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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.
Wow, the FirstBranchForecast was on fire this week (as it is most weeks!), announcing a new bill to protect Inspectors General, talking about the just-released FOIA Advisory Committee’s draft report available for public comment (submit yours via email to email@example.com through June 2), and also highlighting a new CRS report Congressionally Mandated Reports: Overview and Considerations for Congress that contextualizes the issues surrounding H.R.736 – Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. This bill, if passed, would require the Government Publishing Office (GPO) to establish and maintain a publicly available online portal containing copies of all congressionally mandated reports — 3500-4000 of them, many of them listed in House Document 116-4 Reports to be made to Congress (this is a document published annually by the Clerk of the House!). This would be a boon to the FDLP as it would fill many of the fugitive gaps in the national collection.
Thanks as always FirstBranchForecast!
Congressionally Mandated Reports was the topic of a new CRS report “on the potential benefits and challenges of reporting requirements,” which also “analyzes a number of statutory reporting requirements enacted during the 115th Congress.” The report also mentions legislation that would improve congressional access to mandated reports, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, saying (as part of a longer analysis): “Establishing a centralized, public repository for congressionally mandated reports may address a number of concerns related to the reporting process.”
[Editor’s note 8/6/19: Andy Sherman, who was accused in this story, but who served admirably for 38 years at GPO in several administrative positions, sent me this Letter to Chairman Blunt that he sent in January, 2019. Andy explains that there was no misconduct, and gratefully allowed me to post the letter to FGI in order for our readers to have a fuller understanding of this news story. With this context, as well as the knowledge that the June 2018 report was sent to Congress but that neither the House Administration Committee nor the Senate Rules and Administration Committee took any action, should clarify this tempest in a teapot story. Thanks Andy!]
This scandal has been slowly boiling at GPO for quite some time — well before Davita Vance Cooks resigned as GPO Director in November, 2017 and may be part of the reason that Robert Tapella’s nomination as GPO Director was recently withdrawn. You can read more in the June 21, 2018 Interim Report Of Investigation Into Alleged Misconduct By Two Senior GPO Managers. Tune in to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing “Oversight of the Government Publishing Office Office of the Inspector General” on Wednesday July 24 at 10:30am EST. Whatever the outcome, this is sure to have a negative impact on the management of the FDLP.
Allegations of cronyism, wasteful spending and other misconduct are roiling a little-known federal agency in charge of producing and distributing the government’s official documents, including paper questionnaires for the upcoming 2020 census.
According to an internal watchdog report obtained by NPR, two officials at the U.S. Government Publishing Office — previously known as the Government Printing Office — allegedly violated federal laws and regulations by filling agency jobs with unqualified candidates, including an official’s son. The GPO’s Office of Inspector General has not finalized its findings, but in June, it sent an interim report to the joint congressional committee that oversees the agency.
Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).
Maybe when/if the government opens again, we should scrape the NIST and CSRC websites, put all those publications somewhere public. It’s worrying that *every single US cryptography standard* is now unavailable to practitioners.
— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) January 12, 2019
Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.
Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)
There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.
Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.
Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.
This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”
The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.
Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.
This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.
When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.
Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University