Fixing the Federal Depository Library Program

The system must respond to the digital age and a weakened economy

April 16, 2010


In April 2009, the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) released its updated Federal Depository Library Program Strategic Plan, 2009–2014 (PDF file), which summarizes the current condition of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and posits a future for the program in which depository libraries will be significant providers of current and historical government information.

Many points in GPO’s plan were restated in a report released in October 2009, Documents for a Digital Democracy, prepared by Ithaka S+R and commissioned by the Association of Research Libraries and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. The Ithaka report also addresses key service issues, among them digitization and discoverability of federal information and the future of tangible documents collections.

In the wake of those two crucial reports, I will try to clarify the key issues related to the future of depository libraries and emphasize practical steps in a transition to new models for collections and public service. I hope this wider exposure will help elevate this discussion beyond depository librarians and the GPO to the level of the national library community.

The FDLP’s mission is to make federal government publications easily available in every congressional district (1,190 selective depositories and, in most states, a regional federal depository). The GPO identifies the following “Principles for Government Information” in its strategic plan:

  • The public has the right of access to government information;
  • Government has the obligation to disseminate and provide broad public access to its information;
  • Government has an obligation to guarantee the authenticity and integrity of its information;
  • Government has an obligation to preserve its information;
  • Government information created or compiled by government employees or at government expense should remain in the public domain.

The plan also projects several characteristics of the FDLP through 2014:

  • The Principles for Government Information will remain the FDLP’s core ideology.
  • Federal depository libraries will continue to facilitate access to the American public through traditional services as well as through enhanced or new services made possible by the digital age.
  • GPO, working actively with depositories, will ensure accessibility, findability, and usability of government information dissemination products.
  • The options for building federal depository collections will increase.
  • Regional depositories will continue to have the responsibility for permanent public access for tangible publications that remain in their collections.
  • GPO will ensure permanent public access to, provide version control of, and authenticate federal digital content. This does not rule out depository libraries providing redundancy.
  • Communication will exist, and improve, between and among GPO, depository libraries, other federal agencies, and the public and communities served by depository libraries.
  • Consumers of federal information will be able to access it from wherever they are and whenever they need it.

Government information departments in many libraries have been downsized or eliminated. As this trend continues and more depositories leave the FDLP, many libraries will be unprepared to meet their users’ needs for government information. Notwithstanding, the public, students, and researchers still need the full range of federal government information, from publications printed at the birth of the republic to those “born digitally” and posted on the internet.

Although libraries nationwide have partially bridged the digital divide by providing public access computers, these efforts do not ensure access to online government information. Disadvantaged segments of the public often lack internet access, making it harder for them to get tax forms, respond to proposed government regulations and actions, or find more elusive information such as federal reports not sent to depositories. If federal depository libraries are to have a significant future, they must effectively redefine both access and outreach. Failure to do so will distance populations from services they need and could further erode public support for libraries.

Meeting the public’s needs

Regional depository libraries agree to receive all publications made available to federal depository libraries and retain them permanently. These libraries are intended to be an easily accessible safety net for meeting the public’s needs for government information. The 50 regional depositories that currently exist are now somewhat redundant, due to the presence of holdings in multilibrary catalogs like WorldCat and availability of materials through regional and nationwide interlibrary loan networks. Even so, many libraries and their users rely on the relative permanence of regional library collections.

In contrast, selective depository libraries may receive only those publications they wish to add to their collections. Selectives may also reduce their collections by weeding (with approval from their regional library). A small but increasing number of selective depositories are leaving the FDLP, their directors citing the burden of processing publications that aren’t used and the diminishing importance of maintaining tangible collections of government publications when most current federal publications are available online.

The GPO and depository librarians see the national network of federal depositories as a safety net for public access to government information, but we can’t presume they perform this function effectively for all of society. Many people in both urban and rural settings are isolated from libraries, such as those with mobility limitations or without convenient transportation. The safety net also misses a lot of information (including e-mail messages, postings on social networking sites, presidential records, product safety and recall information, records and publications with a security classification, and federally funded research). Another threat to the safety net is the trend among libraries to reconsider their depository status, with some leaving the program altogether. In our currently weak economy, depository status isn’t too attractive if it entails staff costs for processing current paper and microfiche documents into collections, when virtually all of it is available online.

Fixing the safety net

In today’s environment, what “safety net” roles can we propose for depository libraries and the U.S. Government Printing Office?

Congress can:

  • Revise Title 44 of the United States Code to conform with current library and information service practices, specifically: allowing permanent online access to depository publications to replace tangible copies in all depository libraries; permitting establishment of interstate regional libraries and at least two comprehensive archival collections of federal government publications; and defining the scope and requirements for “digital deposit,” whereby libraries would capture and locally host electronic copies of federal publications.

Selective depositories can:

  • Affirm and strengthen their commitment to make government information easily available to their communities. They should do this with minimal reliance on tangible collections. The experiences of the University of Arizona and three new depositories (all in tribal college libraries), all of which have formally committed to emphasize online access, can guide other libraries moving in this direction.
  • Meet community members in branch libraries and outside library buildings (e.g., shopping malls, schools, community centers) and bring popular government information to them in these locations. This will lessen the isolation of users from library services.
  • Direct their public service staff’s attention to government information–related training opportunities and provide support for them to participate.
  • Include the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications in a federated search or similar application with the local library catalog. This will lessen the library’s workload for catalog maintenance and can be a cheap, satisfactory alternative to purchasing GPO bibliographic and item records from commercial services.
  • Conduct zero-based reviews of publications they select from the GPO. Libraries should select only those items needed for 1) reference assistance, when a paper copy is more convenient than an online version; and 2) known user interests, which may include such things as maps and printed legal sources.
  • Base continuing or relinquishing depository library status upon user needs rather than processing workload. Maintaining depository status will encourage valuable connections with other libraries and information providers and allow libraries to meet user needs better than if they exit the national program.

Regional depositories should adopt the first four points recommended above for selective libraries, plus the following:

  • Conduct long-term outreach within their region (usually statewide) and provide needed staff training in both selective depositories and nondepositories. When training others, regional librarians should emphasize sources and search techniques. Good training will strengthen government-related reference and research services, even as selective depositories continue to leave the program.
  • Join the Government Information Online reference service (GIO). GIO allows government information librarians to assist users and share their expertise nationally (membership is also open to selective depository libraries).
  • Contribute to efforts to catalog pre-1976 U.S. government publications not already in OCLC and identify the best such records already in the database. GPO is currently creating brief records from its retrospective shelflist, but will need assistance from libraries to create complete MARC records.

The U.S. Government Printing Office should:

  • Comprehensively capture, archive, and disseminate web-based federal government information (or more broadly, born-digital federal information). The GPO’s FDSys program currently supplies authenticated files, including the Congressional Record, Federal Register, bills, and public laws. FDSys needs software that will scan the web for federal information not generated by GPO, then capture and authenticate it. Such harvested information must be organized for public access and archived for preservation, which requires periodic refreshing and migration to new formats.
  • Provide bibliographic access to all known federal publications issued since 1789 by finishing the conversion of GPO’s shelflist to MARC record format. Any records created or collected by this and other retrospective cataloging projects should be added to the online Catalog of Government Publications. GPO can collaborate with libraries by providing converted shelflist records, which participating libraries could check, revise, attach holdings to, and submit to OCLC.
  • Create two tangible, national retrospective collections of U.S. government publications, to be housed separately in secure federal buildings. These would be archival collections from which tangible and electronic copies would be made for libraries and end users. Since the GPO has no library, collaboration with existing depositories will be necessary to establish and operate such collections.
  • Create or sponsor an online retrospective collection of U.S. government publications, with both basic and advanced search interfaces. These electronic surrogates could be linked from the current Catalog of Government Publications interface, WorldCat, and local library catalogs. The need for coordinated standards and oversight makes GPO (or a contracting entity) the most logical organization to lead this effort. As public domain–based digitization of older federal documents progresses, each associated record in WorldCat and GPO’s Catalog of Government Publications should include a hyperlink to a digital copy.
  • Assist and consult with selective and regional libraries as they evaluate their depository status. The wide availability of federal government information online has eroded the value of building and maintaining tangible collections, and library directors are ever more reluctant to commit staff to traditional processing and maintenance routines. This forces selective and regional depository library directors to identify and protect services that their funding authorities will support.

James Madison wrote in 1822 that  “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both . . . and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” The national library community should take Madison’s warning to heart and use its expertise, infrastructure, and emerging technology to assure a strong and lasting presence for government information in library services.

Patrick Ragains is business and government information librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno.