Librarians face existential crisis

Some federal depository librarians are upset about the Government Printing Office's move to significantly cut the distribution of printed government documents.

GPO's shift to electronic formats, which will redefine the librarians' role as government information gatekeepers, will be an issue at this weekend's Depository Library Council meeting in Albuquerque, N.M.

The Federal Depository Library Program’s (FDLP) 1,300 depository libraries are responsible for providing permanent public access to the government's nearly 2.2 million documents, including reference maps, the United States Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Congressional Record and the National Trade Data Bank.

Accustomed to providing access to the physical documents, librarians are now training people to use computers to access the information.

"I have begun to wonder, as we go electronic, [about] the benefit of being a depository library," said Maureen Olle, government information librarian at Louisiana State University. "What's in it for me to keep up a tradition? How are [people] going to know to come into a library?... We have to stop thinking tangible, though it pains me a bit to say that."

Olle, like other librarians, expressed concerns about the credibility and archiving of electronic documents. A number of technologies for authenticating and updating e-documents are not in place, and GPO officials have only just begun a major project using new technology to search the Internet to find all government documents published directly to the Web.

The efforts are part of the GPO's Future Digital System, which will harvest documents, convert paper content to digital content and place e-documents in the federal depository libraries. GPO officials are reviewing vendor proposals for Web harvesting. Officials will not set a timeline, or a next step, until the test is complete.

Professions that depend on printed government documents are at a loss. Recently, employees of the Louisiana attorney general's office visited Olle's library to find statistics on paper documents for a court case. But Olle did not have paper versions of the information. The employees "couldn't understand the online database," she said. Fortunately, they could use a CD-ROM program.

Meanwhile, information perpetrating as government-sanctioned is rampant on the Web. "When people use the Internet, often they don't think as much about the source of information." Olle said. "They will accept anybody's Web page, whether little Jimmy's or the GPO's," Olle said, adding that the situation is scary.

However, librarians do understand the inevitability of the digital age -- and have found some saving grace. "It's great when you can manipulate data sets from the Census," Olle said.

Other librarians shared Olle's concerns. "A number of the archiving and permanent public access mechanisms are not in place," said Ann Sanders, leader of government documents at the Library of Michigan. "And there’s discomfort that information might be lost."

Certain statistics and maps can be cumbersome in electronic formats, Sanders added. She said GPO officials are aware of those problems and are working on methods to monitor different versions and their authenticity. “This is new ground for anyone,” she added.

Some librarians think digital documents might promote government information access if they remain permanently accessible. "We know for a fact that the general public enjoys using Web-based materials," said Gladys Ann Wells, director and state librarian of the Arizona State Library. "From that point of view, I think the electronic publications will help increase public awareness of electronic material in a way we could never" accomplish.

Officials should keep in mind that broadband and computer costs may deny access to some citizens if all information is digital, Wells said. "We have to make sure we don’t disenfranchise" people who cannot afford computer or Internet access, she said.

At a basic level, the transition to electronic formats reflects government agencies’ evolution from print to Web. "The world has gone digital," said Prue Adler, associate executive director of the Association of Research Libraries. "The trend is to 'e' only. GPO is caught right in the middle."

At an American Library Association winter meeting in January, GPO officials announced they would only distribute 50 essential print titles after October of this year, said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. But after a backlash from the library community, GPO officials said they would continue printing the current list of tangible titles at least through 2006. In fiscal 2004, GPO distributed 11,275 print titles.

"We are currently working with the library community on the essential titles list," GPO spokeswoman Veronica Meter said.

Some in the library community blame tight budgets for the disappearance of paper. "They're not asking for additional funds that would cover the cost of digital and print and because of that, they’re having to cut out some other services," such as training for using e-documents, McDermott said.

GPO officials say funding decisions won't hurt the library community. "We are working with the library community and oversight committees to determine the necessary level of funding to meet the community's needs," Meter said.

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