Mission Impossible: Printing in the Digital Age
GPO faces a mission that it has no choice but to accept -- remaining viable in an era in which traditional printing is disappearing
- By Aliya Sternstein
- Jan 23, 2006
As the country observed this month the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the nation's honorary first public printer, Government Printing Office officials looked to him for inspiration to reach another historic milestone.
GPO had just issued a draft request for proposals for a system that will revolutionize the way the government distributes information to the public. GPO's transformation from a 19th-century printing press operation to a 21st-century electronic information agency demands a new publishing and distribution model. GPO officials refer to it as the Future Digital System.
Federal Computer Week recently sat down with GPO's leaders to discuss this turning point. Agency officials worried aloud about what the founding fathers might think of the current moment in history.
"The founding fathers, led by Madison, felt that the success of what they called the 'New Republic' depended upon having an informed citizenry," said Bruce James, the United States' 24th public printer. "And that's been the role of the GPO basically since our creation."
As reminders of that role, a huge portrait of Franklin looms high on James' office wall and a lamp with a shade depicting Franklin's face sits on a table near the doorway.
In 1895 Congress gave GPO the responsibility of informing the U.S. public. It charged GPO with ensuring that all citizens could find information about the work of the three branches of government. The agency's first printings included the Congressional Record and Annual Message of the President to Congress.
Printing, the agency's bread and butter, meant producing characters with ink using a printing press. But in the Digital Era, that kind of printing is becoming passe.
"When I came in here three years ago, one of the first questions I confronted was, 'Is our middle name getting in our way?' because the word 'printing' so often throws people off about what we really do here," James said. "So I look up 'printing,' and lo and behold, there is a fourth definition of printing: an image on a computer screen."
"The nature of printing is changing," said Robert Tapella, GPO's chief of staff. "It isn't necessarily that printing itself is going away." In the next 300 years, the nature of printing will likely change again, he added.
Therein lies GPO's dilemma: As the world moves away from paper and ink, how does the agency ensure that all government information is accessible and searchable for all time?
Some vestiges of GPO's past remain. For special occasions, craftsmen still engrave leather book covers and sew bindings by hand in GPO's 100-year-old working plant located just blocks from Capitol Hill.
The plant's floors were built to withstand the tremendous weight of the lead plates used in the process of setting old-fashioned type. In 1886 Ottmar Mergenthaler had produced a typesetting system called a Lintotype machine. The machine used a 90-character keyboard to create an entire line of metal type at once. It poured molten lead into molds, producing a line of characters in reverse so the type read properly when used to transfer ink onto paper.
The Linotype machine expedited assembly much more than the previous Gutenberg-style system, in which operators placed one letter at a time. GPO bought serial No. 2 of the Linotype machine. The Linotype's significance proves that the Internet is not the first technology to overhaul printing, nor will it be the last.
James said a transition in 1895 was even more pivotal than the Linotype's emergence. "The then-public printer, whom I think probably was the most courageous one ever, took this huge, unparalleled step of moving from steam-powered operation to electric motors to drive the printing presses," James said. "They said it couldn't be done, yet he did it."
The last major technological change at GPO involved the introduction of phototypesetting. In that process, printers transfer images of typed characters to photographic film and then use that film to make printing plates. Once again, GPO was at the cutting edge when it bought machine No. 2 of the original Photon phototypesetting machine.
All of those printing progressions involved the written word. However, the next technological evolution will change the form of information itself. Information is now delivered in intangible forms via Web pages, compressed audio files, video formats and microchips.
The latest technological advance for GPO involves secure and intelligent documents, which refer to paper or plastic documents with embedded security features. The new U.S. passports, for example, will contain tiny microchips and antennae. With intelligent documents, the government can compress large amounts of information and prevent counterfeiting. Someone can swipe an intelligent card or piece of paper, and the information will appear on screen.
GPO is also using new techniques to mark paper with squiggly fibers and other hard-to-reproduce features. Only the government knows how the process works. "We couldn't even take you into the room to show you the equipment because it requires a security clearance to get in the room that has the equipment in it," James said.
Many people question whether GPO will remain a viable organization in an era in which traditional printing is disappearing. Most agencies publish information on their Web sites. James said that in the larger scope of things, GPO is not high on the list of congressional funding priorities.
But GPO officials maintain that the office still provides an essential service and that service will grow in importance as technology advances.
"There may even be more of a need now than there was before," James said. "While there is information widely available over the Internet, what's very difficult to know is what is real and what's not."
The agency plans to hire a company to create an architecture for the Future Digital System, a specialized information management system. It will verify and track various versions of official government publications. The system will ensure the authenticity of government files and provide permanent public access to them.
Information authenticity will be the first issue that GPO and its contractors tackle in building the new distribution model.
GPO has already figured out a way to authenticate information with digital signatures based on public-key infrastructure technology. Now it needs a method to ensure no one tampers with files between the point of publication and downloading that publication.
GPO is also working on the issue of tracking versions. In Franklin's day, books would state "first edition" or "first printing." The copyright page of a present-day edition of "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" indicates that the first Signet Classic printing was in September 1961.
It is harder to keep track of versions on the Internet.
"Today, with agencies able to update databases all day long, the question becomes, what is a version?" James said. "What becomes a savable version of government information?"
And forwarding every edit to GPO is certainly not first and foremost on agencies' minds. Therefore, the Future Digital System will automatically do it for them. The architecture will integrate the collection and dissemination of information.
The new system will link to the Federal Depository Library Program database, which consists of 1,300 academic, historical and other special libraries. Those libraries are in charge of providing public access to nearly 2.2 million government documents, including reference maps, the U.S. Code and the National Trade Data Bank.
James said new tools are necessary to reinvigorate the depository library program.
"We think it's necessary that we devise the tools where we can crawl the Web," he said, "and we can identify government documents that belong within the scope of the Federal Depository Library Program and pick those documents up, then go backward and verify them as authentic authenticate them in our system and then make them accessible to the public and keep them in perpetuity."
Government information is growing in scope, and that triggers more excitement than anxiety. James said that eventually, people won't even think of information in terms of book-like pages. He imagines a future in which GPO will distribute video footage of the action that took place inside congressional chambers.
Much of that information will be multimedia information, James said. "Don't you think that people would be much more interested in seeing the debates that were taking place on both floors of the House, see what the Washington Post was reporting on it, what CNN anchors were saying about it all as part of a file that really surrounds what that's about, what that law was about? How did it come about? What were the controversies surrounding it?"
Virtual reality avatars that spew answers are not beyond the realm of possibility, James said, adding that he wants "all of our data to be ready for whatever comes down the road."
When GPO talks with agencies about their future publishing requirements, it talks in terms of computer files: text, video and audio.
GPO is also beginning to discuss intelligent documents. "The most important part of our future, the biggest area of future growth is security and intelligent documents," James said. "The first time America was really struck in its heart was [the 2001 terrorist attacks]. And so we will just continue down the path here, being more and more careful."
The detail of the credentials that a truck driver needs to drive hazardous materials is different from what it was three years ago.
The premier intelligent document is the electronic U.S. passport. The State Department, in conjunction with GPO, will begin issuing the e-passport nationwide this year. James said GPO is running a limited test with airline pilots to see "what happens when you run it through the washing machine, leave it in the trunk of your car, do all the things that people do with their passport. We want to get some experience before we issue it to the general public."
Other examples of security documents include the 2005 inaugural tickets, which were flecked with special irreproducible fibers. GPO is also working on electronic ID cards for the Transportation Security Administration and e-visas. Officials are in the final stages of working with the General Services Administration to select vendors for the federal employee identity card program. All agencies will have to purchase the cards to comply with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.
Each one of those changes affects the people who work at GPO. Employees
are moving from the material world to a service-centric world, James said.
"It's a cultural transformation," he said. GPO's employees used to fold paper. Now those same workers are folding paper to insert computer chips. The people who run GPO's manufacturing operation spend about 80 percent of their time on digital equipment. That leaves only 20 percent of their time for traditional printing. As a result, they have had to learn new skills.
Likewise, when James came to GPO in late 2002, only a handful of the agency's 3,000 employees had remote e-mail access. Now 500 employees have BlackBerry wireless devices that let them access their e-mail anytime, anywhere.
The 21st century has required GPO to create several new management positions. James named a chief information officer, Reynold Schweickhardt, who now oversees an information technology workforce of 180 employees. Next he spent a year searching for an engineer to design the Future Digital System.
He chose Mike Wash, a former National Inventor of the Year who developed the information exchange architecture used by Kodak's Advantix system. GPO then formed an executive-level position to steer the agency's move into the Digital Age. As assistant chief of staff for strategic initiatives, Thomas Evans oversees units specializing in secure and intelligent documents and digital media services, among others.
GPO must contend with the public's desire for immediate delivery. About 60,000 people a day visit depository libraries to get a government document. At the same time, people daily download more than 1 million GPO documents from the Web.
Yet no matter how information transforms, GPO's job will always be to ensure the public is aware of its government's work.
James often repeats a story about his first day at work as public printer. He asked for a key to the front door and, to his dismay, was denied. GPO never locks its front door. The agency, he learned, has never been closed in 140 years.
"This operation runs around the clock to preserve your liberty," he said.