Memo to Congress

By Quint, Barbara | Information Today, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Memo to Congress


Quint, Barbara, Information Today


In August, the House Appropriations Committee was still considering the future of the Government Printing Office (GPO). There's already a plan in the works to cut next fiscal year's budget by about 20%. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) may be instructed to do a study on the future of the GPO, examining major changes such as privatization and discontinuation. (I actually received most of this background information from the Washington office of the American Library Association.)

Meanwhile, the GPO recently issued a report by ITHAKA S+R on the future of the Federal Depository Library Program, a report for which the GPO's superintendent of public documents issued a statement of disapproval.

Everything that's not down in the dust is up in the air. But let's get back to the basic question about the future of the GPO, including the role of libraries and librarians. The GPO (despite the Second Millennium Printing portion of its name) has been moving in the right direction for some time. The organization put its documents online and swears a blood oath to keep them online forever. But it doesn't have the wide coverage it used to have when federal agencies had to come to get documents done right. In the second millennium, that meant getting documents printed, but no one needs that done anymore with today's web publication.

However, that unfortunately gives individual government bureaucrats too much control over their own accountability. And in an era when everyone wants to avoid losing a round in the blame game, the ability to remove or alter public records by just editing or dropping a web-page is too dangerously seductive.

I recall a legend told at a former employer of mine about a case that involved tampering with history in the print days (when it was hard to do). A researcher at RAND Corp., using only open, unclassified sources, predicted (right to the month) when the Soviets would launch an Earth-circling satellite. When Sputnik 1 was launched, the world (particularly the media) went crazy. Suddenly, the feds demanded that RAND's publication department immediately surrender all copies of that unclassified document, which would be reclassified as Top Secret. According to the legend, the author of the study didn't have sufficient clearance to read it.

Call me a hopeless cynic, but it seems to me that the only advantage this posthumous reclassification could provide would be to cover up the embarrassing predictability of the event for feds scrambling to "cover their posteriors." It's only human, and with a web publication process completely controlled by each individual agency, it's all too easy and all too predictable.

The American public needs an independent agency to guarantee its permanent access to a permanent record of its government's actions and inactions. …

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