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Agreement Ensures Permanent Public Online Access to Government Information
Posted On August 25, 2003
Public Printer, Bruce R. James, and Archivist of the United States, John W. Carlin, announced an agreement that will enable the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to ensure free and permanent access to more than 250,000 federal government titles available through GPO Access (

These titles include Congressional Record, Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, U. S. Code, and the publications of many federal agencies. GPO Access is available to anyone who uses the Internet. It provides quick and easy access to important government information. People lacking Internet access may use GPO Access at any one of the more than 1,200 depository libraries.

James said, "GPO is committed to providing permanent public access to the online versions of the most important government publications." (See: "New Life for GPO: Interview with Bruce R. James," Searcher, September 2003, pp. 50-54.) Archivist Carlin said, "Preserving the essential evidence of our Government's work is a serious responsibility and we feel confident that working together with GPO will enable us to ensure that these records will continue to be available for all to use."

Robert Willard, executive director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, observed that the NARA/GPO agreement is an outgrowth of the 2001 NCLIS report, Comprehensive Assessment of Public Information Dissemination. Recommendation 29 stated that the federal government should partner broadly "to ensure permanent public availability of public information resources." Willard said: "I am really pleased with the recent agreement between GPO and NARA. NCLIS has long valued government information, and in our recent Comprehensive Assessment, we urged that government information be recognized as a strategic resource. The agreement between NARA and GPO guarantees use of much government information in perpetuity."

A more recent study carried out by the American Association of Law Libraries, "State by State Report on Permanent Public Access to Electronic Government Information," defined permanent public access "as the process by which applicable government information is preserved for current continuous and future public access."

The report pointed out: "Titles that are born digital and have not been retained for preservation and permanent public access upon removal from a government agency web site are likely to be lost forever." The study assessed, state by state, the level of permanent public access to electronic information and found "that no state is comprehensively addressing" the issues required for permanent public access. While there is a growing awareness among the states, there are few states that have enacted legislation to incorporate electronic information into their public access systems.

The Government Documents Round Table, American Library Association, adopted "Principles on Government Information" in 1991. These principles incorporate the public's right to know about government operations and activities, dissemination of electronic information in a manner that promotes its usefulness to the public, and the government's obligation to archive and preserve public information.

NARA is responsible for the collection, custody, and use of federal government records in all forms [U. S. C. 44 (21)]. The NARA/GPO agreement specifies that NARA will have legal custody of records as directed by law and GPO will retain physical custody and be responsible for permanent public access and preservation. Judith Russell, Superintendent of Documents, explained that NARA may create affiliated archives if it deems the source as capable of preserving records and information. She said, "Through this agreement NARA recognized and affirmed that GPO is a trusted agency for preservation."

Librarians and others have had serious concerns about the need to archive and preserve all government information. "This new agreement is a critically important step that demonstrates the Federal Government's commitment to these concerns. We applaud GPO and NARA for working collaboratively so that the public will have access to this valuable information, both today and in the future," said Janis L. Johnston, president of the American Association of Law Libraries.

Cass Hartnet, head of government publications, University of Washington, said that the agreement was exciting. She pointed out that information can disappear from the Web. This agreement will ensure that information will be there forever. She indicated that she did not see any immediate impact on users. William Sudduth, head of documents and microforms, University of South Carolina, said: "It is nice to see cooperation and people working together. I hope it will continue." Sudduth also did not see any immediate effect on information users.

A key challenge for GPO, NARA, and librarians is getting the word out to the public about GPO Access and the preservation program. Long-term access to government information has extraordinary value for researchers, students, and others who want to know how the government works and how events of the past shaped our history, our laws, and our society. The Congressional Record reveals thinking and ideas and can be a valuable source in learning how current laws and regulations evolved. Future generations will benefit significantly by having our nation's history preserved and available through the GPO/NARA agreement. Many people born after about 1965 rely almost exclusively on the Internet to fulfill their information needs. For many younger people, if it is not on the Internet it does not exist.

Joel Mokyr, in his book, The Gifts of Athena (Princeton University Press, 2001), points out how reduction of the cost of access to information increased learning and the transfer of useful knowledge. The transfer of information and knowledge lead to technological development and change, economic growth, and better educated citizenry. GPO and NARA, through this agreement, have given the nation and the world a very valuable gift for the future. As the storehouse of information grows, more people will be able to access our history and learn how we got where we are by reading original documents and the ideas and thinking of our national leaders.

Miriam A. Drake was professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library.

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