GPO shouldn't be the Cinderella of Congress
Once upon a time, when books were printed on paper, the federal government established
the Depository Library Program (DLP). When the government printed a book, it sent copies
to selected libraries nationwide.
There's a limit to the number of copies that can be distributed, so the DLP made books
available in central locations where people could find them. A simple idea that made sense
then. It makes sense now.
Along came the Internet. Agencies made information available through computer networks,
so anyone with a computer and a modem can connect directly to on-line government data.
Books are by no means obsolete, but a growing amount of government data is available now
on the Internet.
What is the future of the Depository Library Program in an on-line world?
This question is the subject of a recent report from the Government Printing Office,
the agency that operates the DLP. GPO has the bad fortune to be part of the legislative
branch appropriation, and Congress is still desperate to chop its own budget. It already
has abolished one congressional agency and cut another by 25 percent. The future of the
DLP, as well as that of GPO itself, is in limbo.
GPO proposes to keep the DLP at its current funding level but to shift mostly to
electronic dissemination. Many paper products will be discontinued, and more data will be
provided electronically. GPO will provide connections to agency-operated on-line
information services. Data not made available electronically by the agencies, will be by
This makes no sense substantively or politically. For government information on the
Net, connections are available at the White House Web site and other sites operated by
many agencies. There are plenty of search aids and links in existence.
The impending Government Information Locator Service (GILS) is likely to be widely
available as well. No one with Net access needs GPO's help connecting to on-line
government information resources. Good libraries are using the Net now, and the new GPO
plan will do nothing for them.
Information that agencies have not put on line, GPO wants to get and make available
through its own on-line facility. This is a mind-boggling task, one for which GPO has no
demonstrated resources or expertise.
Thousands of agency information products are not yet available electronically. The
notion that they will be shipped to a central GPO computer and made available is
ludicrous. Agencies won't cooperate. With multiple formats and distributed information
systems, it may not even be technically feasible.
When government data is put on line, the source agency should do it, as envisioned in
the plans for GILS. A central information warehouse has no place in the electronic world.
Collecting and manipulating zillions of bits of information from thousands of databases
created by dozens of different agencies is simply unmanageable.
GPO should provide on-line access to information that it publishes, but it should not
be the electronic publisher for all orphaned data in government. The DLP does not print
data that an agency chooses not to publish. Why do it for electronic data?
Unlike many, I think GPO does a decent job of printing documents and making them
available. It is not GPO's fault that technology has changed. GPO and its people deserve
better treatment than they are likely to receive from Congress.
But the agency does not understand the purpose of the DLP. The DLP exists to distribute
printed materials, not create or preserve jobs. It is not the DLP's mission to publish
data on its own.
No matter how it might be changed, the DLP will not keep GPO in business. Nor does the
DLP offer a long-term answer to the availability of government data. That will have to
come from the Office of Management and Budget, the National Archives and others.
With the Internet, there is no scarcity of information. People can connect from their
homes, businesses, public libraries, government offices and copier stores. Even some bars
and restaurants now offer computer terminals to patrons. They don't need the DLP to
provide access to federal information.
As long as the government prints books, there will be a limited function for the DLP.
But the DLP will not live happily ever after in the world of electronic information. That
program should fade into the electronic sunset.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant