Friday, April 29, 2005

On losing access to Government Information

Today's online edition of the Chicago Tribune carries a story with the following headline: "Librarians Worry Important Information Being Lost." The words "librarian" and "information" and "lost" were enough to catch my attention as I casually scanned my pages of headlines. The article explains how the Government Printing Office has been losing money on document sales, to a large measure because many government agencies, to cut back on costs, are bypassing the GPO and publishing their own documents online in their own websites. In doing this, the agencies do not always provide a copy to the GPO. A recent GPO report proposed that the GPO create a centralized database to serve as a repository to these documents. This creates concerns of access and centralization. Some are concerned that putting all documents in a central location would make them more susceptible to deletion or alteration. This can create significant concern since there is no clear solution when it comes to actually archiving what the government produces. Since these documents are only made available online, they can be as easily removed as they were easily placed online. They can be altered without the average citizen even knowing there was an alteration. The article states that

"What the librarians and critics fear is if the GPO implements its Digital Content System, an online database that would hold digital copies of documents from all federal agencies, the agency won't need to actually provide independent hard copies or digital files of information."

It seems to reduce the role of depository libraries, which are now one of the few places where the average citizen can go find out what his or her government is up to, with assistance from knowledgeable librarians. Critics of the new proposal argue that libraries need to have the documents distributed to them as well. In a time when there is even more information available online, the answer is not centralize and limit access, but it is to make it accessible to all. Making documents more available to libraries would only serve to enhance citizen participation.

As a note, the article makes reference to an article in the "latest" issue of the Journal of Academic Librarianship, which I have not been able to find. My guess is the databases have not picked it up yet, or it is not as "latest" as the newspaper suggests. At any rate, if I do find it, I will add a note after I read it. I did not get to work at a depository, but I developed a passion and belief in the power of Government Documents during library school that stays with me. It is of concern that access to such powerful and crucial tools of our democracy could be lost. Anyhow, food for thought.

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