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Archive for April 12th, 2012

Who Is Protecting the People’s Property? Who, indeed.

The following is a recent submission to the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association:

The message is specifically directed to members of the Round Table, but it should make us all pause to reflect the choices we make about our collections.

Who Is Protecting the People’s Property?
by Bernadine Abbott Hoduski

Bernadine Abbott Hoduski is retired from being an Assistant Professor and Director of the Governments Documents Department at Central Missouri State University, manager of the serials catalog at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, director of the scientific & law library for EPA Region 7 in Kansas City, Missouri and Lecturer at the Catholic University School of Library & Information Science.

She also served 21 years as a professional staff member for the Joint Committee on Printing of the United States Congress. She chaired the JCP working groups on automation of the cataloging system at GPO, automation of the Congressional Record Index and establishment of standards for Congressional binding. She chaired the Congressional Serial Set Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee on Depository Library Access to Federal Automated Data Bases.

Government publications and information deposited in federal depository libraries are considered the property of the federal government. I prefer to think of them as the people’s property, entrusted to librarians for free public access. The Federal Library Depository Program was set up to serve all the people in all Congressional districts – including the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, students, small business people, and children – not just professors, students, lawyers, and scholars.

The future of the program is being discussed by a number of library associations and the depository library community. ALA is under pressure by some librarians to develop a position about the future, which would include changing the underlying legislation in Title 44. Some of these librarians would like to see regionals, which are responsible for taking everything and keeping it permanently, allowed to substitute digital for other formats, including paper. Some would like to see the number of regionals reduced from two for each state to 15 for the entire nation. Some would like to see the majority of documents available only electronically.

Librarians representing the largest libraries in the country are writing to Congress to ask for changes that will benefit their institutions. Many of the regionals are at the largest academic libraries and some of them are complaining about the burden of preserving paper document collections.

Those regionals did not complain when they were first in line to get those documents, of which there were often not enough for every library. They did not complain when Congress decided that only regionals would receive bound documents of historical importance, like the Serial Set and the Congressional Record. Many public libraries are dropping out of the program; both Detroit and Denver Public Libraries have dropped their regional status. Smaller depository libraries depend upon their regionals to keep the paper documents that they send to them.

Librarians convinced Congress to provide government information electronically to all libraries and directly to the public. This makes it possible for those who live in small towns and in the country to access government information. But once digital was available, Americans wanted it all digital right now. This is not possible because it takes time, work and money to digitize every government document in a way that makes it useful and of good quality. Some librarians did not wait for the Government Printing Office and agencies to finish the work of digitization; they started digitizing the people’s property themselves. They did it as individual libraries, in consortiums, and with vendors and publishers such as Google, Internet Archive, West, Readex and ProQuest. In the process, some libraries have engaged in destructive digitization by providing Google or Hathi Trust with their documents. One university library in Illinois sent a large part of its collection to Hathi Trust; so far, 20,000 documents of that library have been destroyed. Those documents will not be going back to the Illinois library that was entrusted with “the people’s property.”

When both of the regionals in Michigan relinquished their regional status, the solution proposed by the state librarian of Michigan was to make University of Minnesota the regional. The Government Printing Office denied the request and is urging the state to find another regional. One reason for the denial was the fear that a large part of the collection at the state library would have been sent to Minnesota for destructive digitization.

In the meantime, GPO is working with the publishing agencies to digitize their documents in a non-destructive, quality manner. For example, GPO is working with the Library of Congress to digitize Congressional publications. It is a slow process because Social Security numbers are being excised from the Congressional Record and hearings in order to protect privacy.

Because the public and many librarians have jumped to the conclusion that every document is digitized and easily available electronically, librarians have started weeding their document collections. An academic library just last week posted on GovdocL that her library was going to get rid of half of their collection, some 250,000 documents. She promised that if her regional did not take the unwanted documents – such as their 1,785 volumes of the Serial Set dating back from 1873 – she would offer those volumes to other libraries.

Some librarians are discarding the paper Serial Set when they buy the digital version. The publishers were only able to digitize the whole set because missing volumes were provided by libraries. The sets cost hundreds of millions of dollars to print, bind, marbelize, catalog and ship to libraries. Tax supported libraries and librarians preserved them for several hundred years. But now, preserving them has become a burden and space is needed for the machines needed to read the digital version that libraries will pay for with more tax dollars.

Many documents librarians, including myself, who labored for years to make sure that their historically important series were complete, preserved and cataloged, want the permanent paper editions to be preserved in libraries geographically dispersed around our country, just the way members of Congress envisioned it when they set up the depository library program. As chair of a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Printing looking at whether electronic access for government documents should be provided to libraries, I consulted with the experts on what is permanent. Their conclusion and that of the Library of Congress, the National Library of Medicine, and other libraries, is that only paper is permanent. Digital is needed, but it must be backed up with paper. Not only is digital not permanent, but it is also threatened by disasters that disable the technology that make it readable.

We need to think and plan like librarians and prepare for the future. Our collections were built by thousands of librarians who cared about future readers. Some of them have retired rather than see their collections destroyed. Some have been persuaded to sign letters of support for policies they do not support. Some are desperately trying to protect their collections. Some have had their collections taken away and some have had their jobs taken away. Most of them are still trying to serve the needs of the American people. Documents librarians need your help to convince library directors and the policy makers of ALA to protect the past to ensure a good information future for all.

I urge you, as members of SRRT, to join the conversation before it is too late. The ALA Committee on Legislation appointed a subcommittee on government information (GIS). When GIS did not write a resolution to support the solutions proposed by the largest libraries, they set up a task force to write a resolution for Annual Conference. Both the full committee and GIS will look at the resolution at Annual, but it will not represent the interests of the public and small libraries if more librarians do not speak up.