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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.

Freegovinfo receives 2015 GODORT “Documents to the People (DttP)” award

FGI-gangLast night, Daniel Cornwall and James R. Jacobs were honored to be on hand to receive the 2015 GODORT “Documents to the People (DttP)” award for Free Government Information.

Free Government Information has been chosen as the recipient of the 2015 ProQuest/GODORT/ALA “Documents to the People” Award. This award is a tribute to an individual, library, institution, or other non-commercial group that has most effectively encouraged the use of government documents in support of library service. FGI epitomizes the spirit of the DttP Award by creating an open, public dialogue and building a diverse community. By moving the conversation to more social technologies, FGI has changed the way we think about preserving access to government information. As one letter of support noted, “FGI fills a gap between the specialized and frequently technical discussions taking place on the listserv and the more public conversations that are taking place with librarians of other specializations, professionals and advocates from other disciplines and backgrounds, and even the wider public.” The DttP Award recognizes the work of the many FGI volunteers who, for ten years, have dedicated themselves to advocating for permanent no-fee public access to government information.

FGI volunteers shown here (clockwise from upper left) Daniel Cornwall, Jim Jacobs, James Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo, Rebecca Stockbridge, James Staub.

We were given the opportunity to say a few words, so thought we’d share our statement in its entirety below. We were so surprised and honored to receive this award. It’s a good feeling that 11 years of work with FGI have had some positive effect on the Documents community. Thanks!


11 years ago this october, Jim Jacobs, James Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo and an unnamed person who wishes to remain anonymous were having dinner. We were discussing the future of govtinfo and brainstorming about how to change the conversation in the community. We had begun to notice some disturbing trends.

Under the pervasive myth that the new digital enviroment transcended and rendered moot the roles of libraries in access to govinfo, some libraries had begun questioning and dismantling the very fibers of the FDLP and public access to govt information by abandoning their traditional govinfo roles and repurposing their documents experts billets. To challenge the myth and to engage in a broader dialogue with both the wider library community as well as other stakeholder communities, the three of us had just written an article in Journal of Academic Librarianship about the once and future FDLP, in response to the trends we were seeing. We were really trying to push back against what we saw as libraries’ complicity in the erosion of the FDLP and public access to govt information.

I wish we could say that we’ve accomplished our goals and moved on to other projects. However, after 11 years, we’re still fighting for these same issues, dispelling the myths of what communication scholar Vincent mosco called the “digital sublime:” the almost religious fervor that technology would magically deliver democracy to the masses and that libraries no longer needed to work at collecting, describing, giving access to, and preserving govt info but could simply rely on GPO, commercial vendors and others besides libraries.

After that evening of discussion, FGI was born and the blog was started soon after. We quickly doubled our “staff” when Daniel Cornwall, Rebecca Troy Horton and James Staub joined us.

The bad news is that we are still facing tremendous challanges and tasks as the issues surrounding gov info become ever more complicated. The good news is that you all still have plenty of opportunities to participate to assure publicly controlled long-term access to govinfo.

We may have charred a few bridges over the years, but if this award is any testiment, we’ve also made a lot of friends and comrades to the cause of freegovinfo and for that we thank you!


Like James, I’m very grateful that GODORT has honored FGI on the past decade’s worth of work. This is a good time to look ahead to the next ten years. We believe that the work of maintaining a system of permanently accessible government information at no cost to the user will require an active partnership among libraries and other non-profit institutions of good will. Otherwise, only that which has tangible market value will be preserved, with access at a price.

What can you do to help ensure a positive future in government information? Some things we think are in the reach of libraries and other non profits are:

– Advocating for users. Being user centric is more than throwing a user icon on the center of a chart. How do your users look at government information? What are they missing if they’re not? Help put the right information in front of the right people.

  • Participate in finding/reporting fugitive documents. Host the stuff you find on your own servers or through an archiving service.
  • Think about joining the LOCKSS-USDOCS group that is currently the only archive of FDSys outside Federal hands.
  • Build local digital collections under your administrative control. Pointing is not maintaining access. We learned this during the last government shutdown.
  • Work with other librarians in your state to plan for how you’ll serve up federal information for when the next government shutdown happens. Let’s not be taken by surprise again.

If we’re willing to pull together and do what we can, the next ten years will look bright for government information. Thank you.


Thoughts on the National Collection (DttP, spring 2015)

A few weeks ago, I posted on FGI my part of a collaborative feature article in the Spring 2015 issue of Documents to the People (DttP) (What are we to keep? thoughts on the National Collection). The other writers (Shari Laster, Aimée C. Quinn, and Barbie Selby) have given me permission to post their segments of our piece. We hope that this will spur some positive discussion and move the community toward a sustainable future for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and for government information in libraries.

Thoughts on the National Collection

In August 2014, at the request of outgoing Federal Documents Task Force Chair, Jill Vassilakos-Long, several GODORT members met via conference calls and e-mail to discuss the GPO proposal to enable regional depository libraries to discard tangible material by substituting digital documents if they met specific criteria. Shortly after this group’s work was completed (FGI Editor’s note: see the GODORT letter in re this proposal as well as those of other library associations), a general call for articles was announced on GOVDOC-L by the editors of DttP, and we thought it would be interesting to offer our personal opinions on one of the questions in the announcement which related to our work from the task force. We agreed to each limit our contributions to 2-3 pages. The following pieces are our individual perspectives about who is responsible for the preservation of government information and the feasibility of setting a target for an optimal number of tangible copies for preservation purposes.

James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
Shari Laster, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB)
Aimée C. Quinn, University of New Mexico
Barbie Selby, University of Virginia

What Are We To Keep? (FAQ)

This document is meant to accompany the article, “What are we to Keep?” by James R. Jacobs, Documents to the People (Spring 2015) p 13-19.


  • What is a Preservation Copy?

    Research that was prompted by JSTOR’s desire to determine how to guarantee that all of the printed material within its journals would remain available defined preservation copies as “clean copies that retain full information accuracy from the vantage point of the researcher” (Yano). Thus when we think about “preservation copies” we are looking to be able to ensure that copies are available for the long-term and that those copies are complete and accurate. “Informational Accuracy” a “perfect copy” — a copy that is as good as new. A preservation copy is, therefore, a “clean” copy that is quality-checked and repaired, if necessary, on a page by page basis.

  • Why do we need Preservation Copies?

    Even if we had perfect digital copies of paper documents, we still need preservation paper copies for two reasons. First, there is evidence that digital documents degrade more rapidly than print material (Rosenthal), so it is necessary to have a paper copy that could be used to re-digitize. Second, Digitization does not magically preserve paper; or, to put it another way, digital copies are not the same as print copies and may inherently lose information by the very dint of reformatting to a new presentation.

  • Why do we need Access-Copies?
  • Unless we have perfect, page-verified digitizations that are as complete, as accurate, and as easily usable as the original paper copies (Jacobs and Jacobs), users will inevitably need to go back to the original paper copy in order to get either the complete and accurate content or the functional usability of the original paper medium. Some libraries have already reported that digitization of paper copies has increased the demand for access to the paper copies. Additionally, some users/uses will require access to physical copies via Interlibrary Borrowing. ILL can only happen if there is a surplus of copies. As the # of copies goes toward 0 (scarcity), libraries will no longer be willing to lend to ILL. Therefore, it is imperative that there not be a dearth of geographically distributed copies.

  • Why do we need re-digitization copies?

    Unless we create perfect copies that adequately anticipate the future needs of users, we will need to create new digitizations in order to meet those future needs. (See “An alarmingly casual indifference to accuracy and authenticity” What we know about digital surrogates.)

What should I think about before discarding government documents?

What are we to keep? thoughts on the National Collection (DttP Spring 2015 feature article)

The Spring 2015 issue of Documents to the People (DttP) just arrived at my door. The feature article in this issue is titled “Thoughts on the National Collection” and was collaboratively written by myself, James R. Jacobs, along with Shari Laster, Aimee C. Quinn, and Barbie Selby. I’m posting my segment titled “What Are We to Keep?” as it was written under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share-Alike CC BY-NC-SA license. The other pieces include: “Segmenting the Government Information Corpus” by Shari Laster; “Who is Responsible for Permanent Public Access?” by Aimee C. Quinn; and “Where Do We Go From Here?: Some Thoughts” by Barbie Selby. I’ll post the other segments if I get permission from my collaborators.

The question of “how many copies” of print documents the FDLP should collectively keep is the wrong question asked for the wrong reasons and trying to answer it will only lead to the wrong answers and irreparable loss of information. For me, even thinking about answering it raises more questions. How can we know how many copies to keep unless we specify the purposes for which we wish to keep them? What are those purposes? How will we know if we are meeting our goals? How will discarding paper benefit users? How can we be sure that we are not losing information when we discard paper copies if we do not have an inventory of the paper copies that exist? How can we implement a policy that is so vague that it doesn’t define things like “a requisite number of copies,” and how decisions will be made, and which apparently treats a born-digital XML document created by GPO and an indifferent digitization without OCR text and missing its maps and foldouts as of equal value?

Let’s be clear. We are talking about the records of our democracy. Loss of even a single page could damage the ability of historians, journalists, economists, and citizens to understand our history and hold our government accountable for it successes and its failures. We have those documents now in our libraries; there are not hundreds or even dozens of copies of these documents floating around in used bookstores or elsewhere. They are in our charge.

Keep reading “What are we to keep?”…

Also see the What Are We To Keep FAQ for further context and bibliography.

DttP letter to the editor re digital preservation of government information

Jim and I recently wrote a letter to the editor to the GODORT journal Documents to the People (DttP) (published in the Winter 2015 issue) entitled “Digital preservation deserves better coverage.” We post it here to FGI in the hopes that it will “clarify some of the issues and provide a more accurate and more understandable context for action by the GODORT community.” It’s not yet online at the DttP site, but will eventually be posted there. We’ll post a link to the DttP site when it’s online. I’ll be at ALA Midwinter conference next week in Chicago, so please track me down if you’d like to discuss. That is all.


In the Summer 2014 issue of Documents to the People (DttP), an article by Scott Casper, which was highlighted as a “feature,” offered a badly misleading, confoundingly misinformed, and confusingly written account of digital preservation. Digital preservation is an incredibly important topic for government information professionals and it deserves better treatment in DttP.

I think Casper must have had good intentions in writing his article, “Promoting Electronic government Documents: Part Four: Preservation.” Perhaps his intention was simply to promote the importance of digital government information, which is the theme of his series of articles, and the necessity of maintaining access to government information of all types. But whatever his intention was, he does a disservice by conflating important issues, confusing technical terms, and mostly ignoring the very important issue of digital preservation which is his ostensible topic.

It would not be useful to point out every error and misstatement in Casper’s article. There are so many, though, that we would guess that anyone who read his article would be left either confused or badly misinformed. So, instead of trying to correct every error or trying to figure out what he may have meant by every confusing statement, we think it would be more useful to define and describe and give some context to a few of the key concepts that Casper mentions. Our hope is that this will clarify some of the issues and provide a more accurate and more understandable context for action by the GODORT community.

Preservation of born-digital information is a very real and important topic that the government documents community needs to understand and address. DttP readers should be aware, for instance, that more government information is born-digital in a single year than all the printed government information that all FDLP libraries have accumulated in over 200 years. (See Born-Digital U.S. Federal Government Information: Preservation and Access prepared by James A. Jacobs for the Center for Research Libraries.)

Digitization of print information is not a preservation solution; rather, it creates new digital preservation challenges that have not yet been adequately addressed. While digitization offers many promises of better access such as better discoverability, easy accessibility, and enhanced usability, and even a potential form of “preservation” (by protecting fragile paper documents from damage through use), the simple act of converting a paper document into a digital object does not automatically deliver any of those promises. In fact, digitization is only the first of many costly and technically challenging steps needed to ensure long-term access to content. (See Wait! Don’t Digitize and Discard! A White Paper on ALA COL Discussion Issue #1a. and Digitization does not magically preserve paper.)

Access is not preservation. The word “access” is too often used as a buzzword that hides and obscures a number of underlying issues. It is often conflated with preservation as if the two were the same. In fact, they are two very different things that require very different actions. Like two spouses, they are very different but intimately related. So, when we hear the word “access” used, we should always remember two things: First, access without preservation is temporary, at best. Providing access does not guarantee preservation or long-term access — much less free access. Too often libraries are willing to replace public domain collections with “just in time” fee-based access that is encumbered by licensing and DRM restrictions. In our digital age we often see access promoted as a desirable goal in itself, only to see once “accessible” documents suddenly disappear from the web. “Access” without trusted, long-term, reliable preservation is more like a Kmart blue-light special (“Get it while you can! It won’t be here long!”), than a long-term library service. Second, preservation without access is an illusion. As Paul Conway said, “In the digital world, the concept of access is transformed from a convenient byproduct of the preservation process to its central motif.” See Preservation in the Digital World by Paul Conway and The value in being a depository library.

Digital preservation is an essential activity of libraries. Casper fails to recognize this fact when he describes the good work of the EDI (Electronic Documents of Illinois) project without mentioning that it is a service of the Illinois State Library (http://iledi.org/). Digital preservation takes resources and a long-term commitment, but it also takes a very specific understanding of the long-term value of information (even information that is not popular or used by many people), and a commitment to the users of information. These are the strengths of libraries. Digital preservation is not something that can be cavalierly dismissed as the responsibility of others. (See: Preservation for all: LOCKSS-USDOCS and our digital future by James R. Jacobs and Victoria Reich in Documents to the People, Volume 38:3, Fall 2010).

Relying solely on the government to preserve its information is risky. Casper almost recognizes this when he cites the defunding of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia unit and the cessation of the publication of the Statistical Abstract. But this is an example of an agency ceasing to create new information, not an example of an agency failing to preserve already created information. (So far, the Bureau has preserved old digital editions of Statistical Abstract and maintained online access to them.) Worse, Casper calls the privatization of the Statistical Abstract a “happy postscript.” Privatization of public information is hardly something that government documents librarians should be happy about. And it is hard to understand how relying on for-profit companies can be considered a good way to guarantee the preservation of the information or free access to it. Casper misses the opportunity to show that, when we rely only on government to preserve the digital information it creates, it becomes very easy for economics or politics or technology or bureaucracy to result in the loss of information. (See: When we depend on pointing instead of collecting and Government Link Rot and Information is not a Service, Service is not Information and Less Access to Less Information By and About the U.S. Government and Government Documents at the Crossroads.)

Casper does ask the right question early on in his article: “Who is responsible for this preservation?” But the only answer he seems to give is that “there are no answers.” But Casper is wrong. There is an answer and it is right in front of our eyes: libraries should take this responsibility. There are many actions that libraries can take now to promote digital preservation of government information at all levels of government (this is not just a federal issue!).

Preserve Paper copies. The FDLP is successfully preserving documents that were released in paper (and microfiche) quite nicely. We often hear that “digitizing” paper documents will “preserve” them, but we do not need to convert these documents to digital in order to preserve them. Digitization can provide better access and (if proper care and resources are invested in the digitization) increase the flexibility, usability, and re-usability of many documents. But digitization alone does not guarantee the preservation of the content. Worse, there are repeated calls for digitizing paper collections so that the paper collections can be discarded and destroyed. Such actions will endanger preservation of the content if they do not include adequate steps to ensure digital preservation of those newly created digital objects. Given that paper documents do not present a current preservation problem, and given that there is an enormous body of born-digital documents being created that do present a current preservation problem, one thing we can do is avoid creating new problems with proposals to destroy and discard paper collections before we have solved the problems of preservation of born digital documents. (We can still digitize paper documents in order to enhance access, but we should not use digitization as an excuse to discard or destroy the paper originals.) (See Wait! Don’t Digitize and Discard! A White Paper on ALA COL Discussion Issue #1a.)

Move FDsys forward. GPO is doing a good job of capturing born-digital Congressional information (not digitized material as Casper mistakenly points out) and is doing an increasingly good job of capturing Judicial Branch documents. The FDsys system is apparently well designed for long term preservation, too. There are, however, two things that FDLP librarians can do now: First, we can encourage GPO to get FDsys certified as a Trusted Digital Repository. This has been on GPO’s agenda for a few years, but budget uncertainties have delayed it. It would help if GPO heard from the FDLP community that this should be a high priority. Second, even if FDsys gets certified, we need more than one copy of FDsys in the hands of a single government agency in order to reduce the risk of loss of that content. There are several ways the FDLP community can further this goal: Encourage more libraries to become LOCKSS-USDOCS partners; Suggest to GPO that it allow the Internet Archive to crawl FDsys systematically; Investigate partnerships with other government agencies such as NARA (could NARA become a LOCKSS-USDOCS partner?); explore partnerships with the Digital Preservation Network; Create records for the Digital Public Library of America that point to LOCKSS-USDOCS copies when they are made publically accessible; follow up on the digital preservation recommendations in the NAPA report, Rebooting The Government Printing Office: Keeping America Informed in the Digital Age. (Full disclosure: James A. Jacobs has done technical consulting work for the Center for Research Libraries in its certification of digital repositories.)

Preserve More Documents of Executive Agencies. So much that is born-digital is produced by executive department agencies and is not captured by GPO. These are the new fugitive documents (those that are in scope of the FDLP but fall through the cracks; GPO PURLs are not fugitives). To be sure, this needs much more attention by GPO and depository libraries. FDLP libraries should concentrate on collecting born-digital fugitive documents and should work with GPO to develop a plan that focuses on developing programs that are attractive to agencies and that benefit agencies. This needs to be a higher priority for GPO with an increased focus and increased resources. GPO has the infrastructure in place (FDsys) to offer great benefits to agencies and this would help reduce agency fugitives.

Get Digital Deposit. FDLP libraries need to insist that GPO modify its long-outdated and counter-productive Superintendent Of Documents Policy Statement 301 (SOD 301) that limits deposit of digital information to so-called “tangible” products. This policy never made sense — it was nominally supposed to be a response to born-digital information, but instead of acknowledging that GPO could deposit born-digital information with libraries, it created a two-tier structure that authorized it to deposit some and prohibited it from depositing other digital information. SOD 301 says that it is ok for GPO to deposit digital information on “tangible” media, but not ok to deposit “online” digital information. But, worse than not making sense, this policy is actually harmful to digital preservation in two ways. First, it only allows deposit of those digital items that are least preservable and most prone to physical deterioration and file format obsolescence (floppies, CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc.). This burdens depository libraries with an almost impossible task of preservation and access. Second, it prohibits deposit of raw digital information in formats that are more easily preserved and less likely to become obsolete (digital object files in PDF, text, HTML, XML, etc.). These are the digital objects that could have been easily distributed more cheaply and more reliably than “tangible” media. These are the digital objects that FDLP libraries could have been preserving and making accessible (during government shutdowns, for example) — the very kind of digital objects that GPO now enthusiastically distributes to the LOCKSS-USDOCS private network. The effect of this policy has been to delay the active participation of FDLP libraries in digital preservation. There was never a good justification for this policy, but now it is so obviously out-of-date and has failed so demonstrably that keeping it is place should be considered an act of negligence. (See From Production to Preservation to Access to Use: OAIS, TDR, and the FDLP.)

Smart-Archive the Web. Although capturing web pages and preserving them is far from an adequate (or even accurate) form of digital preservation, it is a useful stop-gap until producers understand that depositing preservable digital objects with trusted repositories is the only way to guarantee preservation of their information. Therefore, FDLP libraries should use web archiving tools, including services such as Archive-It (as Casper points out, if in a confusing way). Every FDLP library should at least consider “smart-archiving” of web-based information. Web-archiving should not be seen as everything-or-nothing: libraries can do focused selection to build collections useful to their own users. This is smart-archiving. Selections can be large (an agency or a domain) or small (crawl a few seeds) or even one-document-at-a-time. Examples of these models exist. See, for example: the Chesapeake project, the work of The Columbia Libraries (The Integrity of Research Is at Risk: Capturing and Preserving Web Sites and Web Documents and the Implications for Resource Sharing), the California Digital Library Web Archiving Services(**), and the Stanford Libraries EEMs project (Everyday Electronic Materials in Policy and Practice).

Promote Digital Preservation. Casper’s series of articles is about “promotion” of government information and his recommendation in this article about preservation is that we should “keep promoting these online sources.” He should have stressed the most important promotion that is needed today: the promotion of the role of FDLP libraries in actively preserving digital government information. The time when FDLP libraries could be passive in digital preservation is long past. The time when FDLP libraries could look to others to take care of digital preservation of government information is long past. FDLP libraries can work with others, but we must actually work with them, not leave the work to them.

James A. Jacobs, Emeritus Data Librarian, UC San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Federal Government Information Librarian, Stanford University
Co-founders, Free Government Information

**Editor’s note: CDL recently announced that the WAS service and collections was being transitioned over the Internet Archive’s Archive-it service.