Depository librarians face uncertain future

Controversy swirls around GPO plan to cut back on print titles

Federal Depository librarians, who are stewards of government information, say they are concerned about the Government Printing Office's shift to electronic formats because it will redefine the librarian's role in making that information accessible to the public.

Some librarians say that GPO officials are not asking for enough funding to sustain the Federal Depository Library Program, which the agency administers.

GPO's plans to significantly scale back the distribution of printed government documents dominated discussions at last month's Depository Library Council meeting in Albuquerque, N.M. Librarians who attended the meeting said much has to be done before the depository library program can provide permanent public access to government information in the Digital Age.

The program's 1,300 depository libraries are responsible for providing permanent public access to the nearly 2.2 million government documents, including reference maps, the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Congressional Record and the National Trade Data Bank.

Some experts say several forces besiege depository librarians, including uncooperative agencies, a cash-strapped GPO, and libraries starved for funding.

To avoid printing costs, some agencies distribute their documents on the Web instead of sending them to GPO. GPO officials, feeling pressure to cut costs and move to an electronic environment, want to disseminate everything digitally, except for a few essential titles. Many library officials say they do not know whether they can continue to have a department solely devoted to government documents.

Charles McClure, a former depository librarian who is now an editor at Government Information Quarterly and an information studies professor at Florida State University, said this uncertainty will continue for the next couple of years. "Librarians have a good reason to feel threatened about their careers, about their future," he said.

Daniel Barkley, a regional depository librarian at the University of New Mexico, said GPO isn't requesting the appropriate funding levels needed to maintain and develop the Federal Depository Library Program.

Funding for the program will not increase through fiscal 2008, apart from increases in direct costs, according to GPO's fiscal 2006 budget request.

"We're seeking a 6.8 percent increase for fiscal 2006," said Veronica Meter, a spokeswoman for GPO. "Part is for mandatory pay costs and other cost increases, part is for increased spending for the national collection and legacy digitization and other projects."

At an American Library Association (ALA) meeting in January, GPO officials announced they would distribute only 50 print titles after October of this year. But after a backlash from the library community, GPO officials said they would continue publishing the current list of print titles at least through 2006. In fiscal 2004, GPO distributed 11,275 print titles.

Earlier this month, GPO issued a request for information to vendors about ways to increase the agency's print sales. Last July, the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that GPO had experienced steep declines in printing volumes and revenues from document sales.

The declines, according to GAO, were a direct result of agencies publishing more of their documents on the Web or bypassing GPO to print information.

"I find it at least a bit ironic that GPO proposes a plan to boost the sales of paper to the public while decreasing the distribution of paper to the libraries," Barkley said.

Before the ALA meeting, GPO officials released a survey to librarians, asking them to pick print documents they would want on the essential titles list. The survey results were inconclusive.

"It's kind of like asking your mother who her favorite child is," Barkley said.

Some agency officials said GPO's depository library program is a valuable institution facing formidable challenges. John Weiner, director of the National Energy Information Center at the Energy Information Administration, said, "It's very difficult to define what a publication is today. We have 40,000 pages of material on our little site alone."

In 1995, his department published 70 periodicals in print. Today, only five are print publications. Everything else is digital.

Even though the Digital Age is challenging, the potential exists for a large user base in cyberspace, Weiner said. His agency's Web site, www.eia.doe.gov, hosts 1.5 million user sessions a month, he said. "I'm embarrassed to say how many customers we had when we were printing only."

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