Librarians: Various platforms needed to give public access

The government should prepare to offer the public access to electronic documents through a variety of platforms and formats - including printed materials - for the foreseeable future because not everyone will be able to obtain or read federal information provided through the Internet, technology experts and librarians told the Senate last week.

In testimony before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Dennis Galletta, associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, said there are many disadvantages to retrieving information over the Internet, including its unpredictable speed and the unreliability of network connections.

Meanwhile, because not more than 11 percent of adults in the United States appear to be active Internet users, according to recent surveys, Galletta believes many people probably will not be familiar enough with the technology to be able to use it for research.

And Robert Smith, executive director of the Interactive Services Association, a communications and publishing industry trade group, said other communications technologies, including "plain-old telephone service" and emerging interactive telephone or TV platforms, might also be used to deliver electronic documents.

The hearings Tuesday and Wednesday were part of a series in which the committee is exploring how agencies - and especially the Government Printing Office - should disseminate government documents to the public in the electronic age. The panel oversees GPO, which has developed a plan to convert its Federal Depository Library Program into a network for distributing electronic documents over the next five to seven years. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee last week approved a spending bill that would direct GPO to convert several print publications, including the 26-volume, hard-bound version of the Congressional Record, to CD-ROM.

Among the questions lawmakers are considering are how to guarantee that the public continues to be able to read government documents for free and how to ensure that agencies make their publications generally available.

"We want to be careful we're not putting ourselves in a position to have taxpayers fund it and then pay for it once or twice [again]," said Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.).

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the committee, also asked for advice on how GPO should invest in technology to provide the public with electronic documents.

Yorktown, Va., resident Christie Vernon, who does document searches for clients, said she fears more documents will become unavailable as agencies do more publishing on-line or try to defer their printing costs by contracting with commercial publishers that charge for the finished product.

For several years, GPO has been embroiled in a debate with the National Technical Information Service over NTIS' policy of charging for its publications but not providing free copies to the depository libraries. The GPO superintendent of documents, Wayne Kelley, who runs the depository library program, said that to carry out the agency's transition plan, the program wants legislation that explicitly requires agencies to provide electronic documents free to the depository libraries as well as to give his office the power to obtain source data files for these documents so they could be reproduced.

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