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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.

Weeding libraries. Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway?

Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway? With Shelf Space Prized, Fairfax Libraries Cull Collections. Lisa Rein, Washington Post, January 2, 2007

This is probably the saddest, most telling story about libraries I’ve read in years. It all is pitched as ‘strategic’ and ‘popular’ and ‘data-driven’ as if it is inevitable and unavoidable, but the real reason is clearly stated in the article: these changes are “driven by a $2 million cut to the budget” and “…circulation, a sign of prestige and a potential bargaining chip for new funding.”

Once again it looks like libraries have correctly defined a problem and instituted a completely wrong solution 😐 There’s plenty of literature that says that building collections based solely on popularity doesn’t work over the long run, but there are plenty of people (including I guess ALA president Leslie Burger) who, instead of being creative in highlighting their collections, would rather rely on some piece of software to tell them when a book hasn’t checked out for 24 months. I also found the bit about “it’s not here, but we can get it to you in a week” lame and dishearteningly parallel to the FDLP “shared collections” weeding plans (see for example, Govt Printing Office Draft guidelines for shared regionals (PDF), GODORT/AALL/SLA letter commenting on the draft, and ARL Draft support).

I would agree that you don’t need 40 shelf feet of books on tulips (unless you’re the SF Botanical Garden or Longwood Gardens), but the public interest in much fiction and non-fiction (not to mention government documents) looks like a sine wave, not a long tail.

Reinventing Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I attended a one-day library conference for Northwest gov. docs. folks.  The day long meeting was hosted by one of our community college depositories.  Part of the day included a tour of the library’s gov. docs. collection. 

You must know that this particular depository is very diligent about their 5-year retention of documents for their collection.  When the fifth year arrives, they discard all those items except for those they want to retain.  As I have worked there before as an adjunct faculty, I remember how full of titles the gov. docs. stacks were.  Nowadays, the shelves are getting a lot emptier…very stark indeed. 

This got me thinking about what our role iis n a government document world that is primarily online.  How are selective depositories that don’t need to retain that much research-oriented material in their collections are able to survive as a fully functional depository?  How are depositories who do maintain a research-oriented collection handle their collection as more and more documents arrive as online only?  Will the tangible collection become an archive instead of an active up to date collection?  How can depositories make a case for staying in the system and insure their survivability?

Let’s first take a look at the differences between a main stacks collection and a depository collection.

Some Differences Between Main Stacks & Depository Collections:

*  Main Stacks Collections:

  • Main stacks collections continue to be active and updated collections because commercial publishers don’t see a financial benefit in publishing their books online.  Commercial publishers’ success are determined by the number of sales.  The more they sell, the likeliness they will end up on a best-selling list and the more money they can make. 100,000 clicks does not make a best-seller…maybe 1 billioin clicks?  Were those clicks meaningful clicks or were they just look and see and then leave the site?
  • Most people still want the tangible book.  They want to cuddle up to it, they want to feel turning the pages themselves, they want to form an emotional bond with it…a bond that makes them cry, laugh, chuckle, or scare them.
  • The ability to come to it any time.  The words remain static on the page, they don’t change.  You can retrieve the information over and over again. If the book was produced with good paper, it can last a very long time.
  • Books are immovable unless someone decides to weed them out of the collection.  Once weeded out of the collection, they can be sold on ebay or Half-price.com or any other online sellers service;  they can acquire value and be considered rare; and they can even be sent to the recycling bin and become a brand new thing in its new life.
  • Books have very nice and artistic dust jackets that help attract book lovers to buy them. 
  • Books have varied topics from the latest celebrity biography to the secrets of the universe.  You can find more recreational reading in the main stacks than you can in a depository collection.
  • Keeping up with the latest technology is not as big a priority insofar as access to books.

Depository Collections:

  • Government publications focuses on free access as a result of an openly democratic philosophy.  The right to access publications paid by our tax dollars is fundamental to the system of checks and balances.  Though some government publications are available for sale, the cost is usually much less than commercial publications.  Some titles like the 9/11 Commission Report do very well commercially, this is usually not the norm.  Government is not (usually) in the business to make money.
  • Documents, like commercial publications, have varied topics but most tend to be more utilitarian in nature.  You won’t find a lot of recreational reading in gov. docs. collections and I don’t know of many people who would actually cuddle up in bed or in front of the tv reading an environmental impact statement on Mount Rainier
  • Government keeps up to date with technology to see if there is a way that will help them save money.  Creating publications online instead of tangible saves them a great deal of money.  Costs are passed on to the end-user.
  • Online pubilcations are movable and even removable.  They are maintained by the government agency who published it and neither GPO or the depository coordinators have any control whatsoever.  If the agency decides to remove them one day, you are just out of luck unless you carry a big stick and knock them outside their heads to bring back the information.
  • Online publications are even more susceptible to changes when the agency maintains it.  They can redact a document any time without the knowledge of most people unless you are one of the very few who sees the document on a daily basis and know what is right and what is wrong.  GPO is working on the authentication problem but it will be a very long time before authentication is included in every government publication.
  • Government publications are viewed as biased and untrustworthy.  A veil of suspicion surrounds the credibility of government publications.  Citizen activists prefer to use sources they feel are above repproach  (nevermind they have their own biases as well).  Yet, the public cannot possibly avoid using government information.  Basic information like the census and health statistics are needed in order to facilitate the public’s need for information.
  • Now, though you are more likely to find information about unlocking the secrets of the universe via the myriad publications published by NASA and the U.S Naval Observatory, you certainly won’t find a bio on Keanu Reeves unless he made an appearance before Congress like Michale J. Fox and Muhammad Ali did when they testified in favor of Parkinson’s Disease Research funding.  The closest thing to recreational literature for the masses might be the countless hearings pertaining to scandal and national tragedy (JFK and MLK assassination hearings, ENRON, Watergate, President Clinton’s impeachment, etc.).  This type of literature does gain a great deal of attention from the public.  But, even this type of reading can be very technical at times.
  • Statistics for online publications are hard to determine.  Since most opac software publishers have not come up with a way to count the clicks you make on a link you’ve created on the online catalog, it is very hard to determine what is the usage for onlne titles.  GPO’s PURL referrals are a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t tell you which particular titles were being used.  Without any statistics on online publications, government documents depositories are in danger of disappearing.  Library administrators want numbers and if we don’t have any to produce, you can say goodbye to the hard work you’ve put into the depository collection.

In the past few years or so, I have found myself downloading a lot of online government publications and placing them on our server for assured access to these titles.  I have also spent a lot of time digitizing some titles that are in danger of disappearing or are not available online at this time.  I also spend some time discarding paper versions that are now superseded by the online version.  A few months ago, I managed to get rid of a bunch of IRS publications because they were more current and easier to find online and because they were taking a lot of space on the shelves.


Shipment boxes get fewer and fewer each day.  Now that we have MARCIVE downloads, the way we process government documents has changed.  Of course that changes the work flow as well.  Now, instead of downloading the NETs and inputting those titles ourselves (though I will not miss having to go through pages circling those items that belong to our profile), it does mean having to download a list and see what is actually coming in and compare it to our profile. 


How can we reinvent ourselves?  How can we demonstrate to library administrators the usefulness of depository collection and their importance to an open government?


On the January 15, 2004 issue of Administrative Notes, there was an article on becoming a passport acceptance faclity.  The idea of providing such a service is definitely an interesting one since it does provide a service for people who may not be available during the normal 9 am – 5 pm slot.  The library receives a$ 30.00 commission for each application for providing the service.  Such a service does provide the opportunity to bring in new people to the library and to the depository collection.


Over a week ago or so, I found an article written by Thomas Frey from the DaVinci Institute who was thinking about the future of libraries.  He mentions a bit about the history of libraries and denotes some trends that is causing libraries to change due to technology.   One of the recommendations he made about libraries:

Trend #10 – Libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture

 With the emergence of distributed forms of information the central role of the library as a repository of facts and information is changing.  While it is still important to have this kind of resource, it has proven to be a diminishing draw in terms of library traffic.

 The notion of becoming a cultural center is an expansive role for the future library.  It will not only serve as an information resource, but much more, with the exact mission and goals evolving and changing over time.

 A culture-based library is one that taps into the spirit of the community, assessing priorities and providing resources to support the things deemed most important.  Modern day cultural centers include museums, theaters, parks, and educational institutions.  The library of the future could include all of these, but individual communities will be charged with developing an overall strategy that reflects the identity and personality of its own constituency.

One of Frey’s reccommendations for libraries includes:

4)       Experiment with creative spaces so the future role of the library can define itself.  Since the role of the library 20 years from now is still a mystery, we recommend that libraries put together creative spaces so staff members, library users, and the community at large can experiment and determine what ideas are drawing attention and getting traction.  Some possible uses for these creative spaces include:

a.       Band practice rooms

b.       Podcasting stations

c.       Blogger stations

d.       Art studios

e.       Recording studios

f.        Video studios

g.       Imagination rooms

h.       Theater-drama practice rooms

We have come a long ways from the time of da Vinci and the time when books were chained to lecterns.  But we’ve only scratched the surface of many more changes to come.  Writing the definitive history of modern libraries is a work in progress.  Our best advice is to enjoy the journey and relish in the wonderment of what tomorrow may bring.


Of course Frey, as a computer engineer and designer does have a bias towards technology being the guiding force in replacing the functions of libraries.  Many libraries  with media services are already providing spaces like video studios or at the very least terminals with multimedia software and functions.  The idea of a library providing band practice rooms, art studios and theater-drama practice rooms is more of a fine arts function that many places already provide for the community.  Seems like Frey is trying to dilute the functions of libraries thinking that technology will do everything that a library does.


An interesting article popped up as a forward on my inbox today.  The article was about Oregon State University’s Library providing short-term childcare space for children (from age 6 months to 10 years old) of students.  While mom and dad are trying to get some work done in the library, the kids participate in age appropriate programs. This is definitely an interesting idea since most young parents cannot find someone readily to look after their child or may not be able to afford it.  Campus daycare is only available during the daytime and may be quite full as it is.  Its hard for mom and dad to do their homework when the kids are vying for their attention.   Having short-term childcare in the library does provide a community service that could possibly increase the literacy rate if the programs include reading (I would hope so) and other library-related activities.  I would be curious to know if the literacy rate of children on the campus would go up as a result of the service.   I hope OSU will be able to provide data on the effects such a service to library patrons and its effect on literacy, cognitive skills, and schooling. 


I wonder what other new ideas are on the verge for the 21st century library?





Your library may have the only paper copy of a government publication

On page 24 of issue 136 of the U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, there is an article by Bernadine Abbott Hoduski that you should read today even though you have to go offline for it.

The title of the article, like my blog entry, is Your library may have the only paper copy of a government publication. The thrust of the article is that often you cannot be sure you are not tossing the last copy of a given government publication. Ms. Hoduski cites a number of reasons why this may be so:

Collections in depositories are not complete because 1) libraries came into the [Federal Depository Library] program at varying dates and they did not receive retrospective publications, 2) after the 1962 Act was passed it took at least 20 years before the law was strongly enforced, 3) most depository libraries did not and do not collect everything, 4) GPO often received insufficient copies of a publication and therefore many libraries, including regionals did not receive the publication, 5) some of the microfiche received is of such poor quality that it is unusable, and 6) there are gaps in the microfiche runs because contractors failed to deliver all the fiche in a series or never received the publication to fiche.

Ms. Hoduski goes on to explain why we cannot expect a complete collection of all government publications at the National Archives, Library of Congress, or any of the other national libraries.

Ms. Hoduski concludes her article by noting the Government Printing Office’s proposal to digitize what they call the legacy collection. Ms. Hoduski appears to support this concept if the project does not inadvertently destroy the last paper copy of a publication. I share her concern and mostly agree with her plan to avoid the destruction of last copies:

Before this project goes any further we need a complete inventory of what is out there at in NARA (National Archives), the Library of Congress, National Library of Medicine, National Agricultural Library, other federal libraries, the Senate and House libraries, the regionals, selectives, and former depository libraries. We need the pre-1976 cataloging records digitized, edited and made a part of the new integrated library system at GPO. Where there are no cataloging records we need them.

I believe that such an inventory would have uses far beyond insuring that we did not destroy a last paper copy. Such an inventory could:

  • Help us determine the optimal number of preservation copies, by comparing the number of surviving copies of a given item to the number of copies originally distributed.
  • Radically raise the number of government publications accessible through OCLC Open WorldCat, which would increase their use.
  • Open up new print-on-demand markets for the Government Printing Office as more people became aware of materials.
  • Improve collection development plans of depository libraries because they would know neighboring collections better.

There is more interesting material in Ms. Hoduski’s article. Go find yourself a copy and start reading. Let me know what you think about it.