November 21, 2017

GPO Requests Recommendations to Update Federal Deposit Library Rules

U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) director Davita Vance-Cooks has asked the Depository Library Council (DLC) to recommend changes to Chapter 19 of Title 44 of the U.S. Code, a request that has some members of the government information community concerned and others encouraged. Chapter 19 codifies GPO’s Federal Deposit Library Program (FDLP) into law, guaranteeing that the government will provide its information for free to the general public, and has not been significantly revised since the early 1990s.

DLC is asking the public to submit comments and suggestions for modernizing FDLP through August 31, after which it will disseminate draft recommendations at the fall 2017 Depository Library Council Meeting and Federal Depository Library Conference on October 16–18 in Arlington, VA. James R. Jacobs, government information librarian at Stanford University, CA, has posted a Change.org petition that interested parties can sign “to assure that any changes to the law strengthen the FDLP and free public access to and preservation of government information regardless of physical or digital format.”

Vance-Cooks, who has been GPO director since 2012, is hoping for revisions that provide depository libraries more flexibility, and update Title 44’s language, which dates back to the early 1960s. However, many in the government information community have expressed apprehensions that opening up Title 44 to revision could threaten the core values of FDLP mandated by Chapter 19: free, ongoing public access to government information.

FDLP, which was established by an 1813 Congressional Joint Resolution, is overseen by the GPO—formerly the Government Printing Office—which is in turn overseen by the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing. The Depository Library Act of 1962 established the system of regional depository libraries and provided for the distribution of all federal government publications among them.

GPO also designates federal depository libraries in all 50 states. Each state may have up to two regional depository libraries, which retain a copy of all government publications received and provide interlibrary loans to other depository libraries. Congressional districts may each contain up to two elective depository libraries, which choose to receive certain classes of government documents, depending on the needs of their constituents. All federal depository libraries, even those that are part of private academic institutions, are required to offer free, public access to these collections.

The 15-member DLC advises GPO on issues related to FDLP, with the development, management, and dissemination of electronic information being a current critical issue.

SURPRISE CALL FOR REVISIONS

At a May 2017 Committee on House Administration (CHA) hearing held to examine the GPO’s modernization efforts, Vance-Cooks described visits to more than 250 depository libraries by Library Services and Content Management staff in 2016. She and her staff found them to be grappling with problems including a lack of staffing, funding, and space. Some of these could be alleviated, or at least reduced, by switching to digital holdings. Title 44 contains requirements that these libraries continue to hold print publications, even though many of these publications are available in digital format.

“It would be in our best interest, and it would be of interest to the Federal Depository Library community, to ask them what they think about Title 44,” Vance-Cooks said, confirming this at a second hearing in July. She has asked the DLC to help gather this information, through public forums and by soliciting input from the public—not only within the depository library community but from any stakeholder.

Vance-Cooks’s call for recommendations surprised many in the government document community, having arisen without a previous announcement and without being preceded by a draft bill.

Revisions to Title 44 have been proposed a number of times, but the last substantive changes to the statutes governing GPO and FDLP were enacted in the GPO Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993 (Public Law 103-40), which expanded GPO’s mission to provide access to electronic records and led to the launch of GPO Access, which was replaced in 2012 by the Federal Digital System (FDsys) and in 2016 by govinfo.gov.

In 2011, in response to a request for changes to Title 44 that were ultimately not enacted, then–Superintendent of Documents Mary Alice Baish laid out a series of points that she felt necessary for successful reform: a clear sense of what needs to be changed, that the library community must speak with a united voice, and that there must be one or more champions in Congress to lead and shepherd a proposal through the legislative process.

These points, argues a recent Free Government Information (freegovinfo) post, are unclear at the moment; GPO has not explained why it wants changes or what motivated this most recent call for revisions. CHA has hired a staffer, former Public Printer (the former name of the position that is now GPO director) Robert Tapella, to look into possible changes to Title 44 and solicit community input.

ISSUES AT STAKE

One obvious motivation for revising Title 44 centers on the need to change its language to reflect 21st-century realities, particularly expanding the definition of “publication” beyond ink on paper. But the potential for this to translate into an assumption that all government publications are now digital troubles some members of the govdocs community. The misperception that everything is online and already accessible, noted Jacobs, could potentially be interpreted as a pronouncement on FDLP’s obsolescence.

“In my mind [Title 44] is the only guarantee of libraries and the GPO working together to assure public access to government information,” Jacobs told LJ. “When you tweak the legal baseline that requires this, then you can have problems. The system falls apart if the legal requirements are not there.”

One language change Jacobs would like to see is the move from “government publication” to “public information.” Although this might sound like a very small tweak, he said, it could expand the scope of the FDLP and the requirements of GPO. “It [would] open up the world for things like digital deposit, where libraries could receive digital files from the GPO, which [they don’t] now…. It would allow [depository libraries] to do web archiving, for example. It would allow for the distribution of content in databases.”

On the other hand, changes to Title 44’s wording could open up an opportunity for GPO to charge for access to government documents. In 2013, the National Association of Public Administration (NAPA) recommended that GPO charge for access to FDsys. And while that suggestion was not adopted, Title 44’s Chapter 17 still allows for a sales program by GPO.

And adding grant making authority to Chapter 19—an idea Vance-Cooks brought up during the hearings—could potentially further GPO’s mission by helping libraries with both digitization and preservation of print materials. “For hundreds of years it’s been GPO sending [libraries] boxes of free publications, and then we make them available to our patrons,” Scott Matheson, associate librarian for technical services at Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Law Library and a past DLC chair, told LJ. “Now we’re starting to see where libraries can pursue projects that would help increase access to that information. And if they can work with GPO, those projects go from being local or regional to being potentially national in scale, and benefiting more of the public.”

STRENGTHENING GPO

Changes to the content of Title 44 also have the potential to strengthen GPO. Although the law currently stipulates that executive agencies should work with GPO to distribute contents to depository libraries, there is no legal requirement that they do so. Circular A-130, a definitional document issued by the Office of Management and Budget that establishes policy for the management of federal information resources, essentially allows agencies to bypass FDLP.

Redefining what a document is—not only printed matter but a digital file, CD-ROM, or sound recording—could bring more of that information under GP’s purview.

Beth Williams, director of the Robert Crown Law Library and senior lecturer in law at Stanford and a current member of the DLC, told LJ, “My passion project is finding a way somehow politically…to require government agencies of every type to deposit electronic copies of all their electronic data that they’re disseminating on their websites with the GPO, and then the GPO could act as a digital depository and then push all that out to us. Right now they’re not doing that, and almost every other civilized country in the world has a statute or code or regulation that requires their governments to do exactly that. So why in the world wouldn’t we join in with that minimum requirement, and wouldn’t that solve so many concerns that we all have as librarians about access to government information? That would be a new thing to add to Chapter 19 or to Title 44 as a whole.”

Another potential improvement to Title 44 involves redefining the collection size necessary for a library to qualify as a federal depository. Depository libraries are currently required to hold a minimum of 10,000 volumes, which favors larger institutions such as academic libraries. Changing that requirement could bring tribal libraries to the table, for example.

“I want to strengthen the law to allow [depository] libraries and GPO to do more, rather than restricting what it is that the FDLP is and does,” said Jacobs. To that effect, Jacobs’s petition lists principles that he wants to see preserved through any changes to Title 44: privacy, preservation, free access and free use, and a modernized scope of information covered by Chapter 19 to include digital information. He has also incorporated specific changes suggested by Michael Keller, director of Stanford University Libraries, in an August 4 letter to CHA.

WHY SHOULD LIBRARIANS BE CONCERNED?

Williams imagines that GPO hears much of the same argument that all librarians do from time to time—that this information is already all online, so why the need to legislate its availability? “So we need to be able to articulate why it matters to the community, and one way to do that is for people to send in their comments to DLC. It really matters.”

Jacobs encourages all stakeholders to comment, but also urges them to stay informed. “The community is revved up to give input for this change in the law without knowing what it is that [CHA], Congress, and the GPO want to change in the law. So it makes it a little trickier to comment, because for the vast majority of libraries Title 44 is working okay.”

But this is a good opportunity for librarians to take a close look at the law, Matheson told LJ. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad in looking at statutory language that governs the programs that we cherish,” he said, “and I think that that’s a reason for librarians in particular to be particularly engaged.”

Depository libraries range from large state libraries to small, single branch public systems, and their needs will vary accordingly from issues of physical space, to wanting more support for their electronic collections, to concern about preserving certain print titles. “I think you’ll find all of those, and I don’t think that any of those ambitions for the program or concerns for its future are mutually exclusive,” noted Matheson, adding that it’s particularly important for smaller selective depositories to weigh in.

“I would encourage people to take a look at the testimony that’s already been given by director Vance-Cooks,” suggested Williams. “It gives all of us a window into her thinking.” Vance-Cooks has been proactive about providing DLC with opportunities to meet with her and talk about the issues, said Williams, although discussions are in their early stages. She also reinforced the importance of librarians and administrators making their voices heard—and that saying the system works as it is is a fine response as well as suggesting changes.

“Maybe the message needs to be, the only thing we want is more. We want to ensure the security of GPO and we want to make sure that [it’s] front and center on mapping out policy for dissemination of government information…. If people actually have issues with either the program as it works or they think things need to be changed, they need to make their voices heard. But if they’re happy with the program and they think it’s adequately serving the public in the important endeavor of providing government information to our patrons, it would be really nice to hear, ‘Yeah, it really works well.’ ”

The American Library Association is also gathering comments and suggestions through its Committee on Legislation and Government Documents Round Table (GODORT).

It’s not only librarians in the law or government information community who benefit from the FDLP, added Williams. “I would encourage anybody who doesn’t know a law librarian to reach out to their local academic, county, or court law librarian,” she said. “We’re really all very heavily reliant upon the materials that we get from the depository program, and we care a lot about that material. We don’t have to be govdocs librarians in order to really care about this stuff.”

While GPO will be drawing up draft recommendations this fall, any changes to Title 44 will need to go through Congress; librarians can encourage their representatives to listen to input from a variety of stakeholders, including different types of libraries and both users and producers of government information. Interested library representatives are encouraged to register for the fall Federal Depository Library Conference, either in person or virtually.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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