Librarians air frustrations

Federal depository librarians remain frustrated by the Government Printing Office’s shift to electronic formats because it is a move that partly ignores their current roles, some experts and librarians say.

GPO's move to significantly cut the distribution of printed government documents will redefine the librarians' functions as government information gatekeepers. Plans for the GPO's future digital system were an issue at last week's Depository Library Council meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Federal Depository Library Program's 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.

Some experts say librarians feel several forces have jeopardized their territory. Uncooperative agencies, a cash-strapped GPO and fund-starved state and university libraries are tripping up modernization, librarians say.

Some agencies distribute their documents on the Web themselves, instead of handing them to the GPO, to avoid printing costs. GPO, feeling pressure to cut costs and move to an electronic environment, wants to disseminate everything digitally, except for an "essential titles" list of as few as 50 tangible documents. And libraries do not know if they can afford a department solely devoted to government documents.

Charles McClure, a former depository librarian, now an editor at Government Information Quarterly and an information studies professor at Florida State University, said this turbulence will continue for the next couple of years.

"Librarians have a good reason to feel threatened about their careers, about their future," he said.

McClure added that GPO should conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the depository library program to make better decisions. No comprehensive evaluation of the program has been completed since one of his studies in the mid-1980s, he said.

"How many users are there of the depository library program, right now? How do they assess the quality of the program? How well is the depository library program accomplishing its mandated purpose and objectives?" McClure said. "Nobody knows.…We don't know what's working and what to change."

Federal depository librarians, who attended the meeting in Albuquerque, came away saying much has to be done before the FDLP can truly provide permanent public access in the digital age.

Daniel Barkley, a regional depository librarian at the University of New Mexico, said GPO lacks the platforms to guarantee accessibility and authentication.

"Right now, there are no mechanisms in place to make sure what we see today is what we can see tomorrow," he said.

The number of tangible titles that will circulate is an open question.

At an American Library Association winter meeting in January, GPO officials announced they would only distribute 50 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.

Earlier this month, GPO issued a request for information to private vendors that could boost 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 when they printed and distributed 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 meeting, GPO officials released a survey to librarians, asking them to pick tangible documents they would want on the essential titles list. The survey was inconclusive. "It's kind of like asking your mother who her favorite child is," Barkley said.

Some librarians felt the meeting was reassuring, in that it showed progress on the part of GPO. Council member Bill Sudduth, the head of government information, microforms and newspaper and maps departments at the University of South Carolina Thomas Cooper Library, said officials showcased how authentication will look to library patrons. GPO also updated the librarians on a web-harvesting initiative to capture fugitive born-digital documents.

"GPO's plans became a lot clearer," Sudduth said.

Beth Harper, government documents reference librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library, acknowledged that GPO was attentive to concerns but also sloppy in its planning. She left "encouraged to some extent, [but] frustrated that GPO tends to put things forward without thinking them through."

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