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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.

FGI’s guide to “unreported” FDLP publications

Introduction

“Unreported” publications (which were, until recently, called “fugitive” publications) are those that are within scope of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) but for various reasons have slipped through the cracks and not been collected and cataloged by the Government Publishing Office (GPO), distributed to FDLP libraries, or included in the “National Collection” (See a partial list of historically “unreported” publications below).

We here at FGI consider “unreported” publications as the paramount problem facing the FDLP today. FDLP librarians, with their critical information skills and expertise about the structure and publishing activities of the federal government, are a vital piece of the solution to this vexing problem. The National Collection is at the core of what FDLP libraries have done for the last 200+ years, so “unreported” publications erode that very foundation. During the spring 2021 virtual Depository Library Conference, I challenged every FDLP librarian to search for, find, and report to GPO five “unreported” documents every month. I’d like to reiterate that challenge here on FGI. If every one of the 1100+ FDLP librarians were to find and report 5 documents each month, through this iterative process we’d soon put a dent in this existential “unreported” documents problem.

Four easy steps to reporting “unreported” publications

To that end, we’d like to share some simple steps for how to find and report “unreported” documents to GPO:

  1. find an interesting federal document or information product like a report, data set, video, or slide deck (see the “strategies” section below for tips and tricks for finding documents);
  2. Search the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) to see if GPO has cataloged it;
  3. If it’s NOT in the CGP, go to askGPO and fill in the “unreported document” form. See appendix for how to fill out the askGPO form;
  4. Rinse and repeat!

Strategies for finding “unreported” documents (more tips and tricks!)

  1. Read the news with an eye toward those news items and sources which cover federal policies; (See for example, https://federalnewsnetwork.com, https://www.govexec.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com, etc.)
  2. Set up Google search and news alerts for publications from your favorite agency(ies), especially the Inspector Generals’ offices of those agencies (Inspector General reports are an especially critical and long-standing type of “unreported” document! Only a portion are even posted publicly on Oversight.gov);
  3. Find and report documents you use to answer reference/research consultations;
  4. Bookmark and visit the publications- and/or press release page of your favorite agency(ies);
  5. Follow on social media your favorite agency(ies), heads of agencies, your state’s Congressional delegation, known people within the executive branch, and Federal watchdog groups. New publications are often announced on government social media accounts.

Historically “Unreported” materials of particular interest

  • Agency Inspector General reports;
  • Executive branch agency publications. See the LostDocs project for examples of documents that have been reported to GPO;
  • Communication/Letters from members of Congress to executive branch agencies;
  • Communication/Letters from federal officials to a Presidential administration;
  • Public datasets;
  • Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports* (*CRS reports were, until 2018, considered “privileged communication” between Congress and the Library of Congress and were therefore never released via the FDLP. Here’s the back story).

History of the problem

Since 1813 when the FDLP started, there have always been “unreported” documents which slipped through the cracks and were lost to the sands of time (until very recently, these were termed “fugitive” documents) [Footnote 1]. This problem has grown exponentially as executive agencies’ publishing operations have exploded, now that they can easily and freely distribute content online, and very few if any of them follow Title 44 regulations and send their documents to GPO as they are required to by law. Only a minuscule fraction of born-digital executive branch information is cataloged in the Catalog of Government Publications (CGP) or makes it into the “National Collection.” This means that every year, thousands — if not hundreds of thousands! — of Federal documents, datasets, maps, and other born-digital materials [Footnote 2] — are never preserved and are lost to the fog of history as websites are updated and historical content removed [Footnote 3].

Depository librarians reporting found publications are a critical part of a holistic solution to the “unreported” documents problem. By identifying federal information resources that are important to their local constituents, librarians are making sure that these documents will be cataloged, captured, and made accessible to a wider audience. Reporting documents also adds to a National Collection pipeline for long-term access and helps to make sure that what is collected and preserved reflects the needs and interests of the wide-ranging communities and the public which libraries serve.

Many hands make light work. Won’t you join in the effort? Please contact us if you have questions or comments at freegovinfo AT gmail DOT com.

Footnotes

1. See “‘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.

2. My back of the napkin estimate is that well over 1/2 of the “National Collection” is unreported! The executive branch is far and away the largest portion of the National Collection, and is almost completely “unreported.” See slide 5 of my 2018 Canadian Govinfo presentation for some context. Jim Jacobs’ chart cites the 2008 End of Term crawl for context on how many born-digital government publications are on the Web. The 2016 End of Term crawl nearly doubled the 2008 crawl and went from 160 million URLs to 310 million URLs harvested. I expect the 2020 End of Term crawl happening at the time of this post’s publication to far surpass 310 million!

3. FGI has written about “link rot,” “content drift,” and other issues which make it difficult to collect and preserve born-digital information.

Appendix: how to fill out the askGPO form

The AskGPO form can be used for single documents or for reporting multiple documents, for example, those listed on an agency’s publications index page. See below for the steps to filling out the askGPO form. If a site is extremely large and/or complex (eg., the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reports site) send the URL and description of the site to the GPO Web archiving team at FDLPwebarchiving AT gpo DOT gov.

  1. Log in to ask.gpo.gov (This will automatically fill in your contact information and depository library number in the form if you have used the system before);
  2. Click on “Federal Depository Library Program”;
  3. Select category “Fugitive Publications” (which will soon be changed to “unreported publications”);
  4. Choose single publication or multiple publications (there’s an excel template if you prefer to collect multiple documents and submit them all at once!);
  5. Enter title, publishing agency, publication URL, format (other fields are not required). Use your best guess if you are not sure;
  6. Upload PDF file as attachment (not required but helpful for GPO staff to have the document “in hand” when cataloging);
  7. Add any additional context that you think may aid GPO staff;
  8. Do the reCAPTCHA “I’m not a robot” test;
  9. Submit the document(s)!

Reps Quigley and Comer re-introduce Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA)

Representatives Mike Quigley (IL-05) and James Comer (KY-01) re-introduced the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA) to create a single website on which Congress and the public can easily search, sort, and download all executive agency congressional reports. Quigley has introduced this bill every Congressional session since 2011. In the last session of Congress, the bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously, but stalled in the Senate.

The ACMRA will be a boon to the American public and will add thousands of difficult-to-find executive agency reports to the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and the “National Collection.” Take a look at the list of reports required to be submitted to Congress. This list is published at the beginning of each Congressional session as a House Document entitled “Reports to be made to Congress.”

Contact your Representatives and Senators to make sure we get H.R. 2485 over the finish line this time!

“As founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Transparency Caucus, I am proud to re-introduce this hallmark transparency bill that I have introduced every Congress since 2011,” said Quigley. “This bill will increase government transparency by providing the public easily-accessible information on how agencies are accomplishing their policy goals. By consolidating this information in one location, my hope is that it will improve the institutional and technological capacity of the legislative branch and rebuild the public’s trust in our government. I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass this legislation in the House again this Congress.”

“Good governance requires the American people have full, transparent access to information about their government. Congress receives thousands of reports annually from federal agencies about how they are fulfilling their missions, but there isn’t a spot to find all of them in one place. The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act provides Americans easy access to these reports by requiring all federal agency congressional reports be housed in one accessible location. If these reports can’t be easily found, the reports don’t serve their purpose. The American people need the information contained in these reports to be accessible so we can see and understand how the federal government is using their taxpayer dollars. The House and Senate must take up this commonsense legislation,” said Committee on Oversight and Reform Ranking Member Comer.

Great news! GPO announces “fugitive documents” will now be called “unreported publications”

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.

Help us celebrate Sunshine Week!

Sunshine Week!

This week is Sunshine Week hosted by the News Leaders Association! Begun in 2005 to highlight and promote open government, FOIA and access to government information (well that’s how we here at FGI celebrate it 😉 ), you can track on what’s happening this week on the Sunshine Week twitter account, share your own Sunshine Week happenings at #sunshineweek, and also check out the information in Sunshine Week toolkit for how to get involved, interesting events, inspiration and resources for teachers, librarians, journalists, and school, civic or non-profit organizations.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED:

Publish Sunshine Week content toolkit: Major news organizations work together on a special reporting package free for anyone to publish in print or online during Sunshine Week, made available at the start of the week’s events. Find this year’s offerings under Content Toolkit.

Share your stories: Sunshine Week celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2020, and we’ve made a lot of gains in open government thanks to your work. Please share your experiences, success stories, FOIA battles, new laws and other efforts on behalf of open government. Tweet to us @SunshineWeek or use #SunshineWeek to share.

Join us March 18: In partnership with First Amendment Coalition, we’re hosting a discussion on navigating barriers to public records and fighting for open government. Make sure to register here.

If you are in the world of journalism, you can highlight the importance of openness through stories, editorials, columns, cartoons or graphics.

If you are part of a civic group, you can organize local forums, sponsor essay contests or press elected officials to pass proclamations on the importance of open access.

If you are an educator, you can use Sunshine Week to teach your students about how government transparency improves our lives and makes our communities stronger.

If you are an elected official, you can pass a resolution supporting openness, introduce legislation improving public access or encourage training of government employees to ensure compliance with existing laws mandating open records and meetings.

If you are a private citizen, you can write a letter to the editor or spread the word to friends through social media.

DCinbox: amazing collection of Congressional e-newsletters

As many of our readers know, government information includes critical but often “grey” or ephemeral information including communications between our elected officials and their constituents. Here’s a very cool project called DCinbox, a database of Congressional e-newsletters. Lindsey Cormack, professor of politic at Stevens Institute of Technology, has been collecting Congressional e-newsletters since 2009. There are nearly 90,000 unique e-newsletters in the database — which is both searchable and available as a full dataset! This is a rich dataset that can help analyze partisan differences and ideology in all kinds of policy matters.

Congressional e-newsletters. For more than a decade, political scientist Lindsey Cormack’s DCinbox project has collected “every official e-newsletter sent by sitting members of the U.S. House and Senate.” You can search the corpus online and also download all the emails as a series of CSV files, grouped by month. For each of the 130,000+ mailings, the files provide the date, subject, body, and sender’s Bioguide ID. (April 2020 was the highest-volume month, with more than 2,300 messages, nearly all of them mentioning the coronavirus.)

HT to Data is Plural 2021.03.03 edition. Please subscribe to their weekly newsletter and see all of the datasets that they have highlighted in previous newsletters!

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