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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.

Strategic Planning Part III: Building a Collaborative FDLP

In this part of our three-part series on strategic planning for the FDLP and GPO, we offer a vision of a collaborative FDLP that will greatly enhance preservation of government information, improve access for users, and increase the value of individual FDLP libraries to their communities and to the public.

Part I of this series suggested small changes to GPO’s strategic plan. Part II offered an informal SWOT analysis to give the strategic planning process some additional context.


Thoughts on the connection between collection development and research/information need

A friend just posted this really interesting Atlantic article on Facebook about “redlining” and a project called T-RACES, or Testbed for for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces that brought me back to my first year as a govt documents librarian in 2002.

“The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood.” Alexis C. Madrigal. The Atlantic, May 22, 2014.

My very first librarian job after graduating from UIUC was as govt documents librarian at UC San Diego. I had a *tiny* part in the project with Richard Marciano (nee San Diego Supercomputer Center and UNC, and now the director of the newly formed Digital Curation Innovation Center (DCIC) at University of Maryland) that became T-RACES mentioned in the Atlantic. The project used annual reports from the Federal Housing Administration (1934 – 1968) and georeferenced FHA’s “residential security maps” to glaringly show the impact of historically racist government policies on the economic plight of African Americans and other minorities and the neighborhoods in which they resided.

Working on this project ingrained in me early on the value of historic documents in libraries and the importance of collections work that librarians need to do continuously in order to aid the research process, though the threads between point of collection and research/information need can stretch over decades. I’ll always be indebted to Richard for his kindness and willingness to include this newbie librarian in the early days of his project and for instilling those values in me.

Information is not a Service, Service is not Information

John Shuler and his colleagues comment on the effects of the recent government shutdown on information access in this GIQ editorial:

  • E-government without government, John A. Shuler, Paul T. Jaeger, and John Carlo Bertot. Government Information Quarterly (In Press, Corrected Proof) DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2013.11.004 [subscriber access required].

The authors rightly point out that the shutdown caused an interruption of “services and transactions,” and that: “for e-government to function, you actually need a government that functions.” This is, of course, true whether the government services are online (applying for social services, signing up for Medicare) or physical (access to museums, parks, and monuments). That government services require a functioning government is not a new insight, nor is it unique to digital services. It is, in fact, so obvious that it should go without saying. Alas, we live in a time when this kind of thing needs to be pointed out to politicians, citizens, and, apparently, to librarians.

In making this observation, however, the authors also conflate two very different concepts in a way that obscures another lesson that we should gather from the government shutdown. They conflate government information, which is a resource, with e-government, which is a service that uses government information. Resources are not services and services are not resources and conflating them confuses the issues of access, preservation, and the different roles of government information producers and libraries in the digital age.

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. When the government controls the only gate and then closes it, the park becomes inaccessible — even though the park is still there.

Government information is a resource, like a national park. When the government controls the resource by keeping it in its own information silos and allowing access only through its gates, we can lose access to the information just as easily as we can lose access to a national park — even though the information is still there.

But information resources are special — in a good way. Librarians should be the first to understand that information does not have to be locked into a single silo and controlled by a single government gate. Information can be copied and used, and re-used, and re-purposed, and re-mixed. Libraries can provide different kinds of services than the government does. The nature of information as a resource is such that this can be done without causing damage or overuse to the resource or to other service providers. Economists call these kinds of resources “non-rivalrous,” which means that we can all make use of them without anyone having to give them up, and “non-excludable” because it is actually impractical to stop everyone from making use of the item. Resources that are both non-rivalrous and non-excludable are called “pure public goods” [Suber]. What a perfect description of government information!

Shuler and colleagues miss the larger issue when they identify the shutdown of e-government as the cause of the loss of e-government information, the loss of the ability to search for government materials, the loss of information access and dissemination, and as causing researchers to suspend their studies. These losses and interruptions were real, of course, but they were not caused by the government shutdown and they should not have been “unexpected” as the authors claim they were. The loss of government services were caused by the shutdown, but the loss of access to government information became inevitable and predictable (Jacobs, Jacobs, and Yeo; Peterson, Cowell, and Jacobs) when libraries ceded to the government their own responsibility for making government information available. When FDLP libraries decided to rely on the government as the sole provider of preservation and access, they lost their ability to control what would be preserved, what access would be provided when and at what cost, and what would be withdrawn, corrupted, altered, or lost.

Under these circumstances two things are entirely predictable.

First, information (resources) that the library and its community values will be lost, corrupted, withdrawn, and altered. We know this because this has always been true, even before the digital age. See Less Access to Less Information By and About the U.S. Government for repeated examples of government control of information. The reasons for these kinds of losses of access need not be nefarious or political or even intentional. As recently as this weekend, for example, we saw US court websites go offline due to technical problems. Regardless of the cause or intent, we know that this will happen and, when there is only one gatekeeper, the events will always affect everyone’s access to the resource.

Second, as long as libraries cede control of information, they will have no control over these events: they will have no collections — no resources — to control.

This is a problem for libraries and denying that it exists, getting angry about it, bargaining with Congress to please not do it again, and getting depressed will not help. But libraries do not have to ask the government to solve this problem or ask for permission to solve the problem. The solution to the problem of access to government information resources is within the grasp of libraries today. The solution is to accept that libraries can fix this problem by returning to their traditional roles of selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information, and providing access to and services for that information. Government services may be interrupted, but that is no reason for library services to be interrupted when libraries can have their own copy of the resource.

e-Government Services and library services. Just to be clear: there will always be online government services that libraries cannot duplicate. For example, those that do not use public information (e.g., filing your tax return) and those that provide public information in real-time or near-real-time (e.g., “How big was the earthquake I just felt?”). But there will also always be troves of government information (e.g., databases like The Census of Population and Housing, individual reports such as GAO reports, and whole collections of information from different agencies about a subject, or region, or information of a particular type or information aimed at a particular community) that libraries can choose to select, acquire, organize, and preserve for their own community.

When libraries do this, they will be able to do more than replicate a government service or provide a mirror of a government web site. When libraries build their own digital collections they can free the information from the constraints (legal, technical, economic, political) imposed on agencies that produce that information. Libraries can combine information from government and non-government sources and organize it into collections that address the needs of their communities. Libraries can create user-interfaces and APIs that make it easier for users to discover information that best matches their needs and make it easier for them to acquire and use that information in the ways that best match their workflows. When libraries do this, they can insulate their user communities from the effects that Shuler and colleagues describe.

Libraries can preserve information (resources) and ensure their users will have it even when government gates (services) are closed, whether those closures are caused by a government shutdown, or a politically-driven removal of information, or changes in priorities, or any other reason.

Those who continue to suggest that libraries should provide services without collections, or have collections without services will continue to be frustrated when those who do have collections and who control those collections close the gates, or impose new fees, or limit access, or impose use-restrictions. When the next big shutdown or small loss-of-access occurs and you are tempted to say that it is inconceivable that we could lose access to such important resources, I can only say, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

See also:

For more on e-government services, see Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year.

For more on the essential link between collections and services, see Federal Depository Library Program: Services and Collections.


Jacobs, James A., and James R. Jacobs, and Shinjoung Yeo. Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. 2005. Journal of Academic Librarianship, v.31 n.3 (May 2005) pp198-208 .

Peterson, Karie and Elizabeth Cowell and Jim Jacobs. Government Documents at the Crossroads 2001. American Libraries v.32 n.8 (Sept 2001) p.52-55.

Suber, Peter. 2009. Knowledge as a public good. SPARC Open Access Newsletter, Issue #139 (November 2, 2009)

Note to FullTextReports followers — Grab It When You See It!

Our friends Gary Price and Shirl Kennedy over at Full Text Reports have a handy reminder today:

…some of the papers and reports posted on FullTextReports.com are freely available online for just a limited time before they disappear behind a paywall (or go away entirely). If you see something you suspect might be useful to you (or a colleague) in the future, download it the day you see it because it may not be accessible later without a subscription (or it may have been moved or taken offline).

Note to FullTextReports followers — Grab It When You See It!, Full Text Reports (April 17, 2013).

Just another reason to remember that libraries should be collecting, not pointing. (See: When we depend on pointing instead of collecting.)

(By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed: the left hand navigation pane here at FGI has a feed of the latest reports listed at Full Text Reports!)

When we depend on pointing instead of collecting

NASA took its Technical Report Server (http://ntrs.nasa.gov/) offline this week, saying :

The NASA technical reports server will be unavailable for public access while the agency conducts a review of the site’s content to ensure that it does not contain technical information that is subject to U.S. export control laws and regulations and that the appropriate reviews were performed. The site will return to service when the review is complete. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

As Steven Aftergood reported at Secrecy News [emphasis added]:

In other words, all NASA technical documents, no matter how voluminous and valuable they are, should cease to be publicly available in order to prevent the continued disclosure of any restricted documents, no matter how limited or insignificant they may be.

“There is a HUGE amount of material on NTRS,” said space policy analyst Dwayne Day. “If NASA is forced to review it all, it will never go back online.”

      — “NASA Technical Reports Database Goes Dark” by Steven Aftergood (March 21st, 2013).

Michael L. Nelson of the Department of Computer Science at Old Dominion University investigated the availability of some of the NASA reports at other archives and reports his findings on his blog:

Nelson found that some reports are available at http://naca.central.cranfield.ac.uk/ which is an archive of some NASA information that Nelson helped establish after NASA websites were taken down after September 11, 2001. He notes that the removal of information from NASA servers at that time “made it clear to me that NASA information was too important to be left on *.nasa.gov computers.” He found more data at the Internet Archive’s “NASA Technical Documents” collection: http://archive.org/details/nasa_techdocs and in Mark Phillips’ NACA collection at http://digital.library.unt.edu/explore/collections/NACA/.

Nelson draws some conclusions from all this [emphasis added]:

…it is events like this that demonstrate the value of copying by-value and not just by-reference.

In other words, pointing to web sites is much less valuable and much more fragile than acquiring copies of digital information and building digital collections that you control. The OAIS reference model for long term preservation makes this a requirement, saying that an organization that intends to provide information to its user community for the long-term, must “Obtain sufficient control of the information provided to the level needed to ensure Long-Term Preservation.” Pointing to a web page or PDF at nasa.gov is not obtaining any control.

He also makes a distinction between those things that are saved because of their popularity and things that will not be saved unless special care is taken to preserve them:

I’m not concerned about popular culture artifacts disappearing (e.g., see our TPDL 2011 paper about music redundancy in YouTube), but it is not clear that long tail content like NASA reports will enjoy that same level of uncoordinated refreshing and migration. The moral of the story: make copies of the content

And he notes the importance of multiple copies:

…a 1994 NASA TM of mine is on at least six different hosts, none of which are *.nasa.gov.

…If NTRS was a LOCKSS participant then access would be uninterrupted…

And Aftergood concludes [emphasis added]:

The upshot is that the government is not an altogether reliable repository of official records. Members of the public who depend on access to such records should endeavor to make and preserve their own copies whenever possible.

Here at FGI, we have repeatedly argued that identifying important information that warrants explicit preservation is the age-old role of libraries in society and that it still is (or should be) the key value of libraries in the digital age. Many government agencies, including NASA and the Government Printing Office have good intentions and good programs for preservation and access, but those agencies cannot guarantee that they will always provide preservation and access. In the case of the NTRS web site, Aftergood and others speculate that the take down was a response to a demand by a single Congressman who said in a press conference on March 18 [emphasis added]:

NASA should immediately take down all publicly available technical data sources until all documents that have not been subjected to export control review have received such a review and all controlled documents are removed from the system.

— http://spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=40365

The NTRS web site was taken offline on March 19.

Government agencies are subject to political activities like this and budgetary limitations. Very bad things can happen which, in cases like this can remove from access, “all NASA technical documents, no matter how voluminous and valuable they are” in a single moment.

Libraries should still be selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information for their user-communities, and providing access to and services for those collections. Libraries do no one a long-term service by simply pointing to resources over which they have no control and which someone else can simply make unavailable literally at the flick of a switch.

FDLP libraries should demand digital deposit from GPO and should actively select and acquire that digital public government information that is of value to their user communities that GPO cannot deposit because it is outside the scope of Title 44.