Boing Boing pointed me to a great article about the role of libraries in distributing government documents. Traditionally, libraries served as a depository for documents published by the Government Printing Office (GPO).
To cover its costs, the GPO sold the documents to the libraries. This reduced the cost for government to provide public access and preservation of the documents. Local governments and learning institutions were happy to pay for this valuable service to the public.
Now many government agencies including the GPO produce many documents digitally and distribute them online. The GPO has a plan to knock libraries out of the loop by charging the public directly for the documents it distributes. Instead of 1,300 libraries, there would be one, central depository for all government documents. Other than the “why do I have to pay for something I used to get for free” argument, it makes some sense. Not so fast, argue the librarians:
If we rely on any single source (e.g., the federal government) for government information, and the single source fails, the information is lost. “Failure” in a single-source information culture includes technological failure, accidents, intentional altering or destruction or removal of information, changing budget priorities that are unable to keep up with a rapidly growing amount of information, changing political priorities, and other unforeseen technical, economic, social, and political problems.
By contrast, in a multi-source information culture, the failure of one node (e.g., the loss of a copy of a document in one FDLP library) does not mean a complete loss of information. With multiple copies of documents at multiple locations under multiple collection policies and budgetary authorities, no single agency, organization, or private company controls access to or preservation of government information. Negligence at one organization affects the materials only at that organization. No act, intentional or unintentional, by any single organization can lose, replace, alter, destroy, or remove information from 1300 separately located, separately controlled, separately budgeted collections.
I hadn’t thought of that. But given the tremendous difficulties many libraries are now facing in preserving digital documents, it makes sense that keeping all our digital eggs in one basket may not be the wisest course of action. The librarians also note that technological failure may not be the most significant flaw in our national digital egg basket. Politicians have, in the past, requested that the GPO “withdraw” publications it has already deposited in the nation’s libraries, and the libraries have refused as a matter of principle.
The biggest danger of a central government knowledge repository is the temptation for the government to rewrite history.
Any time you think libraries may be becoming obsolete, I want you to go back and reread that sentence.