Free, Public Access

  • Last Updated: January 19, 2022
  • Published: October 15, 2012

Free, Public Access Defined

Congress established the FDLP to ensure that the public has access to Federal Government information of public interest or educational value. The Program provides Federal Government information products at no cost to designated depository libraries. Depository libraries, in turn, provide no-fee public access to information produced by the Federal Government in a physical location with professional assistance. Libraries that receive depository status make a legal commitment to provide this information to all library patrons.

Community of Users

Depository libraries’ community of users includes both primary and non-primary patrons (such as unaffiliated users or the general public). Most depositories serve a particular U.S. Congressional District or specific geographic area. The number of depositories in a Congressional District, the characteristics of the geographic area, types of libraries in the area, and also the existence of established consortia may focus a library’s public service area into one that is different than the District. Depository libraries may benefit from collaborating among themselves to provide efficient and effective service.

Principles of Access

Access involves more than physical access to your facility and depository resources. It involves:

  • Bibliographic identification of depository resources
  • Physical access to depository resources by primary users and the general public
  • Sufficient computer capabilities for library patrons to use online Federal depository library materials
  • Provision of reference services for the use of U.S. Government information

Provision of Access

Federal depository resources must be available and usable for all library patrons regardless of library affiliation, disability, age, residency, or other patron status. Any member of the general public may use depository resources in all formats at a Federal depository library free of charge and without impediments. Impediments include physical barriers to access or any activities that discourage or dissuade library patrons from using the library’s depository resources.

Specific situations at your library may affect access, such as:

  • Mediation by library staff for access to online resources, for example, when a library uses Internet filtering
  • Workarounds for access during renovation projects, collection moves, or other temporary disruptions in library operations
  • Materials located at selective housing sites
  • Security procedures

Despite these situations that impact access, depository libraries must provide free, public access. All appropriate employees should be aware of depository access requirements.

Although they may choose to do so, libraries are not required to provide:

Depository library staff who know their local needs and circumstances should determine how best to provide free, public access. GPO does not dictate a library’s operating hours, access and security procedures, collection organization, acquisition guidelines, or other related operational activities as long as these local policies do not violate the principle of free, public access.

Consult with GPO and your regional librarian if you have any questions regarding current access procedures that might inhibit free public access at your depository library.

Library Policies and Procedures

Library and depository policies and practices as well as information shared through signage, Web pages, and library literature must promote free, public access. As your library develops policies and implements them, keep in mind how library users—regardless of age, affiliation with the parent institution, disability, residency, or other status—access the depository collection and services. When different privileges are established for primary and non-primary users, exceptions must be made known for depository resource access. Also, libraries are reminded that the FDLP exists to ensure access for all patrons requesting to use the depository resources, not simply the residents of the local Congressional District or locality.

Review the following and address any issues that are discovered:

  • Signage or posted policies--modify or update any signage or other posted information stating 'private', 'not open to the general public', 'available only to authorized persons', 'not open to unaccompanied minors', or 'university identification required' since this explicitly denies access or has a potential chilling effect on usage.
  • Policies related to security of library patrons, staff, and resources – revise any policies about unaccompanied minors or those focusing on security and safety issues if library policy states that unaccompanied minors may not use public computers; for example, you may mediate depository access for these patrons. As stated above, library signage, Web pages, and other posted policies describing this access must include the exception or workaround.
  • Visibility and accessibility of the depository collection—evaluate how you make your depository collection accessible and make changes to processes and/or policies or other information shared about the collection if the collection is not bibliographically accessible. For example, since materials housed in closed stacks or storage without catalog records or a publicly accessible shelflist are neither visible nor accessible, information about the existence of and ways to access the collection must be provided to library users.
  • Training of library personnel—routinely train personnel about depository access requirements so they permit all depository users to access the library and depository resources. For example, security personnel at entrances must be trained to refer patrons with U.S. Government information requests or needs to a public service desk.
  • Customer service and referrals—review how the library advertises the depository collection and how referrals to other libraries are made to help patrons make use of the library’s depository resources, rather than dissuading use. After a reference interview with a patron, refer to another depository library or to Government Information Online (GIO) when it is the most appropriate way, in your professional judgment, for that patron’s information need to be fulfilled. This may occur when your library does not have relevant depository resources or the staff subject matter expertise to assist the patron.
  • Identification requirements—Review any requirements for patrons to show identification in order to access the building or collections so that all depository collections and services for them are accessible.
    • Libraries are permitted to require patrons to show some form of identification for access.
    • Identification requirements should not be so onerous as to impede access to the depository resources. For example, a requirement may not be made that the only acceptable form of identification accepted is the ID card of the parent institution or locality as non-primary patrons will not have this type of ID card. Provisions should also be made for minors, such as high school and middle school students. Libraries are also reminded the FDLP exists to ensure access for all patrons requesting to use the depository resources, not simply the residents of the local Congressional District or locality.
    • Any security procedures and entrance or other access requirements should be broadly advertised.
  • ADA Compliance- Analyze the physical access in the building, including the use of wheelchair ramps, handicapped doors, elevator and stacks aisle width, and related signage and procedures to ensure access and service are provided for all depository resources.

Highest State Appellate Court Libraries

Per 44 USC 1915, highest state appellate court libraries are not required to provide public access, although many do so as part of their library mission.

Facilities with Limited Access

Some depository libraries are located where physical access is limited. This typically includes libraries in Federal agencies, courts, and military bases.

Because facility access restrictions in such facilities are beyond the control of your library and physical access to your library building is not always convenient for depository users, library staff have latitude in providing access. Keep in mind that your depository must still provide for physical and electronic access to depository materials by the general public.

Work with your parent institution’s security office to make acceptable arrangements to ensure that public access to depository materials is met to the best of your organization’s ability.

Access policies may suggest that library users make arrangements in advance before they visit the library. Through this contact, you may:

  • Explain the admission process
  • Perform a reference interview to determine that your library has what the patron needs
  • Explain a requirement to show identification or have an escort within the facility, including the library
  • Advise a patron in need of immediate information where he or she may gain access to needed resources at other depositories

Your library must continue to assist depository patrons when you need to temporarily deny physical access to your library building because of security issues. You can use phone, email, fax, or other virtual means to provide this assistance. Scanning and electronic delivery of resources, resource sharing, or referrals to another nearby depository library where access is more readily available are all options.

Share any access limitations with your regional depository library and other depositories in the region to facilitate appropriate referrals.

For information on security policy in FDLP libraries, see Security of Library Users and Collections.