Government Information in Peril

Librarians need to work now to preserve the GPO Federal Digital System

July 29, 2011

Wake up, librarians! No-fee public access to government information is in danger, because on July 22 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 252–159 to drastically cut the Government Printing Office (GPO) appropriations for FY2012 and eliminate funding for the GPO Federal Digital System (FDsys). FDsys was created by GPO in 1994 to fulfill the requirement of the 1993 GPO Access Act to provide online electronic government information at no charge to the American people. The cuts are part of H.R. 2551, which provides legislative branch appropriations for FY2012.

We are also in danger of losing GPO, the agency charged by Congress for the past 150 years with protecting the public’s access to government information, just to save a few bucks. Dismembering or privatizing GPO, as the House proposes, will not save the government any money, but it will damage public access to government information. The bill directs the Government Accountability Office to “review the feasibility of Executive Branch printing being performed by the General Services Administration, the transfer of the Superintendent of Documents program to the Library of Congress, and the privatization of the GPO” (“Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, 2012,” House Report 112–148, July 15). Former Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), who convinced Congress in 1993 to vote for the GPO Access Act, had asked Congressional Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) staff, including myself, to draft a bill transferring Superintendent of Documents to LC, but he did not pursue the measure because he realized that the role of a library is very different from the role of a publisher, printer, and distributor.

The House-passed bill cuts funding for the Superintendent of Documents program from nearly $40 million to less than $34 million, making it very difficult for GPO to support the Federal Depository Library Program; the acquisition, cataloging, and dissemination of government documents; the LC International Exchange Program; and mandated distribution of publications to the three branches of government.

Congress is about to break its promise that if libraries and the public give up paper, they will still have permanent no-fee access to electronic government information. The House proposes that GPO fund FDsys by renting GPO’s unused space in its big red brick building to federal agencies. There is no guarantee that, even if GPO were able to find renters by October 1, it would collect enough money to keep FDsys in operation and allow the inclusion of new publications. Members of Congress may think they can turn to LC’s THOMAS database for legislative information, but they probably do not realize that much of THOMAS’s content is provided by GPO.

GPO is the only federal agency required by law to provide publishing and dissemination services to all three branches of government, which makes it possible for GPO to fulfill Title 44 U.S. Code, “Distribution and Sale of Public Documents,” Sec. 1710–11, and “Depository Library Program,” Sec. 1903, which require GPO to identify, catalog, and disseminate government publications to the American people. Without a centralized source for publishing services, we are in danger of losing access to more and more government documents.

Dismembering GPO will not save money. Each branch of government will duplicate the GPO procurement system, which is an efficient and cost-effective way to match agencies with contractors. The more decentralized the contracting system, the harder it will be for small printers to compete for contracts and for the Superintendent of Documents to track publications for depository distribution.

The funding cuts will force GPO to reduce the number of publications they catalog in OCLC, thus forcing libraries (including LC and the Senate and House Libraries) to once again do their own original cataloging.

Congress is charged with oversight of the executive branch. A decentralized system will make it very difficult to obtain the necessary information from executive agencies in order to do its job.

JCP oversees the printing and publishing activities of the three branches of government. The late Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.), former JCP chair, wrote in the introduction to a 1985 directory of federal depository libraries: “The laws establishing the depository library program are among the oldest right-to-know statutes passed by the U.S. Congress. The members of the Joint Committee on Printing enthusiastically support this program and encourage citizens to avail themselves of the wealth of information available through the depository libraries.”

Both JCP and GPO have worked with the library community to strengthen the depository library program. GPO frequently consults with its constituency through its Depository Library Council and attendance at library association meetings.

On July 21, ALA Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff forwarded the June 2011 ALA Council resolution (PDF file) in support of full funding for GPO to House Committee on Appropriations Chair Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Ranking Member Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), writing: “No-fee public access to government information is the foundation of an informed citizenry; these cuts in appropriations will affect the public’s right to government information. While we understand the need to make difficult decisions regarding the budget, we feel that hampering permanent public access of government information to the public is too high a price to pay.”

Now is the time to urge your senators to restore funding to the Superintendent of Documents and to FDsys. Now is the time to urge the Joint Committee on Printing to stand up and defend the program it is charged with protecting. JCP could start by holding hearings on the proposal to privatize or dismember GPO. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) chairs JCP, while Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is vice chair.

Now is the time to inform the White House, the press, other professional associations, and the public that we are in danger of losing both access to government information and GPO—our long-time champion of public access.

BERNADINE ABBOTT HODUSKI is a retired professional staffer of the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing, former federal depository librarian, and one of the founders of ALA’s Government Documents Round Table. She is the author of Lobbying for Libraries and the Public’s Access to Government Information (Scarecrow, 2003) and a regular contributor to The Unabashed Librarian.