GPO's permanent press

'We have to make sure the system we invent will not have to be re-engineered in 20 years,' GPO's Mike Wash says.

Rick Steele

At GPO, inventor Mike Wash has a plan to care for content beyond print

Brass at the Government Printing Office soon will get a first look at a draft plan for transforming the government's document agency into a digital-content manager.

The plan's author, inventor Michael L. Wash, came to GPO in June as chief technical officer and co-head of the Office of Innovation and New Technology. He holds 18 U.S. patents from his previous career at Eastman Kodak Co.

'The cornerstone of the plan is world-class content management,' Wash said. 'We are expected
to preserve federal publications whenever they are needed and at a level of authenticity that can
be trusted. They should be available in perpetuity.'

Around Oct. 1, Wash and an in-house GPO team will present public printer Bruce James with a three-year plan for creating an enterprise capable of managing the government's print legacy as well as current and future 'born digital' content. Once the plan gains James' approval, GPO will seek funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, GPO is preparing to redevelop the site of its century-old brick complex in Washington and move within the next two years to smaller headquarters.

A now-disused underground conveyor once carried reams of printed output from the agency's presses to the old Washington Post Office for delivery. GPO itself operated in analog mode for most of the 20th century.

But the last decade forced changes. By last fall, GPO had shut down all its brick-and-mortar bookstores except the one at headquarters. About 2,500 employees remain of a workforce that once was twice that size. The chief human capital officer, Robert Carr, was named last year to retrain GPO workers for jobs that entail less paper-handling.

Nonetheless, GPO still is a big consumer of paper. In 1992, the agency bought about 79 million pounds of paper. Last year, it consumed 38 million pounds.

As creation of hard-copy documents has declined at GPO, online use of government documents has been on the rise. GPOaccess.gov currently lists more than 250,000 government titles, all downloadable for free.

But paper still matters. The agency has adopted a publish-on-demand strategy using different, specialized presses for long or short document runs with large or small page counts. Although it now contracts out many jobs, GPO still prints U.S. passport pages in Washington, and its officials do not foresee renaming the office to reflect the planned digital destiny.

To merge the paper and online worlds, the Wash team's plan must resolve a content management dilemma: The government's legacy paper documents are no longer warehoused in quantity but must still be available when needed.

Plus, the digital content created by government agencies today already amounts to many terabytes'Wash could not estimate how many'and grows daily.

GPO isn't alone in struggling with the access-and-storage dilemma. The National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress also are trying to design massive content management plans, but with slightly different goals.

NARA's interest is in archiving the government's content, LOC's in distributed access to many kinds of digital information'not just government documents.

Following the leader

Following NARA's lead, GPO recently hired Integrated Computer Engineering Inc. of Arlington, Va.'a unit of American Systems Corp. of Chantilly, Va.''to make sure our concept of operations is compliant with the IEEE enterprise content management standard and as robust as it can be,' Wash said.

Extensible Markup Language tagging 'is likely to be one of our approaches' to managing the government's digital content, he said, 'but it's a formatting solution of today. Twenty years from now, there will be something else. We have to make sure the system we invent will not have to be re-engineered in 20 years.'

To store all the terabytes, Wash does not yet know whether GPO will choose centralized storage or a distributed model. 'My personal opinion is that we will have a mix of those,' he said. Distributed storage is better for maximizing uptime, he believes, but central storage gives faster access to the information.

Not too many years ago, users traveled to a federal depository library to read hard-copy documents, he said, but now they go to the Web and print out what they want. 'And that absolutely will change,' he predicted.

'We know that we will continue to print text,' but future government documents might consist of, say, video or audio streams synchronized with text over satellite channels.

'Our content management system has to be capable of supporting all that,' he said, without closing out new technologies or new ways of presentation that haven't been invented yet.

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