Government information and the shutdown

I remember when….
Years ago, as a government documents librarian, I was involved with the federal depository program in which libraries received government information–at that time, as  printed materials–which they made available in their various locations across the nation.  The idea is evident — to ensure that all citizens had access to information about the activities of the U.S. government.

As a relatively new documents librarian, I had come on the scene about the time the Government Printing Office (GPO) was articulating a model for moving government information to the web — with obvious advantages in terms of timely access for many citizens.

A number of my colleagues and I raised concerns about a significant change to the model for access.  In the older model, with distribution of physical items, government information that was meant to be shared was not under government control.  In those days, we prided ourselves on that principle, as anyone who had been a docs librarian for long had experienced instances in which agencies in the govt had tried to retract (demand return of) publications for political reasons.  Once the physical items had been distributed to libraries, though, it was nearly impossible for such shenanigans to succeed.

Now we have yet another reason for making govt information available on non-govt servers — perhaps via libraries whose mission is to help keep the citizenry informed.

Due to the shutdown,  already at my school, I have heard stories that students had to get extensions on their assignments because of the unavailability of government information.  Had libraries and the GPO been able to figure out a shared access model by which government information was securely offered from non-government servers, people would still be able to read reports, access census information, and so on.

It’s probably not too late to fix this picture, if public access  to government information is deemed crucial enough as a public good that various stakeholders would commit resources to developing  a more distributed model.

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About Karrie Peterson

Head, Liaison, Instruction & Reference Services
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