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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.

After the Election: Libraries, Librarians, and the Government

Like many of my colleagues, I’m struggling to understand what the results of the Presidential election mean for my work as a government information librarian at a public institution of higher education. In the weeks and months ahead, those of us who claim to value diversity, inclusion, and a human-centered approach to our work have important choices to make about how we meaningfully live these values in our communities.

For those of us who work in educational institutions, the uptick in reported acts of hatred and bigotry in schools and on campuses around the United States is a call to local and national action. For those of us who work with government information, there are additional, compelling questions that we need to consider. How will the least transparent Presidential candidate in modern history, who as President-Elect has already begun to announce administrative appointments evidencing troubling stances with respect to fundamental rights and freedoms, lead his administration? How will changes in policy and political rhetoric be reflected in official public information products, and what will be obscured? What will be deleted or altered? What will — and what should — the documentary record of this political and social era reflect?

Yet in reflecting on these and other urgent questions, it is important to note how many of these considerations have long deserved meaningful discussion in the context of our work. Critical examination has been ongoing and present (if not as widespread as one might hope) within discourse among archivists, instruction librarians, YA librarians, digital humanities and digital collections librarians, metadata librarians, librarians who work with first-year students, those who work with underserved communities, and many more. Within the small, mission-driven community of librarians and advocates whose work engages with government information, there is a lack of discourse engaging with the why of our work, let alone the why now.

Anecdotally, some conversations lean on words like those of James Madison (“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”), without reflecting on the relationship between Madison’s political philosophy and his role in the proposal and adoption of the three-fifths compromise, or that he directly profited from chattel slavery. Other conversations refer to the right of the public to access and use information produced with taxpayer funds, an indirect nod to deeply embedded notions of capitalism that intersect with the prevailing interpretation of the First Amendment that money is a form of speech. Still others reference a broad, generalized right of the public to know, one that is precarious both in scope (who are the public? what can they know?) and in temporal orientation (is there a right to remember? does it intersect with a right to be unknown or forgotten?).

I want to propose that as part of engaging with how we should address these new challenges, our community should meet its obligation to examine why we do this work. Speaking as an individual within this community — not on behalf of the community, or GODORT, or FGI, or my place of work — it seems that we have long understood ourselves as a profession under siege. Government documents collections in print are being discarded, while few institutions are putting strategies in place for collecting government information in digital formats. These strategies are not expanding in tandem with the explosive proliferation of these sources, and certainly not in pace with the changing demands for access from public users, researchers, students, and more. Most of us do work that transcends traditional reference, collection management, and cataloging roles; yet despite this, we still care.

From that stance of care, both for the people who surround me and for the work I do, I want to ask questions like these: with respect to government information, what responsibilities do we have as a professional community? How can we work outside our own walls to meaningfully and inclusively move forward programs that shift the possibilities for access and use? These questions represent only a segment of the unexplored space, and none of us have definitive answers. Our ethical imperative is to open conversations with communities around us that articulate and suggest responses to these questions, and build our future work in ways that are responsive to these considerations.

My colleague Thomas Padilla has pointed me to the work of Shannon Mattern as one avenue for exploration. Mattern’s article “Public In/Formation” argues that we have the capacity to act as “…stewards of equity, discretion, interoperability, resilience, and respect for the past.” Our work extends beyond the capture of information to encompass thoughtful curation that enables people to transform data into knowledge. This thoughtfulness has never been needed more:

A would-be strongman is headed to the White House, amidst swirling currents of disinformation. He has threatened to jail political enemies and sue newspapers, further destabilizing a media environment that was already reeling. Online and off, we need to create and defend vital spaces of information exchange, and we need to strengthen the local governments and institutions that shape the public use of those spaces. The future of American democracy depends on it. Bigly.

And we cannot depend on tech companies to safeguard those information spaces. Sidewalk Labs wants to turn Link stations into nodes of intelligent infrastructure that may one day collect data on pedestrian traffic and garbage removal, direct drivers to parking spots, route autonomous vehicles through the streets, and push location-specific targeted advertising. The ideology of data solutionism has taken over city halls, planning departments, law enforcement agencies, and countless other domains of public life — a troubling trend when social technocrats were in charge, and now, with the rise of Trumpism, an alarming one.

In a recent talk, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” Matthew K. Gold discusses work in infrastructure studies that engages with “…concerns over issues of power, capital and surveillance; the physical and commercial structures through which the phenomenon we refer to as ‘the network’ is built; and the growing sense in which media and networked infrastructures have become constitutive of much of our experience in the world.” When we think about government information as a common good, infrastructure interfaces with political and social realities in ways that can help us surface important considerations about our work in collecting and preserving these materials.

My hope is that we can learn from and build upon discourse in disciplinary communities both near to and far from our day-to-day work. To circle back around to educational institutions, I teach a one-lesson module on government information for an undergraduate introductory course on library research. As part of the lecture, I share a brochure published by the War Relocation Authority in 1943, titled Relocating a People. The argument I present to students is that library collections of government documents help us ask difficult questions about our government with respect to human rights, society, justice, democracy, capitalism, and so on. In that spirit, I ask of all of us: how can we make sure that these questions can be asked now, and then asked again and again in years to come?

Selected resources

Barbara Fister, “When is the Library Open? How About Now?” https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/when-library-open-how-about-now. Updated October 26, 2016.

—, “Get Ready to Fight for What Matters,” https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/get-ready-fight-what-matters. Updated November 20, 2016.

Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” https://medium.com/on-archivy/confronting-our-failure-of-care-around-the-legacies-of-marginalized-people-in-the-archives-dc4180397280#.uw9x7rft0. Updated November 11, 2016.

Christopher Long, “Open Letter to the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University,” https://medium.com/@cplong/open-letter-to-the-college-of-arts-letters-at-michigan-state-university-204d58a59158#.76pfequgh. Updated November 12, 2016.

Ed Summers, “On Forgetting,” On Archivy, https://medium.com/on-archivy/on-forgetting-e01a2b95272#.c1wwouv3f. Updated November 18, 2014.

Erin Leach, “No firm ground, but we ain’t sliding,” https://unifiedlibraryscene.blogspot.com/2016/11/no-firm-ground-but-we-aint-sliding.html. Updated November 8, 2016.

Matthew K. Gold, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” http://blog.mkgold.net/2016/11/04/out-of-sync-digital-humanities-and-the-cloud/. Updated November 11, 2016.

“Open Letter to the UO Community from the Undersigned Library Staff, Faculty, and Administrators,” http://library.uoregon.edu/sites/default/files/open_letter_diversity_equity_response_2016_0.pdf. Updated November 15, 2016.

Paul Finkelman, “Three-Fifths Clause: Why Its Taint Persists,” The Root, http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2013/02/the_threefifths_clause_the_compromise_over_slavery_and_its_lingering_effects/. Updated February 26, 2013.

Safiya U. Noble, “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression,” https://safiyaunoble.com/2016/08/30/personal-democracy-forum-at-nyu/. Updated August 30, 2016.

Shannon Mattern, “Public In/Formation,” Places, https://placesjournal.org/article/public-information/. Updated November 2016.

Shari Laster, “Government information and #critlib,” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10186. Updated July 21, 2015.

Sunlight Foundation, “The Trump questions: What will transparency and open government look like in the next White House?” http://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/11/10/the-trump-questions-what-will-transparency-and-open-government-look-like-in-the-next-white-house/. Updated November 10, 2016.

FGI Podcast: Building a Collaborative FDLP

Today’s lunchtime listen is FGI’s first podcast(!), a conversation recorded on July 25, 2016, with James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs, and Shari Laster discussing “Building a Collaborative FDLP.” If you missed that post, here’s an excerpt:

FDLP libraries can work together to provide, collectively, more than GPO — or any one library — can provide on its own. A collaborative FDLP is not one mega-library with one huge collection of only those documents that GPO can get. A collaborative FDLP consists of many curated collections that include Title 44 content, fugitive content (which GPO cannot force agencies to deposit), and non-Title-44 content that is out of GPO’s scope (e.g., FOIA’d documents, state/local/international government information, non-government information etc.). And each curated collection will have accompanying services tailored to that content for a community of users.

In such a collective approach, every community has access to the content and services it needs and every library provides a small slice of all those customized collections and services. In this approach, each library’s local-institutional community benefits from the contributions of every library.

This approach requires libraries to make one big change in the way they think of “communities.” In this approach, a “community” is a group of people who have common information needs — they need not live and work near any particular library or even near each other. In this approach every library focuses on one or more Designated Communities.1 In this approach every institution benefits from the collective work of all FDLP libraries rather than the individual work of only its own local-institutional library.

This approach will result in an FDLP collection that is more complete than GPO can build and maintain on its own and more comprehensive than Title 44; it will have much better functionality, and it will be more secure for the long-term.

Stream or download the podcast from the Internet Archive.

Do you have ideas for more conversations and podcasts you’d like to hear? Please share your feedback in the comments!

GPO’s National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information: an overview

Last month, the Government Publishing Office (GPO) released the National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information: A Framework for a User-centric Service Approach to Permanent Public Access. The National Plan is the culmination of four years of study and planning activities conducted by GPO’s Library Services & Content Management (LSCM) in response to a range of factors that include directives from the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) and the National Academy of Public Administration; seismic changes in government publishing and user information access practices; and the shifting mission of large academic research libraries.

For those interested in the background to the National Plan, I summarized some of the available information a few months ago. While a detailed development process is not included in the final document, GPO repeatedly solicited quantitative and qualitative data from depository libraries, most notably in its 2012 FDLP Forecast Study, as well as through the Biennial Survey process. GPO has already shared much of the information found in the National Plan in presentations to the community over the past year. As of this writing there is no public comment or feedback process; however, several of the sessions on the preliminary schedule for next month’s Depository Library Council virtual meeting pertain to the implementation of the National Plan, including presentations on public libraries, regional models, and the regional discard pilot project.

I recognize that there can be some hesitance in the depository librarian community in discussing a document like this in detail. After all, criticisms of the National Plan are functionally critiques of LSCM’s strategic direction, and by extension can be (mis)interpreted as criticisms of GPO and its leadership. In preemptive response, I agree with the FGI team: respectful, timely discourse makes our community stronger. I believe wholeheartedly that we all want a similar future: one in which government information is available for all to use and reuse, whenever and wherever it is needed. The vision and mission for the National Plan reflects this desire, as do the words and actions of the GPO staff who put the words into action. LSCM has been and continues to be uniquely positioned to coordinate and accomplish this work, and they have made commendable progress on many initiatives that will contribute to public access to government information for generations to come.

Like all FGI occasional contributors, I’m speaking only for myself, not my place of work, my library consortium, or the FGI team. But with that disclaimer out of the way, I think this document is an opportunity for depository librarians and others who care about future access to government information to identify where voices from the community can and should speak up to ensure that planned activities and initiatives are in alignment with the aspirational goals of sustaining permanent no-fee public access to government information. Our responsibility as a community to make sure that the promise of access is one that will be fully met through collaborative work with each other and engagement with GPO.

Structure and Format

GPO should be commended for producing a document that we can read, discuss, and share with others who care about government information. This is GPO’s plan for action and activities undertaken by LSCM: the National Plan contextualizes current priorities and initiatives, and provides a roadmap for where to expect LSCM’s focus to be going forward. It is also described as a ‘flexible framework,’ which suggests that the exact work to be conducted is yet to be determined, although several projects are underway and some are in the planning stages.

The core of the National Plan is the section of “Desired Outcomes and Actions,” which are based on a list of “Drivers of Change” that include the results of the 2012 FDLP Forecast Study, recommendations from the 2013 NAPA report on GPO commissioned by Congress, and a short but wide-ranging list of external influences. Each outcome is mapped to one of the “Principles of Government Information” adopted by GPO in 1996. Additional assumptions are also articulated that reflect the list of external influences.

The National Plan also presents three strategic priorities: lifecycle management of government information within LSCM to ensure permanent public access to digital government information; development of a sustainable structure for the FDLP; and the delivery of services that support depository libraries in providing accurate government information to the public in a timely fashion. While the strategic priorities relate to the “Drivers of Change,” they are not explicitly mapped to the vision and mission of the National Plan.


The language used throughout the National Plan is that of access rather than preservation. It is clear that enabling permanent public access to information is not the same as preserving information products, though the two go hand in hand. In general, the National Plan references concepts already in common usage in the community without further explanation. For example, there are no assumptions explicitly defining key terms like ‘access’ and ‘sustainability,’ but the concepts are used throughout the document.

To a certain extent, the National Plan is difficult to unpack and discuss because it is deeply non-specific. This lack of specificity has a particularly strong effect on action items pertaining to preservation. Of the six action items, three simply reference new programs (FIPNet, an LSCM Preservation Program, and a project to inventory “copies of record”), one pertains to access rather than preservation (working with partnerships to digitize the historical tangible collection), one relates to the development of guidelines, and one is to increase the profile of government information preservation at the national level. So although the reciprocal relationships between preservation and access are addressed in some ways, outcomes that reflect the government’s obligation to preserve its information are not fully articulated or supported.

Actions categorized as pertaining to right of access, dissemination of information, and authenticity are more specific, but the mapping of outcomes to principles is unclear. If this were to be the only public documentation guiding LSCM’s activities, then the community would have little insight into what GPO is trying to accomplish and why. As more detailed strategies and implementation plans are developed — I hope in consultation with the community at large — and disseminated, it should be possible to more confidently identify the extent to which a given action item will contribute to any given desired outcomes that can be mapped to shared goals and expectations.

The National Plan continues to frame depository libraries as supporters of public access rather than participants in the long-term management of government information, reflecting a broad and ongoing shift of framing libraries as service providers rather than collectors and organizers. Because the Regional discard policy has been approved and is currently in the implementation phase, we know that publications with authenticated digital versions in FDsys (and its successor, govinfo.gov) are eligible for Regional depository libraries to withdraw and discard under the oversight of the Superintendent of Documents. Other action items in the National Plan will lead to the ingest of more content into FDsys from depository libraries and third parties, and the authentication of this digital content, which makes more collections digitally accessible but also eligible for discard in print, a shift that could have a substantially negative effect on long-term access. An additional action item investigates the possibility that Regionals could decline to select certain materials in print/microformat altogether, and another identifies the development of requirements to facilitate pushing or depositing digital content to libraries.

While increased access to authenticated digital surrogates is a laudable measure for public access, taken as a whole the actions identified in the National Plan are framed by a continued shift of the responsibility for collection-building and preservation away from FDLP libraries, without introducing a clearly defined and workable alternative for the long-term preservation of print collections, and without adding the expectation of a meaningful role in digital preservation for these same institutions. (FIPNet is intended to fill this role, but as of this writing, this program is still mostly undefined.) The only action item directly addressing print collections in depository libraries is the development of collection care training for depository staff, and it is categorized as an action related to authenticity and integrity rather than preservation.

In general, changes to the FDLP are incorporated in the National Plan under the principle of disseminating government information, with a specified outcome of forming a sustainable network structure and governance process for the efficient management of depository collections and services. Depository libraries are only a small segment out of many potential public access channels, albeit a segment best poised to serve both marginalized and specialized users, and the National Plan identifies the need for LSCM to play a greater part in lifecycle management of information dissemination products within the federal government. However, under the National Plan, the alternatives for preservation outside of the depository library system are, at present, unclear.


Because the document is describing the role LSCM will adopt and the work it will accomplish, rather than a revised strategy for the FDLP as a program, the National Plan is not GPO’s definitive statement on the future of the FDLP. Based on this document, however, it seems reasonable to predict that GPO’s articulation of its vision for the future FDLP will reflect the priorities established in this document. With that understanding, presenting the National Plan as a document is in itself a significant step in the right direction because it gives the government information community a shared frame of reference in discussing GPO’s priorities and evaluating its accomplishments, and provides us with the opportunity to determine how our libraries and organizations, as well as the community as a whole, can respond to and engage with GPO initiatives as they move forward.

Selected bibliography

James A. Jacobs. “NAPA Releases Report on GPO.” http://freegovinfo.info/node/3862. Updated February 6, 2013.

James A. Jacobs and James R. Jacobs. “What You Need to Know About the New Discard Policy.” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10525. Updated November 30, 2015.

James R. Jacobs. “DLC Responds to Open Letter Regarding the New Regional Discard Policy” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10736. Updated January 18, 2016

Library Services & Content Management. “FDLP Forecast Study.” http://www.fdlp.gov/377-projects-active/1686-fdlp-forecast-study. Updated August 12, 2015.

—. “Federal Information Preservation Network.” http://www.fdlp.gov/project-list/federal-information-preservation-network. Updated April 13, 2015.

—. “Federal Information Preservation Network (FIPNet) – Answering Your Questions.” http://www.fdlp.gov/all-newsletters/featured-articles/2349-federal-information-preservation-network-fipnet-answering-your-questions. Updated December 21, 2015.

—. “JCP Approves Regional Discard Policy.” http://www.fdlp.gov/news-and-events/2403-jcp-approves-regional-discard-policy. Updated October 22, 2015.

National Academy of Public Administration. Rebooting the Government Printing Office: Keeping America Informed in the Digital Age. https://www.gpo.gov/pdfs/about/GPO_NAPA_Report_FINAL.pdf. January 2013.

Office of the Superintendent of Documents. National Plan for Access to U.S. Government Information: A Framework for a User-Centric Service Approach to Permanent Public Access. http://www.fdlp.gov/file-repository/about-the-fdlp/gpo-projects/national-plan-for-access-to-u-s-government-information/2700-national-plan-for-access-to-u-s-government-information-a-framework-for-a-user-centric-service-approach-to-permanent-public-access. February 2016.

Shari Laster. “Information Sharing and the National Plan.” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10569. Updated November 12, 2015.

—. “One Year Later…What’s Happening with Regionals and Discards?” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10285. Updated September 8, 2015.

Jessamyn West: Never Trust A Corporation to Do a Librarian’s Job

  Never Trust A Corporation to Do a Librarian’s Job (via lifeguardlibrarian.tumblr.com)

We were having our own doubts, of course. How could you not? The Google Books project seemed to be letting itself go. Things any librarian would notice: bad scans; faulty metadata; narrowing the scope of public domain; having machines do jobs that should be done (or at least overseen) by humans. They seemed to be restricting and worsening access to cultural content, not expanding and improving it. Maybe we were going in different directions?” [full article]

I too have come across an increasing number of  messy and illegible Google Books. Indeed, Google is a corporation, not an archivist, and we can’t rely on them to create preservation-worthy documents–especially Gov Docs. Don’t get me wrong–I have met really awesome and accomplished people who work on the Google Books project, but at the end of the day, Google[‘s] Books privilege/s commodity over content.   Considering Gov Docs are instrumental to our Democracy, we need folks who will ensure scans are absolutely perfect. (On that note: GPO is embarking on a much-needed preservation project [announcement is  the gov-info.tumblr queue]; I urge archivists to get get involved.)

However-as we know, digital files are much more fleeting & fragile than paper, so they should never, ever replace hard copy.


State Agency Databases Project Activity Report 1/15/2015

Welcome to the first State Agency Databases Project report of 2015!

ORPHAN – Nebraska

At the start of each new year we click on the “history” tab of each state page and check when it was last updated. If it hasn’t been updated during the previous calendar year, we let that volunteer go and put out the page for adoption.

Historically, I’ve had to fill six or seven pages each year. This year was different — we only had two “orphan pages” and one got adopted before I could get this report out. So I am happy to report that the sole orphan page of 2015 is Nebraska.

If you are interested in being the documents specialist for the Nebraska page, please read through our Volunteer Guide. If you feel you can carry out the listed duties please contact me at danielcornwall AT gmail DOT com.



The first few weeks of 2015 saw significant activity at the State Agency Databases Project at http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/State_Agency_Databases . The following pages saw a significant number of changes. (links are to revisions page, click on “page” tab to see regular page):

  • District of Columbia – Susan Paterson
  • Montana – Susanne Caro
  • New Mexico – Susanne Caro
  • Ohio – Kirstin Krumsee
  • Not Databases” – Resources that are either databases of state information NOT produced by state agencies, or resources from state agencies that are not databases.

One other change we made was to our Prisoner Locater page, our most popular subject collection for several years running. Although it was technically outside the scope of our project, we added the Federal Inmate Locator so that regular people using the page to track down a friend, loved one or other person of interest had easy access to both state and federal locator services.

You can always view ALL changes made in the past 14 days by visiting http://tinyurl.com/statedbs14d.

As a reminder, all of the links and text in the State Agency Databases Project is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. We strongly encourage the use of our links and annotations in projects of your own.