ARCHIVED: Public Access to Government Information in the 21st Century

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Statement of Dr. Betty J. Turock
Professor, Library and Information Studies
Rutgers University

on behalf of the
American Library Association,
American Association of Law Libraries
Association of Research Libraries and the
Special Libraries Association

before the
Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
on Public Access to Government Information in the 21st Century

June 18, 1996

I am Betty Turock, President of the American Library Association, and Professor of Library and Information Studies at Rutgers University. Today I am representing ALA, the American Association of Law Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Special Libraries Association. ALA is a nonprofit educational organization of 58,000 librarians, library trustees, and friends of libraries dedicated to promoting the public interest in a free and open information society. AALL is a nonprofit educational organization with more than 5,000 members dedicated to serving the legal information needs of legislators and other public officials, law professors, and students, attorneys, and members of the general public. ARL is an association of 119 major research libraries in North America; ARL programs and services promote equitable access to and effective use of recorded knowledge in support of teaching, research, scholarship, and community service. SLA is a nonprofit international association of nearly 15,000 information professionals whose mission is to put knowledge to work in the information society.

I am pleased to be here as you consider public access to government information in the 21st century. Particularly, I will focus on the role of the Federal Depository Library Program administered by the Government Printing Office in meeting the mandate for an informed citizenry.

My testimony covers four main points: First, we emphasize the importance of Congressional leadership and oversight in ensuring public access to government information. Second, we recognize that the program we have today in the legislative branch for getting government information to the public works extremely well; Congress already has established the framework for the 21st century. Third, we warn of the need to look before we leap, and to know the costs and implications of changes before we abandon current systems and institutions. Fourth, we repeat the obvious: librarians have been in the forefront in effectively using new technologies for decades and have long advocated electronic dissemination of government information in digital format while recognizing the continued need of paper-based government information based on the nature of the material, its use and audience.

Public Access to Government Information in the 21st Century

I am confident, Mr. Chairman, that you share our belief that access to government information is a public right essential to our form of government. A democratic society depends on equal, ready, timely, and equitable access to government information, regardless of format. Government information is a basic building block of the information infrastructure, as are libraries. Disseminating government information through libraries has been an effective partnership between libraries and the government, and should continue to be extended into the electronic environment. We can anticipate that in the 21st century much dissemination of government information will be electronic. Technology will continue to change rapidly. The services, hardware, software, and digital formats in use today may not be around in the future; they are not permanent. Nevertheless, we need to maintain the ability to access data now available through such means.

Government agencies will be experimenting and going in diverse directions; there will be continued pressure on government spending, continuing challenges to improve the literacy of our citizenry, continued interest by the commercial sector to take over and privatize information resources--with no responsibility for no-fee or equitable access or even to archiving, preservation or broad dissemination to the public. The probability of a cacophony of information sources and mediums for public access to government information adds to the continuing need for a central, coordinating entity and federal commitment to funding that access and dissemination.

Indeed, probably the most important obstacle to public access to government information in the 21st century would be Congressional abdication of both direct oversight and fiscal responsibility for ensuring equitable, timely, no-fee dissemination in a coordinated and effective manner. The first signs of this abdication have appeared in the premise that sending out nearly all government data electronically holds the key to saving money.

The Importance of Congressional Leadership and Oversight

We appreciate the Senate's commitment to providing timely and equitable access to government information to the public. Last year when the House of Representatives moved precipitously to halve the appropriations for the Federal Depository Library Program, the Senate convinced the House to continue funding for the program and to initiate a study by the Government Printing Office that would assist Congress in redefining a new and strengthened information dissemination policy and program. In March, GPO--after an open and collaborative process--released a draft report to Congress, "Study to Identify Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic Federal Depository Library Program". Attached to this testimony is an April 26, 1996 letter to Public Printer Michael DiMario from four major library associations, telling him that we appreciate that many of the comments and concerns about GPO's December 1995 transition plan were incorporated into the March draft study. Additionally, the letter stresses many areas of continued serious concern and importance to the members of the four associations concerning GPO's draft study.

Critical Data Needed

Critical is the lack of data to substantiate many of the study's recommendations. We remain very concerned that although some useful information was gathered during the study process, neither the draft report, the models developed as part of the task force reports, nor the strategic plan are based on substantive data regarding costs to and capabilities of the government, libraries or the public to produce, access and use predominately electronic information. We believe that a technical scan is necessary and we urge Congress to approve funding for the Technical Implementation Assistance which the report proposes. We also suggest that a comprehensive study be undertaken among all partners (GPO, agencies, the National Archives and Records Administration and participating libraries) to guarantee permanent long term access and preservation. These critical issues are the responsibility of the government and they must be comprehensively addressed before the transition plan is implemented.

In the March study, GPO recommended a five-to-seven year transition to a mostly electronic depository system, a more realistic time frame than the two-year transition proposed last December. We have long supported a more electronic program and urge Congress to accept the Public Printer's recommendation for a longer transition period. At the same time, we are concerned that the transition chronology in the March study states that 50 percent of all the publications available to depository libraries will be in electronic format by October of 1998. If this includes the addition of databases such as those at the National Library of Medicine and the Securities and Exchange Commission that are not now in the program, public access will be improved. But if it means the massive conversion of publications now available in dual format, paper and electronic, we are concerned that many library users will be disenfranchised and future access to the information will be jeopardized.

The issues of long term permanent access and preservation are central to the transition to a more electronic program. The library community is especially concerned that the March study offers no specifics, no data, no costs and no assurances. The attached letter to the Public Printer points out that the questions are very basic ones; first, how do we assure that electronic information will be available and usable next month, next year, or in twenty-five, fifty, or even a hundred years from now; and second, who will be responsible for ensuring long-term permanent access. In shifting long-term access from depository libraries to the government, as the draft study suggests, we must be assured that funding will remain adequate so that the government can refresh and migrate information. Otherwise, our national historical records will disappear into a black hole and the advantages of electronic information will be nullified.

Congress Has Established the FDLP as the Framework for the 21st Century

Congress began at least 15 years ago to move the Federal Depository Library Program into the 21st century. Thanks to your leadership, the FDLP has become a good example for other library programs in the use of electronic technology and the Internet. Congressional leadership in this area included: the work of the Joint Committee on Printing Ad Hoc Committee on Depository Library Access to Federal Automated Data Bases in 1983-84; the direction of the Joint Committee on Printing to the Government Printing Office to distribute publications in electronic formats to depository libraries; and the GPO's electronic pilot projects, which explored the best options for providing depository libraries with access to electronic products and services.

Thanks to the leadership of the members of this Committee and your House colleagues, Congress enacted the GPO Access Act, PL 103-40. The award-winning GPO Access system is now a key component of the Federal Depository Library Program, providing a valuable service to the American public by connecting libraries and the public with crucial federal government information sources in electronic format. Clearly, the sponsors of the GPO Access Act recognized that ensuring no-fee, timely and equitable public access to government information is essential to America's right to know as, increasingly, federal agencies use computer technology. Attached to this testimony is a resolution commending Congress for providing the public with free direct online access to GPO Access services.

Equitable Public Access to Government Information Through Depository Libraries

To help fulfill its responsibility to inform the American public of federal programs and policies, Congress established the Federal Depository Library Program to provide no-fee, geographically dispersed access to government publications. The framework for the current depository system was established in the mid-19th century when depository designation was assigned by Members of Congress, with the intent to provide distribution throughout the country. The driving forces for establishing the depository library system were to provide access to government information both uniformly throughout the country (that is, in every Congressional district) and without regard to economic means (that is, at no charge to the user). This intent reflected a commitment to broad-based democracy--keeping the populace (not just the wealthy or landed gentry, and not just those in the Northeast) well-informed. Today, it is even more critical that all Americans, whether in rural or urban communities and regardless of their economic status, have equitable, ready and timely access.

Expert service in helping your constituents locate and use government information is provided daily in the almost 1,400 depository libraries located in nearly every Congressional district. These libraries invest funds for staff, space and equipment to provide the public with ready, efficient and no-fee access to government information. Libraries are equally committed to providing access to the broad and growing array of electronic products and services--which require a further investment in equipment, additional and highly trained technical staff, and greater service requirements to assist library users.

As more and more information becomes available electronically, there is an assumption that centralized administration of the Federal Depository Library Program is no longer necessary. Yet the program in a distributed electronic environment requires coordination to bring all participants together on issues such as:

standardization and guidelines to ensure ease of locating information and guarantees of long-term access;

the availability of no-fee access to all government information, including fee-based products and services, through depository libraries;

and usability.

The complexities of these issues, particularly when many agencies are creating their own web sites, seems to be underestimated. Further, coordination is needed for depositories to deal with a vast number of online publishing entities in a distributed electronic system. And some in government appear to underestimate the administrative burden and inefficiencies of having nearly 1,400 libraries contacting each agency individually for materials and support.

Another frequent assumption is that electronic government information that might be made available over the Internet, for example, will be uniformly and equitably distributed across the country. This assumption is not--at least yet--correct. There is still a large percentage of adult Americans who do not have access to the Internet. In October of 1995, the Nielsen Company released a major survey of Internet access. It showed that 6.7 percent of persons 16 and older in the United States and Canada had access to the Internet at home, 5.8 percent had access at work, and 3.2 percent had access at school. A later study released early this year, and reported in the January 12th issue of the Wall Street Journal, put the figure at about a third of that level. These surveys have attracted criticism for their methodology, and they indeed may not be precise. Nevertheless, they do suggest that Internet access, while growing rapidly, is not yet as widespread as some enthusiastic press reports may imply.

Furthermore, of the percentage of the public who currently have Internet access, only a fraction have access with reasonably high speed Web browsing capability. For instance, at current network speeds it would take over an hour to download a two-hundred page document such as the Administration's White Paper on Intellectual Property. A document with significant charts, figures, or photographs, would take a much greater time. To download, store, and read the information on-line would require a workstation with a reasonably large and stable display screen and substantial disk storage. To print such a document requires access to a quality high speed, affordable printer. Few depository or other libraries, and certainly no other public institutions, are now equipped with such technology for public use, especially if they will be called upon to serve the approximately 95 percent of the population that does not yet have Internet access.

According to GPO's 1995 Biennial Survey of depository libraries, 67 percent of the depositories are housed in academic institutions, 20.4 percent are in public libraries, while the remainder are in specialized libraries, such as those in federal and state agencies. Of the academic libraries, approximately half have Internet tools for their primary users (students, faculty, etc.). But, only 32 percent of responding depositories currently provide the kind of robust workstation configuration necessary to provide equitable public access to government information through the Internet.

According to a 1996 survey conducted by the U. S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, 44.6 percent of public libraries are connected to the Internet. Although this is a 113 percent overall increase from 1994, preliminary survey analysis indicates discrepancies in public library Internet connectivity based on size of population served. Public libraries serving populations under 5,000 in 1996 are 58.6 percent less likely to be connected to the Internet than those libraries serving larger populations of 100,000 to more than 1 million. There also appear to be significant regional differences in public library Internet-connectivity and Internet-based service offerings.

GPO Draft Study

GPO's draft study assumes that the government's responsibility to distribute information to the public is met when the information is made electronically available. It also assumes that depositories will be able to access, download, and print documents for users who need them. Thus there will be, as a practical matter, large printing costs required to make much government information accessible to the public. Today those costs are borne up-front by GPO, through appropriated funds--before the information is distributed. Who will bear the costs under GPO's new electronic distribution system? Is the cost of printing to be shifted from the federal government to Congressional constituents and libraries? Already financially strapped libraries cannot necessarily assume the costs of printing millions of pages of government information. For a Congress whose first major enactment was the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, this new approach to distributing government information will not pass the test of avoiding the imposition of financial burdens on local and state units of government to implement federal programs.

In the resolution regarding a transition to a more electronic federal information system (also attached), ALA urges Congress to reaffirm the Government's responsibility to provide federal information in a format most appropriate to the public's needs.

FY 1997 Appropriations Request

GPO has requested $30,827,000 for the Superintendent of Documents Salaries and Expenses, of which $27,197,000 will maintain the Depository Library Program. We fully support GPO's request for an additional $500,000 for technology grants to assist the more financially strapped depository libraries so that they may acquire technology to participate in the program. The strategic plan says that the technology grants are intended to ensure reasonable public access and proximity to at least one electronically-capable depository in every Congressional district. But a number of states such as Alaska, Montana and Wyoming comprise one district. Thus, some large states could receive funds for only one library, resulting in geographic barriers for those who live far distances from that depository.

A better approach would be to ask each state to come up with a plan that would enable all depositories to be connected to the Internet and therefore to the GPO Access system. This might include providing basic equipment to the poorest of the libraries and purchasing net access software for every depository without it. The underlying philosophy of the program is that those libraries designated depositories will serve every citizen in their district and, in the case of regionals, everyone in their state.

It is imperative that policy makers remain fully committed to the government's obligation to provide no-fee public access to information created at taxpayer expense. This principle is the cornerstone of the Federal Depository Library Program and has served the nation well. Millions of Americans take advantage of the efficient and effective FDLP every year. A 1989 GPO study estimated that, at a minimum, 167,000 people use depository libraries every week. Since the 1994 implementation of the GPO Access system, dozens of depository library gateways have broadened and extended the GPO system, configuring these services in ways that best suit local needs. Currently, the GPO Access System averages between 2 and 2.5 million document downloads a month. The use of electronic technologies to produce and disseminate government information has been substantial throughout the federal government. As a result, the public has broader access to valuable information in a more timely, efficient and effective manner.

We remain very concerned, however, that the rapid transition to a nearly all electronic FDLP is viewed by policy makers not in terms of increased public access, but as a way to reduce costs to the federal government. There are in fact no cost data to prove this assumption, at least in the short term. The costs of transforming the program may well be greater than Congress believes. We reiterate our belief that federal information policy decisions should not be used as a way to reduce costs to the federal government without considering the effect on the public and their ability access information so they can function fully as citizens. FDLP funding must be adequate to ensure that the steady flow of federal information will continue to every Congressional district and that valuable government information is not lost. Clearly, under the GPO proposal, significant costs will be shifted to Congressional constituents and to libraries, while some costs will shift back to the federal government.

Library Investments on the Information Superhighway

Like the interstate highway system, the information superhighway will require continuous construction and maintenance. We have begun our global construction with vigor, purpose and hope. A project so grand depends on a mighty vision, and on the skills of every construction worker. Librarians are essential partners in the process of designing systems that attend with care to the needs of millions of independent learners--learners who must one day understand and support integrated, efficient, useful and sustainable information and communication systems. Librarians are ahead of the information curve to anticipate users' needs, to help shape information tools and search strategies, and to support the information-gathering habits of users so that Americans can compete in the global marketplace.

Librarians are buying hardware and the connections for two-way transport on the telecommunications highways, the information country lanes, and urban side streets. Libraries are equipping staffs with skills and tools appropriate to information-age work. This takes time and additional resources. And often, the essential reference tools and software systems that render federal information systems accessible and useful, many produced by the private sector, are costly. We must have the time to plan and implement a comprehensive system with multiple formats, creative linkages, feedback, user guides, resilience, and sustainability.

Librarians represent the interests of users--entrepreneurs, students, researchers, elected officials, health care providers, parents and families, information brokers and information businesses. These users depend upon the nation's public, school, corporate, museum, health science, legal, college and university, research, government and other special libraries and librarians as starting points, interchanges, and destinations on a fast-moving thoroughfare. Library users know that this information highway cannot bypass them but must link all neighborhoods with the information arteries that enable residents to stay and prosper in their communities.

There is a powerful force at the core of all the work librarians do--as selectors, organizers, archivists, teachers and marketers of ideas and information. Our users are smart. Their information needs are real, important, and diverse. The wisest investment our nation can make is to construct and maintain useful information access ramps into and out of our federal government.


Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. We believe that any and all changes to the Federal Depository Library Program must maximize the efficiencies of an electronic program with the guarantees of broader, more equitable, and long-term public access to federal information. ALA, AALL, and SLA urge this Committee to unequivocally affirm the principles that are the foundation of the Federal Depository Library Program:

that the dissemination of government information should remain in the legislative branch under Congressional jurisdiction,

that the Federal Depository Library system is the bedrock of such a dissemination system,

that government information through depository libraries should be at no charge to the public, and

that legislative changes should be enacted in order that government information, whether created by those who work for the government or those who produce work for the government under contract, be included in the Depository Library Program for free access by the public.

We also urge the Committee to affirm the principles for federal government information as stated on pages 4-5 of the recent draft report to Congress, "Study to Identify Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic Federal Depository Library Program."

Additionally, we would like to emphasize the need for the Technical Implementation Assistance that is recommended in GPO's strategic plan and for a comprehensive study of user capabilities to obtain and use government information in electronic formats. Data on the nation's existing technological infrastructure and on the current capabilities of agencies, libraries and users, are crucial to making informed and correct decisions. These critical issues must be addressed before the transition to an almost electronic program is made.

We believe the informational needs of the American people will be properly met only if all participating libraries and the their users are ready for this dramatic change in the way Americans will obtain information by and about their federal government. Without such assurances, our nation will suffer economically, politically, and intellectually.


1) Joint library association letter to Public Printer Michael F. DiMario, April 26, 1996

2) ALA Resolution Commending the United States Congress and the Government Printing Office for Free Public Access to the GPO Access Services

3) ALA Resolution Regarding a Transition to a More Electronic Federal Information System