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Happy 150th birthday US Government Printing Office! And to celebrate, here’s a blast form the past: a 1979 report from the Public Interest Research Group entitled “The Peoples’ Printer: A Report on the Government Printing Office” by Shawn kelly. This little known PIRG report was scanned and put online by Carl Malamud who said in a tweet that “it was handed to me in a brown paper wrapper at an event I was speaking at. Remarkable 1979 independent analysis.” Thanks Carl for for scanning and tweeting about this!
The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) marks a milestone on March 4th when it celebrates 150 years of producing and delivering Government information for all three branches of the Federal Government and the public. GPO opened its doors on March 4, 1861, the same day President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office. Throughout its history the agency has used constantly changing technologies to meet the needs of the Congress, Federal agencies, and the public. During GPO’s early days, employees relied on ink and paper to set the text for The Emancipation Proclamation. Today, as another President from Illinois leads the Nation, GPO employees are using the latest digital technology to document the actions of our Government while carrying out its founding mission of Keeping America Informed.
While GPO’s past has been about printing, its present and future are being defined by digital information technologies. In fact, GPO today is the product of more than a generation of investment in digital production and dissemination technologies, an investment that has yielded stunning improvements in productivity, capability, and savings for the taxpayers, savings of 66% on the cost of congressional printing alone. Employing just 2,200 staff, fewer than at any time in the past century, GPO now provides a range of products and activities that could only have been dreamed of 30 years ago: online databases of Federal documents with state-of-the-art search and retrieval capabilities available to the public without charge, Government publications available as e-Books, passports and smart cards with electronic chips carrying biometric data, print products on sustainable substrates using vegetable oil based inks, and a public presence not only on the Web but on Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube.
In his recent Depository Library Council Plenary Address, Public Printer Bruce James compared the curent changes in the documents world (paper to digital) to the Government Printing Office’s switch from steam power to electric power in the early 1900s, and to the abandonment of horse drawn wagons in favor of gas powered delivery trucks.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, knowing that outside the government documents world, digital takes its place alongside print but hasn’t come close to replacing it. Even today, e-books are an insignificant fraction of the $28 billion spent on books in 2004.
Maybe we need a new metaphor in thinking about the distribution of government information. Instead of buggies vs. cars, let’s think of trains, trucks and planes.
As most of us know, the Pony Express was replaced by mail trains in the 19th Century. Horses simply couldn’t compete in terms of speed. But when the Post Office aquired trucks in the early 20th Century (or therebouts), they didn’t stop using trains. Trains still had a purpose in the postal distribution system. Later in the 20th Century, airplanes became available but that didn’t put the trucks or trains (or boats, in Alaska) out of business. Each mode of delivery survived not because of misplaced nostalgia, but because each mode had at least one application not well served by the others.
Could that not be a parallel for print and digital? Tell us what you think!