The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) is now several months into the development of a national plan for the future of the more than century-old partnership between FDLP libraries and the Government Printing Office (GPO). As planning progresses, we who support the long-term vitality of the FDLP need to do more than chart a course that works for depository libraries and our users. We need to make a powerful case for the value of the FDLP to those who provide its resources at both ends of the partnership – library administrators and federal government policymakers – who may be growing increasingly skeptical of its relevance. We need a plan that establishes this partnership between libraries and government as a critical part of a cost-effective solution to the challenges citizens face in navigating government information resources in their personal and business lives and as sovereigns of our democracy.
When FDLP document distribution was entirely tangible, the terms of the bargain and the benefits for both libraries and government were clear. FDLP libraries got rich collections of government documents for their users, and the prestige of being recognized as government information experts and stewards of information collections vital to our democracy. Government agencies got front-line armies of librarians to provide street-level information assistance to citizens, heading off countless government information inquiries without taxing the limited resources of government agencies.
In the digital environment, the bargain is murkier, and the relationship between depository libraries and the federal government, GPO in particular, is more nuanced. Wide access to online sources of government information blunts the role of libraries in general, and depository libraries in particular, as critical entry points to document collections. When citizens do seek government information assistance at libraries, they are less likely to perceive much difference between depository and non-depository libraries, as the nearly equal universe of born-digital documents available in each raises the possibility of “every library a depository.” Meanwhile, as existing print collections lose currency and their use declines, physical documents collections are increasingly viewed by library administrators as more of a burden than a benefit.
From a government official’s perspective, the provision of government information services in libraries is seen as increasingly untethered from an anachronistic system of documents distribution, as the number of libraries with access to born-digital government information now far outpaces the number of depository libraries in the print era. So while the provision of government information services in libraries remains valuable to government, the FDLP is seen as less critical to that provision.
Against this background, three vital elements of the long-standing partnership between government and libraries are too often overlooked and deserve more emphasis in our long-range planning: the expertise on tap at depository libraries, the role of librarians in the development of government information policy and delivery afforded by the FDLP, and the continuation of the FDLP’s long-standing role of providing transparency for and access to the information tools of our democracy.
Along with access to document collections, the FDLP has always provided the public with another essential resource: librarians. An understanding of how government works informs an understanding of the publication and dissemination patterns of government bodies, which is often critical in finding government information. If the massive online distribution of born-digital documents has made them more available, it has also made their navigation more difficult than ever. The FDLP has developed a cadre of government information experts who are available to provide training to staff in non-depository libraries, including staff who may work with government information only occasionally or as one of many duties, as well as reference assistance to users who may or may not visit the library in person. The FDLP needs to emphasize library-to-library training efforts like Government Information in the 21st Century, and reference services like those provided by the Government Information Online (GIO) partnership between libraries and GPO.
The history of the FDLP demonstrates that government information policy outcomes are better when government and librarians work together. The assertion that libraries have ceded their special role in providing government information now that “it’s all on the Internet” overlooks many issues that we know are important to the needs of our users, like discoverability, preservation, version control, and authentication. Working together, libraries and GPO are beginning to make progress toward solutions to these problems for born-digital documents. The value of bringing GPO staff and depository librarians together is manifested in all kinds of ways that even we in the documents community sometimes overlook. The Federal Digital System (FDsys), for example, would not be what it is, work as well as it does, or promise as much for the future without this close partnership. It’s also unlikely that authentication would have been on anyone’s radar at GPO without the collaboration of the libraries in the FDLP.
Transparency and access
In the print era, the FDLP established itself as the most comprehensive and most successful government transparency program ever implemented, long before transparency became the operational mandate that it is today in government. One lesson from the earliest days of the FDLP is that public access to government information is better secured when libraries, not government, are the stewards of that information. That lesson may be more relevant today than ever before; studies like the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group’s “link rot” reports show that born-digital document collections hosted on government websites are apt to disappear at alarming rates. Access today, if provided without thoughtful management, does not guarantee access tomorrow, much less for the long term. Government information belongs to the public; assuring that access cannot be left to government agencies working independently. Through the FDLP, important rules were established to require agencies to deposit documents to make them publicly available, and while fugitive documents have long undermined those rules, the vigilant oversight provided by librarians and GPO working together remains a critical and effective counterweight to the risk of agencies exercising too much control over the provision of public information.
One stress point posing a particular challenge to FDLP planning is the heavy burden borne by Regional libraries. Adequate distribution of redundant physical copies remains essential, but the model of several dozen massive physical collections held in perpetuity has been overwhelmed by financial and organizational realities that are unpleasant but can’t be wished away. The FDLP needs to respond by providing reasonable assurance that enough comprehensive collections will always be preserved, and the same access whether users are two hours away or twelve hours away from the nearest Regional. Digitization on demand services provided by Regionals, along with a means to provide access to the digital copy through GPO’s Catalog of Government Publications, is one possible alternative.