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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.
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University
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
GPO Director Hugh Halpern has just named a task force to study the feasibility of moving to an all-digital Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). There are 23 people named to the task force including from Depository Library Council, depository librarians, library associations, and federal agencies.
I’ll withold comment on the feasibility of this task force until I see some of the work they’re doing. But I hope that the work of current GPO working groups on PURLs, Digital Deposit, and Collections and Discovery Services – as well as the long-running work on digital preservation and information access of the PEGI Project and FGI(!) – will be leveraged to come up with solid recommendations for a positive future for public access to and preservation of federal government information supported by FDLP libraries and librarians.
The U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) Director Hugh Nathanial Halpern appointed a task force to study the feasibility of an all-digital Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). As 97 percent of Federal publications are born digital, Director Halpern is charging the Task Force on a Digital Federal Depository Library Program (“Task Force”) to determine whether an all-digital FDLP is necessary, and if so, define the scope of an all-digital depository program and make recommendations as to how to implement and operate such a program. This will include an examination of the current landscape in Federal depository libraries, of FDLP-related operations at the GPO, and of the dissemination of publications by Federal agencies.
This is a good week for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The Government Publishing Office (GPO) has just announced that it has acted on community feedback regarding the terminology used to describe federal government publications that are within scope of the FDLP but not included in the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) — see “Discontinuing the Use of the Phrase ‘Fugitive Documents'” for the full announcement. Many thanks to Shari Laster for helping to start this conversation within the community!
The issue of “unreported publications,” also sometimes called “lost documents,” is a long-standing issue for the depository community and the long-term viability of the National Collection. And for almost as long, the common term for this issue has been to call these documents that fall through the FDLP cracks as “fugitive documents” — here at FGI we have used it as a subject term in our many posts about the topic.
In recent years, we have tried to become more thoughtful about the language we use to describe our work. The phrases “fugitive documents” and “fugitive hunting” are both negatively connoted and inaccurate for this use. Along with the rationale GPO describes in its news release related to the term’s intertwined history with chattel slavery in the United States, the term ‘fugitive’ continues to evoke the carceral state and the failures of the justice system. To equate the volunteers who are helping to identify federal publications that are part of the National Collection with the ugly history of “hunting” enslaved people who sought their freedom, sets a tone and precedent that should be left far behind us.
The term that will replace this phrase, “unreported documents,” is more accurate because it describes with precision the status of these materials. They have not been reported to GPO for cataloging treatment.
While we have used “fugitive” phrasing in the past, we recognize that it is not appropriate and will no longer use it. We encourage everyone to adopt “unreported documents” to describe this ongoing issue. And we also highly encourage our readers to send these “unreported documents” to GPO through the askGPO submission form. It will take a community effort to make sure that “unreported documents” are someday a thing of the past and that the National Collection includes ALL public publications of the US government.
Further reading on unreported documents:
“‘Issued for Gratuitous Distribution:’ The History of Fugitive Documents and the FDLP.” James R. Jacobs. Article in special issue of Against the Grain: “Ensuring Access to Government Information”, 29(6) December 2017/January 2018.
“Additional Information Needed for Ensuring Availability of Government Information Through the Federal Depository Library Program” (archived PDF at the Internet Archive). GPO Inspector General (IG) audit report 18-01, October 12, 2017.