have done examining the contents of GPO’s Govinfo repository and 2020 End-of-Term crawl data. We found that the great bulk of new digital Public Information is produced by the executive branch (90% of all government PDFs (aka “publications” on the government web are published by the executive branch), but only 2% of the born digital PDFs in GPO’s Govinfo repository are from the executive branch. Meanwhile LC’s web harvesting is relying on GPO and NARA to take care of the executive branch [https://www.loc.gov/acq/devpol/webarchive.pdf] and, by law, NARA is treating all executive branch web content as “records,” of which only 1-3% are typically preserved. For some more details, see our post “Some facts about the born-digital ‘National Collection'”.)

These two points would put the Task Force’s recommendations into context. The primary focus of actions designed to ensure “permanent no-fee public access to digital content” must focus on ensuring the preservation of that content. No digital system can ensure “access” unless that system has control over and preserves the content it intends to make accessible.

3. To address the problem statement, we recommend that the report create long-term goals from which all recommendations would flow. It would be persuasive and most helpful if the Task Force provided explicit connections between each recommendation and one or more of the goals, showing how the success of each recommendation can be evaluated in terms of the goals.

  • Increase the preservation of all federal government Public Information.
  • Ensure permanent, no-fee access of federal government Public Information to the general public.
  • Enhance discoverability and usability of federal government Public Information for all.

4. We believe that the draft report minimizes the need to preserve the existing national print collection. It emphasizes digitization of paper documents for access and accepts and proposes even looser rules for the discarding of paper collections without adequate safeguards for the preservation of the information in those collections in either paper or digital formats. Digitizing for the sake of better access is a noble objective, but preserving the born-digital content that is currently NOT being curated and in danger of loss is a much more urgent matter than enhancing access to already well-preserved paper collections.

5. We suggest that the final recommendations and action items be grouped or labeled in categories that will clarify their purpose and scope. For example:

  • principles (free access, privacy, etc.)
  • short term tasks
  • long term objectives

6. Earlier this year we created a list of some specific long-term strategies which may be of use to the Task Force: “FGI’s recommendations for creating the ‘all-digital FDLP'”.

By reorganizing and refocusing the report on what is truly important — preservation first, access built on preserved content — the report will be clearer about the current status of preservation and access and how GPO and FDLP can contribute solutions to existing gaps and weaknesses.

Authors

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

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