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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.

Strengthening Title 44 part 2: Free Access

Free access

This is the second in a series of posts in which we explain the the reasons behind our recent recommendations for strengthening Title 44 of the U.S. Code.

Three of our recommendations suggest strengthening the language of Title 44 in order to ensure free public access to government information.


Retain and enhance Free use by the General Public.

Modernize §1911 to retain free access and to reflect the broader scope of Public Information. Sample text: "Depository libraries shall make all Public Information obtained through the depository program available for the free use of the general public."

Prohibit fees for govinfo.gov.

Change wording of §4102 to remove “fee” and replace with same “free” language as Chapter 19. Sample wording: “The directory and the system shall be made available to the general public without charge.

Make all digital government information free.

Modify §1708 to: allow GPO to sell paper (including print-on-demand, and microformated) documents to retailers at a wholesale price; mandate that GPO offer to FDLP libraries as selectable items all print/POD documents that it offers for sale to retailers; prohibit GPO from selling ebooks, PDFs and other digital formats.

Current Law

The current law addresses fees and free access in three different sections of Title 44.

Section 1911 requires FDLP libraries to make government publications available for the free use of the general public.

Section 4102 allows GPO to recover its costs by charging the public fees for using what is currently called govinfo.gov.

Section 1708 allows GPO to sell government publications either directly or through "book dealers." In the past, GPO maintained its own brick-and-mortar bookstores, and still maintains the GPO bookstore Website.


Our recommendation to change §1911 would simply modernize the text of the law to include digital information deposited in FDLP libraries. It makes it clear that FDLP libraries are required to make all government information that they receive through the depository system — including digital information — available for free to the general public. It retains the essential phrase “general public” thus ensuring that the FDLP is for everyone, not just the constituents of individual libraries.

Our recommendation for §4102; would ensure that govinfo.gov and its successors are always made available for free to the public. Currently, §4102 explicitly allows GPO to charge for access to the contents of govinfo.gov and even to the metadata that describes those documents (the “directory”). Our recommendation would remove the wording that allows charging for this service, would require GPO to offer this service for free, and would add the phrase “general public” to make Chapter 41 and GPO conform to the same requirement that FDLP libraries have in Chapter 19. This would give GPO’s current policy of free access the force of law. It would correct the uncertainty in the current law that allows GPO to decide to charge for online access. It provides additional protection for free access because even Congress could not make GPO charge for access without changing Title 44 again. This also fixes a problem in the current wording of the law that allows GPO to charge for access while also requiring it to provide free access to FDLP libraries. (This fee/free bifurcation was ultimately shown to be untenable when in the early to mid-1990s GPO charged fees for access but later dropped their subscription fees.1 )

Our recommendation to change §1708 would allow GPO to continue to sell paper and ink and other so-called “tangible” publications wholesale to retailers so that the retailers could sell them directly to the public. It would, however, prohibit GPO from commercializing any digital government information. Today, GPO sells ebooks (many of which are available without charge on the web2) through resellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble (Vance-Cooks). While it makes some sense for GPO to sell paper-and-ink books, it makes neither commercial nor policy sense to offer free digital documents for sale. Our recommended change would allow GPO to distribute digital documents for free through commercial vendors.

Effects of these changes

Making these changes would have several positive effects.

  • It ensures that all US government digital public information will be available for free to the general public by getting rid of conflicting, out-of-date wording that allows GPO to sell this information.
  • It makes free-access to digital government information the law, thus making it impossible for GPO to impose fees with a policy change.
  • It modernizes the law so that government information deposited in FDLP libraries through Chapter 19 and government information provided online by GPO through Chapter 41 are treated the same way: both are provided free to the general public.
  • It modernizes the language of Chapter 19 to ensure that FDLP libraries that build collections of digital FDLP information will offer those collections for free to the general public.


  1. When GPO launched the first incarnation of govinfo.gov, “GPO Access,” it charged the public for access while providing free access (as required by §4102) to FDLP libraries. This model failed and was abandoned after less than two years (GPO Press Release: “GPO Access Services Free as of December 1, 1995” and Relyea),
  2. See, for example, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Barack Obama, 2009, Book 1 for sale at Barnes & Nobel and free at GPO.gov.


GPO Access Goes Archive Only #FDLP

FYI readers. GPO announced today that their legacy system, GPOAccess, is soon to go archive only. This has been a long and involved process to build FDsys, move content from GPOAccess over to the new platform and now finally sunset the older system. This has been a real community effort with much work by GPO staff as well as continuous beta testing and other input from the FDLP community.

On Friday, November 4, 2011, the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) draws one step closer to shutting down GPO Access. Once the Friday editions of daily updated content (e.g., Federal Register, Congressional Record) have been uploaded, GPO will cease updating GPO Access in terms of both database content and HTML pages. This will mark the start of the archive only phase of GPO Access and new content will only be loaded to FDsys. During this phase, GPO Access will remain publicly accessible as a reference archive.

In order to make the switchover from GPO Access to FDsys as seamless as possible for users, GPO is in the process of creating one-to-one redirects from GPO Access content to the FDsys equivalent. This will ensure that bookmarks, Web links, URLs in print publications, and other GPO Access references point to valid Web resources. Once this has been completed, GPO Access will be taken offline. A date has not yet been established for the final shutdown of GPO Access; however, it is slated for fiscal year 2012.

Libraries should take this opportunity (if they have not already done so) to review their Web sites, presentations, brochures, and other materials that reference GPO Access and work to update or replace these materials. This includes imagery and URLs.

Thank you for your patience and assistance while we make this transition.

Calls for Comment on Proposed Federal Data Collections

I’m forwarding this heads-up from the Association of Public Data Users (APDU) list. Over the last two weeks, there have been quite a few calls for comment on proposed data collections published in the Federal Register (see below with due date).

Maybe it’s because I haven’t had my coffee yet this morning, but I was a little peeved by my failed information search. I found the Census Bureau’s FR posting (Federal Register: January 7, 2009 (Volume 74, Number 4) Page 672) (btw, I tried in FDsys.gpo.gov but they’ve not loaded Volume 74 yet) but at first was stymied because the summary page has no link to the Census Bureau’s Web site, and does not have contact information or any link to more information. The full listing has the information, but comments must be written, no Web submissions 😐

Ok fine, I go to www.census.gov and after more than 5 minutes of search/browse, give up on finding exactly *how* to submit comments on the proposed “Quarterly Financial Report” or “Survey of Local Government Finances.” What’s even worse, census.gov does not have a “contact us” link on it’s first page. I finally found it in the footer of a second level page, but could find nothing in the Question and Answer Center about RFCs, proposed data sets etc. *sigh*

I guess this is turning into an FDsys comment. I noticed in FDsys that you can sign up to receive the daily Federal Register Table of Contents which is cool. But there needs to be a way to browse only the requests for comments (or rules changes, notices…) of specific agencies in the FR as well as receive email or RSS of requests for comments. There also needs to be a link in the FR to the agency in question and not just their top level site but to the place on the site with information on the RFC and directions for how to submit comments. And lastly (this is not an FDsys comment but a general agency comment) RFCs should be submitted online.

So go ahead and submit comments for the proposed data collections below, I dare you.

  • Census Bureau
    Quarterly Financial Report (February 9, 2009)
    Survey of Local Government Finances (School Systems) (March 13, 2009)
  • Office of Management and Budget
    2007 North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)-Updates for 2012 (April 7, 2009)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics
    Labor Market Information (LMI) Cooperative Agreement (March 3, 2009)
  • Employment and Training Administration, Department of Labor
    O*Net Data Collection Program (January 30, 2009)
  • Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation
    Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges (March 10, 2009)
  • National Institutes of Health
    Information Program on Clinical Trials: Maintaining a Registry and Results Databank (February 5, 2009)
  • Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services
    Feasibility Test for Design Phase of National Study of Child Care Supply and Demand (February 5, 2009)
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Department of Health and Human Services
    The AHRQ Data Inventory (January 30, 2009)
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services
    CAHPS Home Health Care Survey (March 10, 2009)
  • Surface Transportation Board, Department of Transportation
    Class I Railroad Annual Report (February 9, 2009)
    Quarterly Report of Freight Commodity Statistics (February 9, 2009)

Comparison of Legislative Resources on GPO Access and Selected Government and Non-Government Web Sites

GPO has a new version of its Comparison of Legislative Resources on GPO Access and Selected Government and Non-Government Web Sites (October 2008). It has separate files with tables showing the 34 GPO Access legislative
resources studied and the scope of each of eight Web sites examined. (Scope of GPO Access and Government Web Sites and Scope of GPO Access and Non-Government Web Sites.

The study compares legislative information available on GPO Access to House.gov, Senate.gov, THOMAS, Lexis-Nexis Congressional, Westlaw, CQ.com, and HeinOnline.

The study finds that GPO Access contains a unique mix of online legislative resources not duplicated in total at other sites. (“No Government or Non- Government Web site, other than GPO Access, contains Economic Indicators, Independent Counsel Investigations, State of the Union, United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (Plum Book), and the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual.”)

But, “In terms of scope of the legislative resources it provides, GPO Access is behind the other Web sites evaluated. Many of the other sites either contain historical content on their service or link to external sites with historical information, whereas GPO Access possesses current information that generally begins in the mid-1990s.”

The last study (2003) and previous studies are still available at http://fedbbs.access.gpo.gov/library/compare/.

Google and the Search for Federal Government Information

A couple of weeks ago, Bonnie Klein, of the Defense Technical Information Center, submitted a comment here with a link to an article she wrote about the effectiveness of using Google and other commercial search tools to find government information. I recommend it highly:

In it, Klein notes that “Google and other search engines are commercial enterprises, not public utilities.” She addresses in particular the fact that government information gets no priority in ranking of search results: “Business operations and revenue-generating advertising partnerships, not altruism, factor into page ranking.”

The article examines legal, technical, commercial, and copyright issues, and includes many useful citations.

For example, she quotes, Donna Bogatin from ZDNet, who observes that “By requiring that Web pages have inbound links from third-party Web sites, the PageRank based algorithm may result in automatic exclusion of the most relevant pages for a given query simply because no other Websites have linked to them.” (Google Search Page Rank Excludes Relevant Websites, by Donna Bogatin. ZDNet, January 26, 2007).

This is a good reminder of how government web sites that make it difficult to link to documents (“Documents that exist within databases on GPO Access cannot be bookmarked”) automatically lower their PageRank.

Thanks, and a tip of the hat to Bonnie for this useful article!

See also: Hiding in Plain Sight: Why Important Government Information Cannot Be Found Through Commercial Search Engines, Center for Democracy and Technology.