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Read, Listen, Inform: Government Publications in Action (August 2018): The Rise of the Internet, GPO Access, and E-Government

By Aimée C. Quinn

The Rise of the Internet, GPO Access, and E-Government

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, libraries across America were changing. A new technology was reinventing our interaction with information. Emerging Communities: Integrating Networked Information into Library Services, and Public Information in the National Information Infrastructure: Report to the Regulatory Information Service Center, the General Services Administration, and to the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs discuss two central questions leading to the digital revolution in the production of government information. In the former, Jamie Love asks questions related to electronic information that still largely remain unanswered, such as, Who owns and controls the information resources and systems that are created with federal funds?   For example, do the citizens own Medline or ERIC or EDGAR? In the latter report, Henry Perritt writes about technology tools and how the government should expand internet access to promote dissemination of information through a wide array of channels.

Once the information architecture for the world wide web was introduced to the government, electronic production of government information exploded. So Congress passed the GPO Access law (107 Stat. 112) intending to harness the internet as a means to make government information more accessible to the public. This law gave the GPO some needed guidance, but not the authority, to force agencies to deposit electronic products. The GPO also issued some guidance to the FDLP, Managing the FDLP Electronic Collection: A Policy and Planning Document, in how to plan for an electronic collection. Additionally, the National Research Council wrote several reports, but one in particular addresses a primary concern of the time: The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age. The question of copyright and government publication rarely comes up, but the internet changed the rules. Information goes up and down very quickly, and the 1962 Depository Law does not account for electronic government information. Depository libraries became used to receiving materials in multiple formats, but now materials were being received on disks without software to run the data, or in packaging that says not to open since agencies are complying with the letter but not the spirit of the law.

An attempt to correct these oversights was made with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 (e-FOIA). This law is significant because it added a findings and purpose section to the existing Freedom of Information Act that enables citizens to file their claims online, becoming one of the earliest e-government services. This new service is supposed to allow for a quicker turnaround time. But this can be a double-edged sword, as discussed in Federal Information Policies in the 1990s: Views and Perspectives, which examines the complexities of that era. In this book, the authors examine how a national online, networked environment becomes the main hub for information creation, dissemination, and preservation at the same time the government is classifying and declassifying information at ever faster rates. Perspectives of all three branches of the federal government are analyzed, along with privacy concerns, citizen impacts, and the potential effects on the Federal Depository Library Program.

During this time, the GPO had its hands full keeping Americans informed and frequently found that its central mission ran counter to the operations of the government, especially since during most of the twentieth century the United States was always in a state of heightened tensions, if not actual war. Discussing this tension is Phillip Melanson’s Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Public’s Right to Know. With much of America questioning the role of government in its private life after the many transgressions of the latter half of the twentieth century, distrust for the government was on the rise, and was reflected in government publication. During this time the American Library Association established the Government Documents Roundtable (GODORT), which began campaigns on behalf of librarians who wanted to defend the people’s right to know what their government is doing. The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings by Harold L. Cross is still an amazing study. Cross logically presents the case, citing all the legal precedents available and determines, as he opens his book, that “public business is the public’s business. The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.”

Using the internet as an additional means to disseminate information does not change a citizen’s right to know. It does, however, change the speed with which the information is available.