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The FDLP Historical Collections

A recent question on the govdoc-l mailing list asked if GPO had ever officially defined the term “legacy collection” or “legacy document” and if the definition goes beyond something that has historical value or importance. I posted a short answer there. Here, I document and explain that brief response.

The term was introduced by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and by Superintendent of Documents Judy C. Russell in 2003. The phrase has been used almost exclusively in the documents community in the context of digitizing and discarding FDLP historical paper collections ever since.

Before 2003

Before 2003, documents and articles that discuss collections (even in the context of digitizing them) rarely if ever used the adjective “legacy” to describe FDLP collections. For example, a 2002 GODORT report on digitizing government information did not include the word “legacy” to describe the collections to be targeted for digitization.

I did not find any references to “legacy collections” in DttP or govdoc-l or Google Scholar or Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts before 2003.

2003: Introduction of a New Term

Judy C. Russell, then GPO Superintendent of Documents, apparently introduced the term in late 2003 in an announcement of an agreement between ARL and GPO to “digitize a complete legacy collection.” GODORT mentioned it at ALA in January 2004 and GPO included it in its Strategic Vision for the 21st Century in December 2004.

Russell also referred to “legacy content” at the Center For Research Libraries Forum on “Building Blocks of a National Print Preservation Network.” And, in a 2005 Dissemination Implementation Plan, GPO referred to the “legacy collection of tangible U.S. Government publications held in libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP).”

Adoption of the term

After 2004, the mentions of an FDLP “legacy collection” increased. Documents librarians adopted the phrase to refer to the paper (and sometimes microform, and, occasionally, even “tangible” digital) documents that GPO had actually deposited into FDLP libraries.

What is the FDLP “Legacy Collection?”

Russell described the “legacy collection” as “tangible items in your libraries” in her remarks to DLC in April 2004. She also said that the legacy collection of U.S. government documents consisted of “an estimated 2.2 million print publications totaling approximately 60 million pages.” A report of the 2004 GPO meeting of experts on digital preservation described the legacy collection as “U.S. government documents currently held in depositories, estimated to be about 2.2 million items (excluding microfiche).”

It is worth noting here that the term was applied to all paper; there was no singling-out of any documents that would have more historical value or importance. The key to inclusion within the definition of “legacy collection” was, apparently, that they were paper and were in FDLP libraries and were targets of digitization (and, as we will see in a moment, targets for discarding).


As noted above, the introduction of the phrase accompanied a plan to digitize the paper FDLP collections. GODORT referred to the initiative as “Digitizing Legacy Federal Documents Collections.” The GPO Strategic Vision described converting “printed legacy documents” into digital format. The Dissemination Implementation Plan enumerated priorities for digitization of the “Legacy Collection.” The purpose of the Experts Meeting was to address digitizing “the entire legacy collection of U.S. government documents.”

The government information community adopted that context along with the phrase. Every use of the phrase that I found was in the context of digitizing paper.

Why “Legacy”?

Why did ARL and Russell choose the term “legacy collection”? Since the use of the phrase was directly and explicitly tied to digitization of those collections, why not describe those collections as “analog materials” or “historical collections” or “paper collections” or even (ugh!) “tangible collections?” Why “legacy“?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that the word “legacy” was not used as an adjective until 1990. That use comes not from the libraries but from the computing world. It is used by IT managers to describe software or systems that are outdated and unwanted. Wikipedia says that it is often considered a “pejorative term” and is used to describe systems that are “potentially problematic.” And the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “software or hardware that has been superseded.” In practice, IT managers would like to stop supporting “legacy software” and discard it. Sound familiar?

It is, of course, possible that the choice of the term to describe the FDLP Historical Collections was not well thought out and no one intended to imply that the collections are problems that need to be discarded. But it is revealing that GPO’s own 2004 Strategic Vision statement not only used “legacy” to describe “printed documents,” but also said that GPO needed to reduce costs associated with the operation and maintenance of “stand alone, legacy computer systems.” This was not a mysterious, obscure word with an ambiguous meaning — even within the walls of GPO.

Legacy (adj.). Unwanted.

Thus, the use of the term “legacy” as an adjective to describe print FDLP collections reflects a particular attitude (one might even say a bias) about the FDLP Historical Collections. It defines the FDLP Historical Collections as out-of-date, unnecessary, and unwanted. Using this term pre-determines the fate of the collections. Those who use this term are expressly saying that they have already decided that they want to throw the collections away – even if they say that what they want is better access.

Using such terminology helps explain why the discussions about these collections have not focused on their intrinsic value, or their value to specific user communities, or the quality of the digital surrogates being used to replace (not supplement) them. Instead, the discussion has returned to a single question again and again and again: How many copies should we keep? – which is the wrong question.

Digitize and Discard

The phrase fits in well with ARL’s long-term advocacy of digitizing paper collections and then discarding them. See for example its 2008 report in which it proposed “a small number of physical regional legacy collections” and its 2010 report when it recommended that there should be “a distributed system for storage of print legacy collections that involves no more than 15 regionally distributed comprehensive print collections.” These recommendations to discard Historical Collections in order to reduce the number of paper copies in the FDLP are not supported with any evidence that such policies will either meet the needs of our communities or preserve the written record of the government.

Let me be clear. I am not an advocate of saving print collections for the sake of print collections. Tautologies are not useful for planning. But, in the same way, vague promises to enhance access through digitization are also not useful. Vague promises need to be backed up with procedures to minimize the risk of loss of information and long-term planning that provides adequate resources for preservation, access, and service. As James R. Jacobs and I have repeatedly argued (see endnotes), decisions about retention and discarding need to be premised on the needs of our communities and the ability of libraries to preserve and provide free access to the FDLP collections. Just labeling the collections as unwanted and out of date may be a clever way to try to persuade librarians to discard their collections without examining the outcomes of doing so. But labeling without evidence is not an application of Library and Information Science. It is rhetorical misdirection.

Libraries are free to digitize their collections (and they should!). If enhanced access is the goal, this can be done today without unnecessarily discarding a single document. But ARL and their supporters have been adamant that digitization must be linked to “flexibility … for the efficient management of the legacy collections” and reducing the number of print copies by requiring only a “small number of physical regional legacy collections (print and microforms).” And some libraries are using digitization as an excuse and a technique for discarding.

A better term: FDLP Historical Collections

I suggest that librarians use the term “FDLP Historical Collections.”

“Historical” because these documents tell us something about the past. Indeed, these documents are also, in a very real sense, “historic” in that they are the unique official record of our democracy.

“Collections” (plural) because we have many separate collections – not one big one – and we do not have an accurate and complete inventory of holdings across all FDLP libraries that would allow us to call it a single “collection.”

Legacy (noun). Gift, Inheritance.

I think it is fine to use the word “legacy” as a noun when speaking of our historical collections because they have been handed down to us. They are more like a valuable inheritance than an unwanted copy of WordStar. Who will preserve and take care of this legacy? Only FDLP libraries have this as their mission. Only FDLP libraries are responsible for the stewardship of this legacy.

For us to discard those paper publications without ensuring the accurate and complete preservation of the information in them would be to discard a valuable inheritance and ignore our responsibility.


Words matter. Library professionals are supposed to be professional and should be clear and unambiguous when they choose their terminology. This is important when making plans for the future and it is even more important when the planning involves irreversible decisions. Librarians should reject the use of the term “legacy collection” when discussing the FDLP Historical Collections and challenge those who use it.

But choosing a different term is not enough. We should clearly articulate both the inherent value of the FDLP Historical Collections and their specific value to our designated communities.

The documents in the FDLP Historical Collections may not exist anywhere outside of FDLP libraries. Even Judy Russell had to admit that discarding paper collections without a clear preservation and access strategy can be a big mistake. In her remarks to ARL in 2003, Russell said:

Many years ago GPO turned over its historical collection to the National Archives and almost immediately we began to regret the absence of a tangible collection. We have decided to re-establish a comprehensive collection of tangible and electronic documents as a collection of last resort for the program, and the new organization will dedicate staff resources to that effort.

Unfortunately, there has, apparently, been little progress in rebuilding GPO’s paper collection as a Collection of Last Resort. Instead, GPO is actively promoting changes that will make it easier to discard more paper collections.

While individual documents or volumes may exist elsewhere, FDLP libraries have collections that put those individual documents in context of their provenance. Although casual internet users may not understand the value of context and provenance, librarians do (or should) and researchers require it. Before FDLP libraries use digitization as an excuse and a technique for discarding these collections, librarians should insist on several essential criteria. My colleague James R. Jacobs has developed a preliminary checklist in his What Are We To Keep? (FAQ). Let’s think about that checklist and think carefully before we assign pejorative labels to our valuable legacy.


Association of Research Libraries. 2008. Future Directions for the Federal Depository Library Program (Dec 4, 2008).

Association of Research Libraries. 2010. Statement of Principles on the Federal Depository Library Program (October 2010).

Center for Research Libraries. 2004. Building Blocks of a National Print Preservation Network. Focus on Global Resources, Vol. 24, Num. 1 (Fall 2004).

Depository Library Council. 2004. Advice to the Public Printer (January 22, 2004).

Federal Depository Library Program. 2014. Future Roles and Opportunities: An FDLP Forecast Study Working Paper (March 28, 2014).

GODORT. 2002. Report: Digitization Of Government Information. Ad Hoc Committee on Digitization Of Government Information, Cathy Nelson Hartman Committee Chair (June 14, 2002).

GODORT. 2004. First Steering Committee Meeting Agenda. 2004. ALA Midwinter Conference, San Diego, Friday, January 9, 2004.

Jacobs, James A. and James R. Jacobs. 2013. The Digital-Surrogate Seal of Approval: a Consumer-oriented Standard. D-Lib Magazine (2013).

Jacobs, James A. 2015. “An alarmingly casual indifference to accuracy and authenticity.” What we know about digital surrogates. FreeGovInfo (March 1, 2015).

Jacobs, James A. 2015. Legacy collections. “Discussion of Government Document Issues” (25 Jun 2015).

Jacobs, James R. 2014. Why GPO’s proposed policy to allow Regionals to discard is a bad idea. FreeGovInfo (August 27, 2014).

Jacobs, James R., What are we to keep?, Documents to the People (Spring 2015).

Jacobs, James R., What Are We To Keep? (FAQ). FreeGovInfo (April 30, 2015.).

Rossmann, Brian W. 2005. Legacy Documents Collections: Separate the Wheat from the Chaff. DttP: Documents to the People Volume 33, No. 4 (Winter 2005).

Russell, Judith. 2003. Remarks by Judy Russell, 142nd ARL Membership Meeting, 142nd ARL Membership Meeting, Federal Relations Luncheon (May 15, 2003).

Russell, Judy C. 2003. Information Dissemination Operations. Remarks by Judy C. Russell Superintendent of Documents Depository Library Conference/Fall Council Meeting October 20, 2003, Administrative Notes Vol. 24, no. 13 (November 15, 2003).

Russell, Judy C. 2004. Remarks of Superintendent of Documents Depository Library Conference St. Louis, Missouri (April 18, 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. 2004. A Strategic Vision for the 21st Century, (Dec. 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. 2004. Report on the Meeting of Experts on Digital Preservation. U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. (March 12, 2004).

U.S. Government Printing Office. Office of Information Dissemination. 2005. Information Dissemination Implementation Plan: Priorities For Digitization Of Legacy Collection. Washington, D.C. (September 15, 2005).

The value in being a depository library

Free kittens!
Free kittens!

[UPDATE 6:45PM 7/17/2014: I’ve had 2 other examples of document loss or potential loss emailed to me this afternoon. I’ve added ERIC and USGS in the comments. Readers are encouraged to leave other examples in the comments. Thanks! JRJ]

In the govt information library community, the question of the value of being — or remaining — a federal depository library is a zombie meme. This question was again posted to GOVDOC-L a couple of days ago. We thought we’d share our response to this question. So here goes.

Hi _______ et al,

I think you are right: this question has come up more than once on this list and seemingly ad nauseam at depository library and ALA conferences. I don’t have a reference to the last time it did, but, if you don’t mind, I can give you my take on it. I apologize for this rather long response, but I think the question requires it.

I think that there are really two questions we should be asking ourselves; (and I think we need to have a ready answer on hand to both questions when our administrators ask us):

1) What is the value of the depository to my library’s users?


2) How does a library measure its value?

The same answers to these questions hold today as held in the print era. Because just “being a depository” (getting boxes of books) didn’t have any value (or prestige) in the print era. Right? Of course, just unpacking the boxes did increase the number of volumes in a library in the days when volume count was a major way that libraries measured their value. But most depository libraries did more than this. They selected items in order to build collections that were useful to their users, they cataloged the collections and provided finding aids, they hired and trained staff focused on govt information, they provided specialized services. The result of all this was that users got value from the work libraries did. Libraries added value.

(And, yes, volume count is less relied on today as a measure of a library’s value. But having actual digital content that the library selects and preserves and for which it provides services, is becoming increasingly a measure of the value of libraries. Look at any commercial information vendor and ask why users find them valuable: it is not because the vendors point to stuff they do not have (see “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting”); commercial vendors combine collections of digital information with services and users find that valuable. Libraries are beginning to understand that and do it.)

Let’s put this in perspective: even in the print era it cost money and resources to be a depository. Your users got value (and “convenience” too) from the collections and the services that those resources enabled and the library was valuable to users by providing those services and collections.

So what has changed in the digital age? Why do we keep hearing this question about the value of being a depository? I would guess that there is an implied assumption behind this question and it goes something like this: “In the digital age my users have access to govt information on the web without my doing anything” and that leads to the question, “What does my library gain by being a depository?”

But is that assumption really true? Let’s think it through. Let’s assume that a lot of good government information is on the web and freely available and even findable with commercial tools like google.

Do you — or more importantly your administrators — really believe that your users can find everything they need easily and use it just because it is on the web *today*? Do you add value to your library by doing nothing and pointing your users to the web? Does your library add value for its users if you do nothing?

Do your users know that the government has a wealth of information that touches on all aspects of our lives? Can they tell the difference between archives.gov and archive.org? Or between the FCC and the FTC? Or between a House Committee Report and a staff report of one party of a Committee? Now imagine what effect it would have on your users’ ability to find what they need if you select the information you know they need and put it into their collection for them? They would find valuable government information in the course of their searches for other topics if that information were in your collection and accessible via your library catalog — and through OCLC, GPO’s Catalog of Govt Publications (CGP), and other utilities, users’ access is amplified.

I know a lot of librarians like to say that “All govt information is accessible on the web!” But can we count on either short-term or long-term access?

We live in a time when Congress has shut down the government numerous times, resulting in a loss of access to most online government information. Congress has stopped creating important information (by shutting down the Office of Technology Assessment, defunding the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia unit and ceasing publication of the Statistical Abstract and several other critical statistical resources, etc.). It is trying to shut down the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) (because, you know, “just google it”!), and has turned off all access to NASA technical reports because there might be one that would be “dangerous.” We live in a time when anti-government sentiment is so strong that agencies are sometimes just so broke that they cannot reliably maintain their purl servers. These are real problems, not speculations. Bad things have happened just in the recent past. Does this give you confidence that you can tell your users — much less your administrators! — “everything is accessible on the web”? Can any of us rely on such a government really guaranteeing access to the information that your users need? The government does not know your users; you do.

And what about long-term preservation of information and free access to it? Do you believe that a government that won’t repair bridges or provide adequate funding for education, or even keep our water and air and food clean and safe will keep everything “free on the web” for your users forever? Read the US Code for your favorite agency some time and hunt for the terms “preservation” or “long-term” and you will not find them. But hunt for the terms “fees” “cost recovery” and “self-supporting” and you’ll find that most agencies are specifically authorized by Congress to charge for the information they provide you. “Free on the web”? Do not count on it! If we make decisions assuming that everything our users need will always be there for them, easily findable and free, we will be making decisions that, in the long run, will hurt our users. They will not thank us for it. They will ask us why we did nothing when we could have done so much.

But wait! A key aspect — if not The Key Aspect! — of the FDLP is that 1200+ libraries together do provide a preservation safety net of historic govt publications distributed around the country that is needed for long-term preservation and access — and ought to do the same for born-digital govt information. There is a huge value to the public in that, whether or not the public knows it. My advice is: do not be part of the erosion of that safety net. Do not wait until the safety net is gone to find that your assumptions were wrong.

Turn the “value of a depository” question around and ask the same question of any of your other collections. Is there a value in your collecting materials in political science or engineering or biology or YA fiction? Of course there is! So why should we have to ask this about government information? Is it because government information is “free”? But the initial cost of acquiring a book is probably the smallest cost in the lifetime of that book. The organization, shelving, cataloging, preservation, management, and service is where the real costs come. Is government information less valuable to your users? Easier to find and use and understand? Can we really honestly say that it is worth adding value to our YA lit or political science collections and not worth adding value to govt information?

As a government information librarian, you know how much useful information is available from government agencies. If there’s a chance that your users will want or need current or historical statistical resources or reports from an agency which directly impacts their lives, or access to government regulations, or if they want to write a report for a class on topics from A to Z, you know they can find some of what they need in the govt information collection, but your users will find value in your library if and only if you have government information in your collection — regardless of whether the information is in paper or digital format. There’s a symbiotic relationship between your library’s collections and its services to its community. And since all of these things will no doubt be necessary at one time or another, then it behooves every library to have at the very least some govt information in their collections AND cataloged in their opacs — and the easiest/cheapest/most effective way to do that is to be a depository library! — and have someone on staff who knows how to find and use govt information. Your library is a springboard to the world of govt information. Simple as that.

Being a depository in the digital age costs resources and takes time and effort and thoughtful application of your skills. “Value” is not free. But your users will find value in your library if it contains govt information.