ARCHIVED: Statement On H.R. 4280, The "Government Printing Reform Act of 1996"

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STATEMENT ON H.R. 4280
THE "GOVERNMENT PRINTING REFORM ACT OF 1996"

December 18, 1996

American Library Association
American Association of Law Libraries
Association of Research Libraries

Principles of Access to Federal Government Information

During the 104th Congress, several proposals were initiated to revise various chapters of Title 44 United States Code in order to take optimum advantage of new technologies to improve the public's access to government information. This is a commendable goal, and the library community has long supported efforts to improve public access through the development and use of electronic formats.

We were very pleased at the opportunity to participate in the congressionally-directed Study to Identify Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic Federal Depository Library Program (June 1996) by the Government Printing Office (GPO). Letters of comment regarding the proposed transition that describe many important issues of continued concern to the library community are included in the final study as Attachment M. In addition, we submitted statements at hearings before the House Oversight Committee, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, as well as the Legislative Appropriations Subcommittees, regarding these same concerns.

We hope that open dialogue and discussion among all partners on various proposals to revise Title 44 will continue during the 105th Congress to ensure that the flow of electronic government information is enhanced for the benefit of all citizens. Any revisions must reflect Congress's own commitment to improving public access and to ensuring the accountability of government entities. Working together toward that objective, we affirm the following principles of access to federal government information, most recently expressed in the GPO study's final report to Congress, that must be fully met in order to successfully achieve these goals in an electronic environment:

 

The public has a right of access to government information;

The government has an obligation to disseminate and provide broad public access to its information;

The government has an obligation to guarantee the authenticity and integrity of its information;

The government has an obligation to preserve its information;

Government information created or compiled by government employees or at government expense should remain in the public domain.

 

The Federal Depository Library Program

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) is a successful and valued partnership between the public, the federal government, and participating depository libraries. It serves a unique role by providing the public with comprehensive and coordinated no-fee access to federal government information in all formats, from agencies across the three branches of government. Advances in electronic information technologies provide tremendous possibilities for facilitating the public's access to federal information at their local depository library.

Alternatively, these same advances could impose technological and other barriers that would inhibit public access. A few examples include:

 

the difficulty for the typical user in identifying and locating information sources in a distributed environment; the lack of appropriate software and standards necessary to make electronic government information usable; the application of fee-based licenses or cost-recovery policies that keep information, paid for by tax dollars, out of the public domain; the imposition of copyright-like restrictions on electronic government information. the loss of valuable information resources unless a systematic and comprehensive program for capturing and preserving electronic information for permanent public access is achieved.
The transition to a more electronic program makes the contributions of depository libraries and librarians even more important than in a print-based environment. As a result of these major technological changes, depository libraries face significant new and ongoing costs to provide high-capacity computers, needed software, and high-speed printers. Moreover, the expertise of professional librarians and trained staff is more necessary than ever to assist users, many of whom lack the technical skills needed to navigate the increasingly complex array of electronic government resources to locate the information they need.

Overview of H.R. 4280

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, introduced H.R. 4280, the "Government Printing Reform Act of 1996," in the waning days of the 104th Congress as a starting point for debate on revising Title 44 to reflect the electronic environment. While the intent of H.R. 4280 may be to provide for the widespread use of electronic technologies in disseminating government information, the bill assumes a national technological infrastructure and government-wide standards that do not exist today. We are concerned that some provisions of H.R. 4280 do not conform to the principles of access to government information listed above, and therefore would have the effect of decreasing rather than improving public access. H.R. 4280 does offer some proposals that merit consideration and possible support by the library community, including the following:

 

1) the creation of a new Joint Committee on Information which potentially could have broader powers overseeing an expanded area of jurisdiction (Title I);

2) the elimination of the exemption for cooperative publications from depository distribution (44 U.S.C. 1903) that would close a major loophole for fugitive documents (Title V, Section 505);

3) the changed requirements for the retention of FDLP materials, allowing the Superintendent of Documents to establish regulations for the retention and disposal of depository materials for both selective and regional depository libraries (Title V, Section 505).

On the other hand, we are disappointed that H.R. 4280 does not fully address the areas of broad consensus that were developed during the year-long GPO study or the unresolved issues of continued critical concern. Many provisions do not take into account other recent legislative and executive branch proposals, including suggested amendments to Chapter 19 that evolved from the GPO study. Given the nature and scope of the revisions included in H.R. 4280, we believe it essential that all legislative proposals by Congress to amend Title 44 be given full and open consideration at hearings so that all interested and affected parties have an opportunity to provide public comment.

Impact of H.R. 4280 on Public Access

We believe that the effect of certain provisions of H.R. 4280 would seriously inhibit public access to federal government information. While a more comprehensive analysis of H.R. 4280 is available upon request, the comments below reflect the three most critical issues of concern:

Decentralization

The proposed decentralized model for producing and disseminating government information, regardless of format, would result in a deterioration of the public's ability to locate, access, and use government information. The provision that would make agencies bear the costs for the republication and distribution of depository copies increases the likelihood of fugitive documents, as opposed to the current model of appropriated funds to the Superintendent of Documents. There are no built-in incentives for agencies to make information available to the public, and there is no enforcement mechanism to make this work.

The elimination of the link between production and dissemination will likely also result in increased costs to taxpayers, contrary to the assumption that this new model would achieve cost savings. Decentralization also increases the danger of political abuse by the issuing agency in the control over information content and accessibility. Lastly, the widely decentralized authority over government information proposed in the bill makes the development and application of useful standards difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Permanent Public Access

The library community has repeatedly stressed the need for permanent public access to electronic government information. There are no provisions in H.R. 4280 to guarantee that any government entity will meet this responsibility. While stressing the move toward electronic dissemination, the bill provides no mechanism for the systematic retention of and permanent public access to electronic government information. This loss of access is occurring daily and in frightening proportion, as we witness information appearing and disappearing haphazardly from agency websites. Any revision to Title 44 must assure the public's ability to access electronic federal government information on a permanent basis.

Getting the Transition "Right"

We are very concerned that H.R. 4280 does not take into proper consideration the way people search for and use government information, and their need for appropriate formats. While the bill does not clearly define electronic information nor explicitly include electronic information products in the FDLP, it forces an over-reliance on electronic formats even when these would be more costly for the government to produce and for the public to use. Certain provisions raise serious concerns over the ability of the public to access some of the most critically important government resources such as the Federal Register, the Congressional Record, and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. No provisions are included to ensure standardized style, format, timing, content or dissemination. Standardization is especially important if the information is to be widely accessible via online systems such as GPO Access and LC THOMAS. Removing the statutory authority for the production and distribution of many key titles, including Statutes at Large, treaties, and annual reports, could well result in a loss of these essential publications which inform the public of the activities of their government.

Provisions in Title V freeze the number and types of depository libraries in the FDLP to the specific institutions participating in the program as of January 1, 1997. These provisions limit public access by not allowing the FDLP to adjust to population and other changes over time in order to equitably serve all citizens. They also undermine the many benefits that electronic technologies provide for expanding the scope and reach of the FDLP to include new partners. Finally, they assume incorrectly that there will no longer be any depository materials in print or tangible formats.

Users will be frustrated in trying to locate needed information unless there is a central, coordinating government entity responsible for providing necessary finding tools, user support and permanent public access. We believe that the need for libraries and librarians to serve as intermediaries to the public will not diminish as more and more government information is made available electronically, but rather will increase substantially.

 

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For more information, please contact:

Prue Adler, Association of Research Libraries
202/296-2296 or prue@cni.org

Mary Alice Baish, American Association of Law Libraries
202/662-9200 or baish@law.georgetown.edu

Anne Heanue, American Library Association
202/628-8410 or aah@alawash.org

 


Working Document
12/18/96