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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.

Government Information? You’re Soaking in It!

You're soaking in it! Source - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/52/Madge_palmolive.jpg
You’re soaking in it! Source – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/52/Madge_palmolive.jpg

[UPDATE #1: Christian James tweeted that besides the National Agricultural Library, we should also credit USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and their National Nutrient Database. So big thanks to USDA-ARS!]

Many Americans don’t think they use government information, but they’re wrong. Many people think that the private sector meets their information needs just fine and government shouldn’t be “wasting resources” by collecting and sharing information. They’re wrong too.

But it’s not entirely their fault. For example, in the last few months Bing and Google both started to provide an impressive amount of nutritional information in response to searches on food names. I’m a fan of kale chips, so I typed “kale” into Google and got this:


Kale "from Google"
Kale “from Google”

The private sector at work, right? Who needs the government to produce nutritional information when we can just Google or Bing it? Right?

Um. No. If you look at the very bottom of the image in both Google and Bing, you’ll find some very important fine print. Here it is from Google:

USDA (National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27) The secret sauce.
USDA (National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27) The secret sauce.

Notice the tiny “Sources include USDA”? If you think to mouse down to the word “USDA” and click it, you’ll be whisked away to the entry for kale in the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, produced by the National Agricultural Library (NAL).

Cut the NAL too much and they’ll have to drop the National Nutrient Database. Then bye-bye to your real time, up to date nutritional data in your search engines results.

The invisible hand of government information shows up in a lot of places if you know to look for it. In the pre internet days you could have not produced an almanac without one. Today, any private website that has any sort of detailed demographic information for states, cities and neighborhoods is almost certainly pulling from the beleaguered Census Bureau. Those private sector sites telling you about the hottest jobs in demand over the next ten years? Likely pulling from the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And so it goes. If people say, “I don’t use government information, I use Google” show them how they’re actually soaking in government information. Then ask them to write Congress to keep their hands off their favorite information sources.

Video: The Basics of Data Journalism (April 11, 2013)

Video from NPR Digital Services on the value of government information resources in journalism. Provides examples of data driven stories, discusses where to find data and how to effectively use data without making “rookie mistakes.” Also contains information on using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get data not currently accessible.

If you watch till the end, you’ll see a mention of the usefulness of the State Agency Databases project at about 52:00.

The Basics of Data Journalism (April 11, 2013) from NPR Digital Services on Vimeo

ACRL Posts Letter to GPO re: Multistate Depository Libraries

Via INFOdocket.com

The full text of a letter dated November 2, 2011 from Joyce L. Ogburn, ACRL President to William Boarman, Public Printer of the United States and Mary Alice Baish, Superintendent of Documents is now posted on the ACRL Insider blog.

Before sharing the full text of the letter, Ogburn writes:

We recognize that there are members who fall on both sides of the issues as recently stated by other associations and consortia. Over the past few weeks we have been considering how to proceed – reviewing the current situation, what ACRL has done in the past, and giving careful thought to approach we should take.

We decided that ACRL needs to lend its voice to the conversation and that we have precedent to guide us. Our past actions and letters urged GPO to look to the future and work with libraries to develop collaborative models for managing federal documents. We believe the best approach is to continue in the same vein, an approach that is quite reasonable and measured, as ACRL is known to be.

Here are Two Paragraphs From the Letter Sent to Boarman and Baish:

ACRL believes that the future of libraries will be based in innovative uses of technology and intensive collaboration across geographic boundaries. The multi-state models for managing federal documents that libraries have developed address the pressing issues of the economic climate, the imperative for wider collaboration, and the improvement of access to these critical resources. We view these as necessary and viable partnerships that will sustain library collections and services and will create enduring programs of access and preservation.


We understand that many people in the library community are concerned about the long-term quality of government information services, and ACRL is convinced that the quality of services associated with collaborative efforts will be stronger than stand alone efforts. ACRL urges the GPO to work closely and openly with depository libraries to explore and establish new models. It is essential that we leverage the possibilities inherent in 21st century practices to serve our citizens now and well into the future.

Direct to Complete Blog Post (incl. Letter)

Lost Information: What Happened to the Port Authority Library

Tony Robins, a New York City author and architecture tour guide, recently posed an interesting question on the SLA-NY listserv: could anyone help him ascertain what had happened to the Port Authority Library’s contents, once housed on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, but which had certainly been closed before the buildings were destroyed in September 2001?

A few weeks later, Robins got back to the listserv with his fascinating results. A few dozen librarians had replied to him, either with their own anecdotal evidence, or links to articles that mention the loss of the archives (like this one from Archeology online, in 2002), or with information on who might answer the question more thoroughly. The library, according to his aggregated research, contained over 75,000 volumes and was staffed by three full-time reference librarians. Someone who had worked at the Port Authority Library before it closed described the collection as having “held most of the original blueprints and other materials related to the building of the New York-New Jersey bridges and tunnels, and the [T]rade [C]enter itself.” The Port Authority was formed in 1921 by compact between the two states, and the library’s existence dates back to at least 1928, as evidenced by an article in the November 1928 SLA newsletter (PDF). Robins also heard from another librarian who shared that the Port Authority had been in discussion with a number of area universities and libraries to find homes for the contents of the library, at one point, going so far as to supply a CD with metadata on the library’s holdings. The talks were ongoing during 2001, however, and nothing concrete had been transferred. Robins even got an answer from the Port Authority’s press department, confirming that the library was closed in 1995 due to budgetary restraints and although some of the more valuable material was removed, most of the archives were being stored in a sub-basement of the towers, and thus lost during the 9/11 attacks.

It’s a telling, and slightly chilling, story. On the one hand, the obvious tragedy is that original archives across seventy years were destroyed. But perhaps more subtle is the fact that the library had been out of use for six years and had not been relocated. Of course, the collection most likely contained a vast array of print reference materials for various departments within the Port Authority that, although useful for their patrons, could hardly be called unique. However, I was struck, in reading Robin’s results, that there was acknowledgment from various sources that some of the material was unique and irreplaceable. Their permanent loss was, of course, unforeseeable – but what’s also interesting is the six years they were simply out of use, in a basement. Was this a question of importance or relevance? Who would be served by these documents? Was it a matter of bureaucracy, of space, or of budget, that the unique elements of the collection weren’t transferred somewhere where they could be used?

So often in our coursework at SILS, we hear about LOCKSS – “lots of copies, keep stuff safe”. We hear about the importance of conservation and preservation, and how libraries can and should build consortia so that their patrons can access the breadth of resources from not just one, but many libraries. And in our Government Information Sources class, we learn about the challenges in making government information available and accessible to the people. We are learning that government document librarianship isn’t just about providing service to online materials, because it’s not all online – it’s about recognizing and advocating for the value of your collection, whether print or digital. This story reminded me that not all libraries survive budget cuts (much less catastrophic events), and not all information is infinitely replicated or repeated in digital formats.

– Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Pratt SILS

Public Domain Notices: A Good Idea?

In the course of my work of maintaining the Lost Docs Blog, I came across the following publication:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. After an [suicide] Attempt: A Guide for Taking Care of Yourself After Your Treatment in the Emergency Department. (SMA 08-4355; CMHS-SVP06-0157), Rockville, MD:
Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006. Reprinted 2009.

I noticed it had this public domain notice that I’ve seen on some government publications:

Public Domain Notice
All material appearing in this publication is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from SAMHSA. Citation of the source is appreciated. This publication may not be reproduced or distributed for a fee without the specific, written authorization of the Office of Communications, SAMHSA, HHS.

As a general rule, publications produced by the federal government are in the public domain and copyright free. There are exceptions that you can read about in our online library.

It is a fact that not enough people realize the public domain nature of most government materials and so my reaction to this notice was initially very positive. I instinctively like the idea of labeling govdocs as public domain so that people and organizations (Google, I’m talking to you!) would feel free to reuse and remix without fear of consequences and not lock up content not meant to be locked up.

On the other hand, if only a handful of agencies use such notices for public education, it is conceivable that an environment would be created where only govdocs with public domain notices would be treated as public domain. I’m not sure if that’s a danger, but I worry. The possible danger would be less if a public domain notice was required governmentwide.

What do you think? Are public domain notices on govdocs a good idea? Are they a good idea whether done governmentwide or by a few agencies? Would we be better off if there was a governmentwide policy to label the minority of copyrighted material in govdocs?

Note: Thanks to Vicki Tate for reporting this document to GPO and sending a copy of her receipt to the Lost Docs blog.