ARCHIVED: Comments on H.R. 4280 and the Contributions of Law Libraries to the Federal Depository Library Program

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January 10, 1997

Honorable William M. Thomas
Chairman, Committee on House Oversight
1309 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-6157

Dear Representative Thomas:

Representatives of the American Association of Law Libraries and the American Library Association met with various congressional staff, including Ms. Linda Kemp and Mr. George Cartagena of the Joint Committee on Printing, on December 18, 1996. The purpose of these meetings was to discuss several provisions of H.R. 4280, "The Government Printing Reform Act of 1996," that you introduced at the close of the 104th Congress as a starting point for legislative revisions to Title 44. We are enclosing for your information copies of three documents prepared for these meetings: a general "Statement on H.R. 4280," a "Section-by-Section Analysis of H.R. 4280," and a beginning list of "Items to be Included in Legislation to Enhance Public Access to Federal Government Information." The additional comments below, on behalf of the American Association of Law Libraries, are intended to supplement the concerns expressed in these working documents.

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) is a nonprofit educational organization headquartered in Chicago with nearly 5,000 members nationwide. Our members respond to the legal and governmental information needs of legislators, judges, and other public officials at all levels of government, corporations and small businesses, law professors and students, attorneys, and members of the general public.

We commend your statement in the October 10, 1996 Committee on House Oversight news release regarding H.R. 4280, that "This act would assure enhanced public access to government information in a more efficient, up-to-date method." We fully support Congress's commitment to the use of new technologies to "provide unprecedented access to government information" for all Americans, whether living in large urban or remote rural areas. Law librarians have long been at the forefront in providing public access to electronic government information.

As federal information policy moves from print to electronic formats, however, it is imperative that legislators and policymakers make the right decisions to meet the lofty goal of improved public access. It is for this reason that Congress commissioned the Government Printing Office (GPO) to conduct a year-long Study to Identify Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic Federal Depository Library Program. Critical issues raised by AALL and the other national library associations regarding the transition, such as the need for government-wide standards and assurances of long-term, permanent access to electronic information, are described in our comment letters and included as Attachment M of the Study.

AALL members are very concerned that H.R. 4280 proposes revisions to Title 44 that do not reflect the findings of the GPO Study, and consequently may unintentionally impede the public's ability to access Federal government information. As you will note in the enclosed documents, we object to provisions of this bill relating to three key areas: decentralization, permanent public access, and the transitional period to a more electronic Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). In addition to these concerns, we would like to comment today on two areas of special importance to law librarians: first, the repeal of designations for certain types of libraries; and second, the transition to electronic access of key legal materials without proper assurances of their usability, their integrity or their permanent public access.

AALL opposes the provisions found in H.R. 4280 that would repeal the automatic depository designation for certain types of libraries. Regardless of the variety of formats through which government information will be disseminated in the future, the need for local community access and the specialized training of librarians to assist the public will always be vital. A variety of types of law libraries participate in the FDLP, ranging from law school libraries to those of the Federal and highest State appellate courts.

These libraries provide public access to materials received through the FDLP, and law librarians in these institutions are highly-trained specialists committed to assisting patrons in locating and using government information. The mission of these valuable repositories of legal information is to serve the law-related research needs of the general public, law school students and faculty, the court systems and the practicing bar. As part of this mission, law librarians are committed to explaining to the public how to use depository and legal materials. Outreach to the public has grown appreciably in recent years and we suspect this growth will continue as the skills of law librarians become increasingly more necessary in assisting users to locate and access electronic government information.

In the future, as populations shift and technologies change, we may need depository libraries in different locations than they exist today. We may even need to create new electronic depository libraries to better serve the public. And while some user support can be done remotely, librarians will continue to play a key role in serving as face-to-face intermediaries with the public, just as members of Congress visit their home districts rather than relying solely on mail or telephone to communicate with their constituents.

In addition to the specialized assistance provided by law librarians, law depository libraries play a crucial role within the FDLP in the specialized cataloging of legal materials and in providing access to historical materials that other depository libraries are not obligated to retain permanently, such as the Code of Federal Regulations. Law depository libraries are valued as well for the support they provide to other depository libraries within their regions. AALL believes that depository libraries will be called upon to play a more significant role in the electronic environment. For this reason we oppose the H.R. 4280 provisions that repeal automatic depository designations and effectively end the authority for the designation of new or replacement depository libraries.

The second area of concern to AALL members relates to provisions of H.R. 4280 that mandate the electronic dissemination of key congressional and agency titles without an acknowledgement as to whether or how well the needs of the public or the legal researcher will be met. Proposed changes will impact titles that are critically important, such as the Congressional Record, the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, the Congressional Directory and the Federal Register. Use of these titles is not limited to only the most current information. They are invaluable resources for legal and historical research, and therefore the government must assure that they are permanently available to the public.

Provisions of H.R. 4280 that end GPO's centralized role in congressional publishing, by giving House and Senate authority to procure and pay for their own publishing, fail to acknowledge the need for standards that is so critical in the electronic environment. Nor do they specify how the public will access these titles, through committee websites, GPO Access, or THOMAS. We also question how efficient the contracting out of congressional information will be, and urge you to conduct a study on whether it will in fact achieve the sizeable cost reductions that you anticipate.

We also remain unconvinced that provisions of H.R. 4280 Title V that end the link between the production and dissemination of agency information will meet their intended goal of decreasing the number of fugitive documents. It is even more unclear how they will ensure that fee-based products or services, such as MEDLINE and materials published by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), are made available to the public at no fee through the FDLP.

Law librarians are finding that the growing use of agency websites to disseminate information electronically is full of pitfalls. Not only is valuable information hard to find, but there are no guarantees of how long it will be available or whether it is the authoritative version. Users become very frustrated when they track down the citation to a document published in 1995 on an agency website, only to discover that the document has been removed. Equally problematic is that our members are finding that there is often a gap of several years between serial titles that agencies are now posting on their websites and what has been available previously in print or microfiche through the FDLP.

In addition to the unresolved question of how to achieve permanent access is the critical issue of preservation, including the role of the National Archives and Records Administration in guaranteeing the preservation of electronic records from all branches of government. The failure to adequately resolve these important policy issues before proceeding to a full cybergovernment will result in this period of our history becoming an information black hole.

We understand that the projected time frame for the reintroduction of a House bill revising Title 44 will now most likely be late spring. It is our hope that a revised House bill will incorporate changes necessary to strengthen the FDLP and to reflect the concerns expressed in this letter and in the enclosed documents. We are most anxious and willing to work with you and your staff in any capacity to assure that the American public is well served, not only today but in the future, as more and more Federal government becomes available electronically. Thank you very much for your time and consideration in this important matter.

Sincerely,

Frank Houdek
American Association of Law Libraries
President

Robert L. Oakley
American Association of Law Libraries
Washington Affairs Representative

cc:
Rep. Sam Gejdenson, Ranking Minority Member, Committee on House Oversight
Sen. John W. Warner, Chairman, Committee on Rules and Administration
Sen. Wendell H. Ford, Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Rules and Administration
Mr. Michael F. DiMario, Public Printer, United States Government Printing Office