The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) is the subject of a report released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on March 29, 2012. “Federal Depository Library Program: Issues for Congress” (report number R42457) includes a brief history of the program, a section on the ITHAKA report prepared for the Government Printing Office, and a discussion on some key issues. The report concluded that the current statutes (44 U.S.C. 1901-1916) governing the FDLP are not sufficient to regulate the program in the digital age.
The FDLP was authorized by Congress in 1813 and provided that one copy of the journals of the House and Senate “should be sent to each university and college and each historical society.” The law specifying the current structure and operation of the FDLP was passed in 1962 before technology changed the way we create, process, store, and distribute information. The program has expanded in scope providing access to thousands of government publications. Currently, there are more than 1,200 depository libraries. The FDLP is managed by the Government Printing Office (GPO) and provides the means for GPO to disseminate print and digital information to the public.
The CRS report stated, “The transition to digital information raises a number of issues of possible interest to Congress … Issues include the following: maintenance and availability of the FDLP tangible collection; retention and preservation of digital information; access to FDLP resources; authenticity and accuracy of digital material; robustness of the FDLP Electronic Collection; and the costs of FDLP and other government information distribution initiatives.” The report was written from the perspective of a government producer and pointed out that the GPO provides access to digital content that it does not produce or control, as well as documents and files it produces.
The role of the consumer taxpayer and user of government information was not included in the discussion. The report indicated that libraries assume the cost of depository operations. These costs include storage, maintenance, cataloging, preservation, information technology, and public access including providing personal assistance to information consumers who often have difficulty with finding information. The operating costs associated with being a federal depository library are significant and can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. These costs are born by the parent institution of the library and may be a city, state, or university. With municipal and university budgets under great strain, some libraries may consider opting out of the FDLP program. While GPO and federal agencies are making progress in producing material in digital form, some documents remain in paper. During FY2011, GPO distributed 2 million copies of 10,200 print documents to depository libraries.
Many older documents have not been digitized and are available only in paper form. The CRS report points out that as much as one-third of the tangible collection is not cataloged. Most of these items were created prior to 1976. Some libraries are digitizing their tangible collections. Mary Alice Baish, superintendent of documents, in an interview in late 2011, said that GPO created a registry of library projects dealing with digitization and has made it available on the FLDP desktop (Information Today, January 2012). She added that GPO and the Library of Congress have a joint project to digitize the bound Congressional Record beginning in 1873.
Retention and preservation of tangible and born digital information is critical. Future generations and scholars need an accurate record of the proceedings and actions of government. There are questions about who will and/or should be responsible for preservation. What is the best way to preserve born digital information? No one has answers at this stage. The changes in technology and the cost of implementing change as the body of information grows are difficult to solve and require a long-term perspective, as well as long-term funding.
The report points out other issues related to the ownership of digital material and the effect of change on the need to provide permanent public access. Several questions are posed by the report. Where do electronic collections reside? Are data management protocols sufficient to assure no loss of data? What backup policies are in place and how much duplication is needed?
The CRS report concludes by raising issues that Congress might consider. These issues include development of methods and technologies to ensure long-term preservation of digitized and born digital information; a more inclusive definition of materials to be included in the FDLP program; the extent to which the FDLP program should be expanded to include more libraries; and the cost of the program to the federal government. The report did not indicate permanent and easy access to information as a concern for Congress nor did the authors address the costs to libraries of program operations.
I contacted several people associated with the FDLP program. They indicated that they did not wish to comment at this time as the report was written for Congress. One person indicated that there is no consensus on the suitability of the current statutes. While it is clear that changes could be beneficial, there are people who believe that the FDLP can operate within the current law. Authority for oversight of the GPO and its programs rests with the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing (JCP). I reached Salley Ward, spokesperson for Representative Gregg Harper of Mississippi and co-chair of the JCP. She said that Congressman Harper is reviewing the report and that the JCP is looking at Title 44. Ward also pointed out that Congressman Harper has made digitization a priority and has worked diligently to eliminate the amount of paper being printed and distributed in the Congress.
Given the Congressional workload, it may be some time before the JCP can give Title 44 a thorough review. It is essential that preservation and permanent public access be continued and funded appropriately so that the American people will be able to know what their government has done and what it is doing.