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CFP - Mawdsley

Access to Government Information in Electronic Formats: The Librarian's Perspective

Katherine F. Mawdsley

Associate University Librarian
University of California, Davis

My specific context for discussing "implementing individual and corporate access to federal, state, and local information" (in the words of the program description for this session) is depository libraries, especially federal depository libraries in academic research institutions. The federal depository program was established by Congress in 1895 and has been evolving both philosophically and technologically ever since. To oversimplify a bit,libraries designated as depositories are to receive all documents "of publicinterest or educational value" and to make them available for free use.

This broad statement includes not only the list of subjects of information noted in the program, "communities, corporations, legislation, administration, courts, and public figures," but also a wide range of issues critically important to my users: information about government-performed or -sponsored research on energy, space, environment, health, climatology, and other technical topics. The issue of the topics on which government has a responsibility to disseminate or provide access to information is an important one. Librarians argue that, subject to essential and narrow considerations of national security, any information produced by or for government should be available to the public.

The semantic distinction in a sentence just above, "disseminate or provide access," is important in this discussion. "Disseminate" has been used to refer to a positive action on the part of government in distributing information to make it available, while "providing access" has had the narrower meaning of keeping it at the agency, where a user who knows how to access it (and perhaps has the money) could do so. The mission of depository libraries is to enable the government to fulfill its responsibility to disseminate information of public interest or educational value.

The decade just concluded saw a number of developments which limited, or threatened to limit, dissemination of and access to information from or about the federal government. These factors, frequently inter-related, include: reduction of the regulatory functions of government; efforts to reduce government spending; re-emergence of the principle of national security protection as a primary function of government; reduction of the role of government as a service provider; and privatization, or the transfer of government functions to the private sector. Ironically, growth of information in electronic format was another factor limiting access--at least for some groups.

The national security factors listed above frequently relate to pre-publication restrictions on access. Stricter regulations for classifying information, pre-publication review of contractor reports and all writings by specified groups of government employees, mandatory polygraphs for some groups and limits on who could attend certain conferences on highly technical subjects, were controversial instances during the decade. In a number of cases avoiding official embarrassment or preventing deviation from Administration policy were alleged to be a more precise description of the reasons for action than verifiable threat to national security. Many of these situations were played out in court or through use of the Freedom ofInformation Act.

The availability of published (and more recently, electronic) government information has been most affected by cost-cutting and privatization. Cost-cutting began with imposition of a moratorium on new government publications in 1981 and new requirements to justify continued issuance of existing titles; since that time one in every four of the government's 16,000 publications has been eliminated or moved to the private sector. Cutting publications as a matter of philosophy was joined by cutting to balance reduced agency budgets through the decade. Important consumer information like the EPA's Car Book,as well as reports used by more specialized audiences such as "U.S.-Soviet Military Dollar Cost Comparisons," the "Annual Survey of Child Nutrition," and the report on "Earned Degrees Conferred in the U.S." were among the casualties.

Almost every title cited so far has been a traditional ink-on- paper publication, which may seem somewhat incongruous for this audience; but information in electronic format became a major factor in the access debates during the 80's. Agency budget cuts, as well as all the benefits the format can offer, brought growing use, first of products output from electronic databases such as COM fiche, then CD-ROM, and finally online access. Government may not have been a pioneer in this arena, but the number of products grew quickly. A 1987 General Accounting Office survey found 7,500, and the number is doubtless far greater today. In some quarters, however, old ideas didn't die easily: the lack of a paper product touched off debates about the continuing requirement for, need for, and even legality of public dissemination of these "new" products. Depository libraries argued for maintenance of their role as the central resource for public access to government information, regardless of format.

In 1984 an advisory committee to the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing recommended a series of pilot projects to test distribution of electronic information formats to depository libraries. Funding and philosophical arguments delayed implementation of the studies until 1987, but they have finally taken place, and results will soon be evaluated. In the meantime, partially as a result of the pilots, CD-ROM has become the current format of choice. Depository libraries are receiving everything from the Toxic Release Inventory, the first Congressionally mandated public distribution of information in electronic form, to detailed census data, in that form. Thelack of standardized database management software for government information products has been just one of the challenges depository libraries have accepted along with the new information.

Privatization as a factor in dissemination of government information is a result both of philosophical direction from Administration and of agencies seeking ways to continue to publish with budget restrictions. In some cases agencies turned to the private sector for help in managing their own information, as the Securities and Exchange Commission did in commissioning the EDGAR system to manage some of its voluminous filings.

The Department of Agriculture followed a similar course in granting an exclusive contract to mount current agricultural commodity price, forecast, and other data. USDA provides the data free and pays the vendor a reduced fee to use it; the contract also provides for other users to obtain the data by opening accounts with the vendor. Formerly, USDA distributed this information free to depository libraries, farmers and others. Now several secondary distributors contract with the vendor to repackage the data and offer it commercially. Such competition in the marketplace is valuable, especially when vendors compete to customize and add value to the data to meet special needs. But we object to the fact that this is the only way the public now has access to"public information" collected with their tax dollars. Any monopoly control of public information is a continuing concern.

The principal legislative basis for privatization of government information has been the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). Enacted in 1980, PRA's goals are to reduce federal information collection and improve and coordinate policies and practices for statistics, records management, privacy and information security, and the management of ADP and other information technology. The Office of Management and Budget, responsible for implementing the PRA, not only took a hard line on limiting and reducing the collection of information but interpreted of the scope of the act as extending to agency dissemination of the information collected. OMB Circular A-130, issued in late 1985,designates information as a resource and mandates that Federal agencies: 1)produce and disseminate information only to the extent required by statute; 2) make cost- benefit assessments of information products; 3) utilize maximum feasible reliance on the private sector for information dissemination; 4) not offer products or services in competition with those being offered or which might potentially be provided by the private sector; and 5) impose user fees to recover costs whenever possible. The emphasis is on fee-based response to requests for access, not on active dissemination.

The final version, which reflected over 350 comments received in response to the draft regulations, added reference to the depository library system and to "the public's right to access to government information." OMB proposed revisions to the Circular in early 1989 which rekindled many of the arguments of several years earlier. Unexpectedly, that notice was withdrawn several months later, and one very different in tone and substance published. Further work ceased, however, inexpectation of guidance from Congress. Legislation must be reauthorized periodically, and the PRA is now overdue. Bills which included explicit attention to dissemination of information were introduced in the last Congress, and hearings were held in both houses. Final negotiations and passage failed in the midst of the budget crisis; reintroduction in this Congress is expected. Many organizations concerned with federal information policy participated in the hearings and other discussions on the act.

The American Library Association developed a statement of principles it recommended be included in the reauthorization:

  1. The public's right to equal and ready access to government information;

  2. The government's affirmative obligation to collect and disseminate information;

  3. The reliance on checks and balances on the power to make and implement information policy;

  4. The historic and continuing role of the Depository Library Program as a guaranteed channel of no-fee access for the public to government information;

  5. That any fee the government charges for acquiring or using government information be less than or limited to the marginal cost of dissemination;

  6. That government information should be in the public domain;

  7. The government's obligation to archive and preserve government information, regardless of format; and

  8. The privacy rights of individuals and groups from unwarranted government intrusion.

To maintain public access, federal information policy must include: recognition and funding of depository libraries as information centers for free public access; collection and distribution of all unclassified government information of public interest or educational value to depository libraries; dissemination of government information in the most appropriate, cost-effective format and useful format for agencies, libraries and the general public; and comprehensive listing of government publications through nationally recognized databases and networks.

Copyright, 1991, Jim Warren & Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility All rights to copy the materials contained herein are reserved, except as hereafter explicitly licensed and permitted for anyone: Anyone may receive, store and distribute copies of this ASCII-format computer textfile in purely magnetic or electronic form, including on computer networks, computer bulletin board systems, computer conferencing systems, free computer diskettes, and host and personal computers, provided and only provided that:

  1. this file, including this notice, is not altered in any manner, and
  2. no profit or payment of any kind is charged for its distribution, other than normal online connect-time fees or the cost of the magnetic media, and
  3. it is not reprodunor distributed in printed or paper form, nor on CD ROM, nor in any form other than the electronic forms described above without prior written permission from the copyright holder.

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