GPO drafts plan to boost electronic publishing

Under a draft strategic plan to expand its electronic publishing activities, two years from now the Government Printing Office would be distributing in digital form 10 times as many documents as it does today.

The digital copies—obtained as diskettes, CD-ROM discs or from on-line services—would eventually become the primary means through which the federal depository libraries provide government documents to the public. Currently, only about 5 percent of GPO's documents are published digitally.

The plan would require that the 1,382 depository libraries speed up their plans to offer patrons free access to the Internet and federal on-line services as well as provide workstations where patrons could download and print out files or read CD-ROM titles.

Meanwhile, GPO would have a broader role guarding public access to federal documents, a task mainly performed today by the depository libraries, which collect and archive paper and microfiche publications. It is unclear how the relationship between GPO and federal agencies, which are increasingly publishing documents on World Wide Web sites, might change under such a system.

But a GPO-sponsored study accompanying the strategic plan cautioned that for such a blueprint to succeed, the government must beef up its requirements that agencies must report when they publish electronic information, must issue technology standards and policies to guarantee permanent access to electronic documents and must establish effective "locator" services so the public can find documents distributed over numerous agency systems.

The study and strategic plan were requested by Congress, some of whose members see electronic dissemination as a way to save money and expand access to government information. The study concluded that digital publishing could provide "more timely and broader public access," although rather than saving money, it would merely shift costs to libraries and the public.

Judy Russell, director of electronic dissemination services with GPO, said her agency's own costs would likely decline as it produces fewer paper documents for the depository libraries. GPO is required to recoup its costs for printing any documents it sells through its bookstores. But she said other agencies might see their costs increase if, for example, they publish their own electronic documents rather than hand that task over to GPO.

The GPO study warned against a more ambitious plan, which the agency proposed in its budget request for fiscal 1997, to convert to a "substantially" electronic publishing operation within two and a half years. It will take agencies and libraries five to seven years to develop their own electronic publishing programs and build the infrastructure to access digital materials, the study concluded.

In its budget request, GPO asked for $500,000 to help libraries improve their computing infrastructure.

According to the draft strategic plan, over the next two years GPO would begin to publish more electronic documents either by posting them on its GPO Access World Wide Web site, providing pointers to other agency databases or using agency source files to produce diskettes or CD-ROM discs.

To ensure that depository libraries have access to the information, GPO would ask agencies to produce their documents using Standard Generalized Markup Language or other recommended file formats yet to be determined.

GPO also plans to scan paper-based publications and distribute them electronically.

A final version of the report is scheduled to be issued at the end of May.

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