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GPO Disapproves of Report on the Future of Federal Depository Libraries
Posted On August 25, 2011
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On May 16, 2011, after about 8 months of research, Ithaka S+R submitted a final report, titled "Modeling a Sustainable Future for the United States: Federal Depository Library Program’s Network of Libraries in the 21st Century," to the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO). The contractor had been hired to develop practical and sustainable models for the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). The report came too late for the Spring 2011 Depository Library Council meeting to discuss, though depository librarians had been watching the draft documents related to Ithaka’s work throughout the process.

On Aug. 5, 2011, the GPO released a copy of the report to the public, along with a brief statement proclaiming its disapproval of the report’s findings. Although Ithaka’s research reporting had gone through multiple draft reports, Mary Alice Baish, the superintendent of Documents, pronounced the efforts by the contractor “unacceptable.”

Precisely what elements of the report were “unacceptable” and what GPO will ask of the contractor to “fix” it remain unclear. When asked to comment, one of the authors of the study, Roger Schonfeld, stated, “Our client, GPO, … has asked that we refer all follow-up to its Office of the Superintendent of Documents.”

Gary Somerset, media and public relations manager at GPO, noted that, “GPO is seeking comments to help us plan the Oct. 20 discussion [at the Fall 2011 Federal Depository Library Conference] … During the modeling process, a limited number of individuals responded to Ithaka’s call for comments and we want to make sure that the views of the broader depository library community are considered as we move forward to ensure the vibrant future of the FDLP.”

It’s unclear why the GPO allowed the contractor to move forward with the study without altering the tactics employed if it saw that the number of respondents was too limited. Whether another month using the same web-based approach will yield new insights remains to be seen.

When the contract was awarded to Ithaka S+R in September 2010, depository librarians were vocal about this hardly being the first exploration as to how the program might be modified to better serve the American public. Through the past 20 years, depository librarians have participated in numerous studies, providing their comments and ideas as to how the program might evolve; now, they were ripe for action, not additional research efforts.

The FDLP is one mechanism that the GPO uses to carry out its mission to “produce, protect, preserve, and distribute documents of our democracy.” The program, established by Congress in 1813, ensures “that the American public has access to its Government information … The FDLP provides Government information at no cost to designated depository libraries throughout the country and the territories. These depository libraries, in turn, provide local, no-fee access to Government information in an impartial environment with professional assistance.” As of April 2011, there were 1,216 depository libraries of which 49 are regional libraries receiving all publications distributed by GPO to depository libraries. More than 1,000 depository libraries (1,167) are “selective,” meaning that they select items available to depository libraries based on the interests of the communities they serve. The majority of these libraries are academic and the government publications support the research conducted at their institutions.

Thirty-one participants at the Spring 2011 Depository Library Conference came specifically to discuss the Ithaka report. As Kirsten Clark of the University of Minnesota pointed out during the meeting in San Antonio:

We’ve done this seven, twenty times in the past. And my point would be we’ve already had these conversations. Can we just have somebody come up with a plan, have something to react to… for me that was one of the reasons I was wanting to come here, is because we had something solid, whether you agreed with it or not, to actually base our conversation on. And we keep having these conversations that go circle after circle after circle. What I want is somebody just to come up with a plan, something that we can talk about, that we can build off of, that we can agree about, that we can disagree about. We’re just going to have the same conversation over and over again until somebody actually does that. (Applause.)

The GPO instructed Ithaka S+R to:

  • Create and host a publicly accessible website about the project, posting interim reports and collecting comments
  • Conduct an environmental scan “to identify the broad range of key external issues that can inform planning and decision-making”
  • Report on existing models of library networks, consortia, and depository programs
  • Develop new models for the program
  • Develop a value proposition for a 21st century Federal Depository Library Program
  • Submit recommendations for sustainable models indicating how the FDLP statutory authority (44 USC § § 1901-1916) would need to be revised

Ithaka S+R is the strategic consulting and research arm of Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization whose services to the academic community include JSTOR, an online system for archiving academic journals, and Portico, a digital archive to preserve scholarly literature. Ithaka S+R was awarded the GPO contract on the basis of having submitted the “lowest price technically acceptable” proposal—perhaps not the best basis for awarding a contract demanding innovation and creativity in gathering information and developing solutions. When the award was announced in September 2010, some in the library community criticized the choice of contractor. Given that the company’s focus is electronic journal archiving, librarians were concerned that their voices would not be heard.

Ithaka S+R had just completed a “comprehensive study on the state of the Federal Library Depository Program” (FLDP) for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). The report was titled "Documents for a Digital Democracy: A Model for the Federal Depository Library Program in the 21st Century." So, they should have had a good idea as to what was necessary and what might be accomplished within a compressed timeline, with requirements for multiple deliverables, and recognizing the importance of gathering input from all stakeholders. (For that study, Ithaka S+R interviewed nearly 90 individuals, including librarians from 40 institutions as well as representatives of the GPO and a number of other key stakeholders. According to the report, those key stakeholders included two state government officials; five professors; three graduate students; seven GPO employees; three library-related organizations; Google; two not-for-profit, non-partisan organizations working for greater transparency in government; and one White House official.)


The final report fell short in terms of structure and format, but mistakes were made throughout the process. While multiple outlines, draft reports, and final documents were required as part of the project, oversight must have been lax as the contractor was allowed to proceed with little altered.

The dense final report, while information-rich, falls short from its complexity and probably would have received a warmer reception if modified. However, the report had too little input—only 75 comments from a small community of depository librarians with no input from the ultimate users of government information. As James Jacobs, documents librarian at Stanford University, observed in a FreeGovernmentInformation response, the report “assumes that if the Program is of value to participating libraries, it will have value to the public…Rather than building a Program that has value to users, it proposes trying to build a Program that has value to libraries in the hopes that they will participate and that their participation will somehow have a trickle down benefit to users.” Noting the number of libraries that have withdrawn from the program (or otherwise reduced the number of items they receive as selective depositories), it seems clear that some libraries consider that the burden outweighs the benefits. The real question is whether those who used those depository libraries are feeling the loss and where they go now to access materials they need.

Equally narrow was the environmental scan that looked only at library networks, consortia, and depository programs. Surely, other fields/industries have been disrupted by new technologies and have had to reinvent themselves to thrive in the present and make themselves flexible enough to accommodate future change. The GPO should have made these observations early on in the process and asked the contractor to consider how greater input could have been achieved through greater targeted communication.

The focus of this project was too narrow in limiting it to setting an overall direction for the FDLP. If the project’s scope had been framed more broadly, Ithaka S+R could have looked at the roles and responsibilities that need to be assumed in a 21st century effort to “produce, protect, preserve, and distribute documents” and how elements of FDLP could contribute positively to that overall effort.

The report “identifies three fundamental collective responsibilities that maintain and extend the Program’s historic roles for FDLP network of libraries”:

  • Provide access to and preservation of tangible collections
  • Provide access to and preservation of digital collections
  • Provide access to government information support services

However, Ithaka makes no attempt to understand the needs of ultimate users—the American public—by type of user, and using this understanding to formulate a new or alternative set-up more suited to the ways in which we live, learn, and work today and will in the future. Ithaka organized its research findings into 12 themes grouped into three categories: Collections and formats; Services; and Network of libraries. The research shaped the contractor’s ideas in terms of six building blocks, configured differently, playing a role in five new models. Four new models are compared as well as the baseline, existing model with no changes. There are some interesting ideas here, but the models should have been presented in terms of how they would serve the needs of the ultimate public, the needs of the libraries, and the needs of the federal government, meaning not only GPO but also other agencies.

Depository librarians are encouraged to comment on the Ithaka study and contribute to “a discussion of our shared vision of the future of the FDLP” at by Sept.16, 2011. This will give the Depository Library Council some weeks to prepare for a daylong discussion at the Fall 2011 Federal Depository Library Conference (Oct. 20 in Washington, D.C.). It’s a shame that others are not able to submit their ideas and opinions as well.

Does Any Report Really Matter?

Whatever policies are in place, GPO’s budget will definitely be cut in FY2012. The GPO knows what it costs to manage the FDLP; what it needs to determine is what the country will lose (or not) if the program is eliminated. If more cost-effective substitutions cannot be found for what depository libraries offer current and future researchers, the Ithaka report may help GPO to determine specific actions it should take to reduce the burden on individual libraries and bolster the program for future generations.

According to OMB Watch, “GPO requested $5 million specifically to continue the development of FDsys (GPO’s Federal Digital System), but the entire line item was cut from the” House Appropriations bill for FY 2012, H.R. 2551, passed on July 22. Since FDsys provides access to the very documents in these depositories, the GPO should consider with care the changes it makes to the Depository Library Program.

The Sunlight Foundation and Free Government Information are two expert sources tracking the coming cuts, as are we. We expect that the Oct. 20 Depository Library meeting will yield some concrete changes in the Program.

In the meantime, I am checking to see if a non-depository librarian can contribute to the GPO discussion.

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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