A Different Road to the Goal: Permanent Public Access in the Era of Digital Government Information

When I was the Preservation Librarian at Yale, I was privileged to work with bibliographers and curators who were experts on the unique materials in their collections. One collection that never ceased to fascinate me was the cuneiform tablets from the Babylonian Collection. These small playing card-size rectangles of clay had lain in the desert for millennia. Yet without any human intervention, they were able to preserve their information for the future. Anyone—anyone, that is, who can read Sumerian—can go by the Babylonian Collection and read a poem, a tally of goods received, or a recipe for pigeon soup.

Yet for all the durability that cuneiform tablets represent, they weren’t a very good media for disseminating and providing widespread access to information. Each clay tablet was unique and a small library of your favorite poems would have been heavy.

Greater Dissemination and Access Come with a Trade-off

The world changed, and a preference for using lighter-weight media like parchment and paper became the way to record and disseminate information. I’ve always wondered whether some scribe or librarian from long ago was worried about the change from a simple, durable media like clay to a fragile media like paper. The tradeoff, then as now, was less durability for greater dissemination and access.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) began the practice of using the most advanced technology of the time—high quality printing on paper—to authenticate and produce the official publications of the U.S. Government. These publications were disseminated to the American people through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). Today, more than 1,200 libraries in the FDLP are geographically distributed across the U.S. to provide regional access to a redundant collection of important core publications like the Federal Register and Congressional Record.

Yet advancing technology came along to offer new challenges to established practices. In 1994, GPO created GPO Access, which offered access to Government publications over the Internet. From this point, the growth in digital Government publications was exponential, resulting in a corresponding reduction in subscriptions to the paper editions. In 1994, there were over 20,000 subscriptions to the printed edition of the Federal Register. By 2010, there were less than 5,000 subscriptions to the paper copy and a growing interest in the digital version on GPO’s new digital repository, FDsys.

Today 97% of Government Information is Born-Digital

Halfway through 2011, our best estimates are that about 97% of U.S. Government information is born-digital and never had a tangible paper-based form. Most of this information is disseminated directly to the public over the Web offering the widest possible public access. Yet, experience has taught us that Web-based publications are ephemeral. Federal agencies creating Web publications have no statutory requirement or incentive to include their publications in the FDLP or even notify GPO of their existence. Federal agencies also frequently remove their Web publications without notice, creating information gaps for researchers. Digital information is vulnerable to bit rot (the corruption of the digital code) and the obsolescence of software and hardware. Unlike the clay tablets in the desert, we have learned that digital information requires constant human intervention if it is to remain usable.

Despite these dramatic changes, GPO’s mission has remained the same, and GPO knows that free permanent public access to authentic Government information in the digital age requires an investment in preservation.

GPO’s Mission Supports the Need for Preservation Strategies

Preservation may be defined as the development and management of strategic initiatives, work processes, and technology tools designed to provide and maintain permanent access to information assets. Preservation directly supports the mission and values of GPO and GPO’s mission of permanent public access supports the need for an active preservation program. The mission of GPO and the goals of preservation are mutually supportive. GPO’s immediate goals are to develop a robust program to harvest information from the Web and the certification of FDsys as a trustworthy digital repository.

As a member of the International Internet Preservation Consortium, GPO, along with 37 other international peer organizations, including the Library of Congress, utilize the Internet Archive's Heritrix Web harvester to capture selected Government information.

FDsys is GPO’s repository for digital information. To ensure that FDsys meets current best practices for digital object management, GPO is contracting for the services of an independent auditor to examine FDsys’ design architecture and GPO’s operational support according to the metrics set by the Trustworthy Repository Audit Checklist. However, even after the independent audit is completed, managing FDsys as a trustworthy digital repository is a continual process based on GPO’s organizational commitment to the long-term preservation of digital assets.

Making Tangibly-Distributed Federal Information Accessible to Modern Search

The nearly 200 year old history of printed paper publications also represents an important information asset. Libraries in the FDLP are digitizing selected publications and recording their projects and finding collaborative partners on GPO’s Digitization Projects Registry. GPO’s role in the digitization of the legacy collection is to encourage, facilitate, and provide best practices for digitization through our collaborative membership in the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative. Digitizing portions of the legacy paper collection will bring it into modern search and discovery methods and allow users to deep mine documents for information, potentially increasing the use of these publications.

As a culture, we have over 150 years of collective experience preserving and managing paper-based information and only about 15 years of collective experience preserving and managing digital information. The rapid growth of digital information means that we are still learning as we go, collaborating with our Federal agency partners and our peer international institutions to solve problems and develop consensus on best practices for the preservation of digital content.

When the world moved from clay to paper, it lost some permanence, but gained portability, ease of compilation, and new options for presenting complex graphics and color. As we move toward a digital world, we gain even greater functionality, new ways of presenting ideas and sharing information, and we also shoulder a different preservation challenge.

FDLP Connection Archive

We have sunsetted the FDLP Connection with the July / August 2018 issue and will not be publishing the Connection anymore. We’ve enjoyed bringing the FDLP Connection to the community over the years! You can still view past issues. View full archive (2011-2018).