Federal laws and regulations, congressional hearings and committee reports, agency decisions and guidance documents…these are all government publications. Whether in print or online, they are simultaneously relied on and taken for granted. Most legal researchers and law librarians, when pulling a volume of the Code of Federal Regulations off a shelf, or downloading a Public Law from govinfo.gov, are focused on finding, reading, and analyzing the law and not thinking about the Government Publishing Office (GPO) and the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). But now we need to pay attention because a draft House bill under consideration could fundamentally change the publication and distribution of official print and digital government information. The future of no-fee public access to reliable government information – which includes the very laws that govern us – is at stake.
Title 44 of the United States Code governs “public printing and documents.” It establishes GPO as the agency that publishes and distributes federal information from all three branches of government. Title 44 defines government information and in Chapter 19, it establishes the FDLP, a partnership between the government and libraries to provide access to and preservation of government information. Of the over 1100 depository libraries, about 200 are law libraries – law school, government, state, and court libraries.
The draft bill, dated December 11, 2017, and expected to be marked up in January by the House Committee on House Administration (CHA) is “to amend title 44, United States Code, to reform the organization, authorities, and programs relating to public printing and documents, including the Federal Depository Program.” It is a complete rewrite of the entire title. Although there is some good language about digital information and recognition of the need for authentication and preservation, there are many very concerning sections. The bill would allow for privatization of government information. It would restrict printing of core titles such as the United States Statutes at Large and the Congressional Record. It would weaken the geographic distribution and preservation of print and limit the number of depository libraries providing public access. Oddly, the bill would also change the name of GPO back to Government Printing Office and change the title of the Director back to Public Printer.
The possibility of privatization raises a huge red flag for law librarians and legal researchers. Government information – especially the law – should not be officially published by a commercial publisher, even if public access is somehow guaranteed. Eliminating the requirement that GPO produce government publications takes the federal government out of the business of making sure we, the people, have access to the information of our democracy – the information produced when laws are made, regulations promulgated, guidance issued, and the basic work of government takes place.
How did we get here? It is a long and complicated story, which is to be expected given GPO’s 150-year history.
Title 44 was last amended almost twenty-five years ago with the passage of Public Law 103-40, the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993. That law led to the development of GPO’s online collection, FDsys. FDsys is set to sunset in 2018 and replaced with the next generation govinfo.gov. But the 1993 amendment did not fundamentally change the FDLP so the need to update Chapter 19 has long been a topic of discussion within the library community and GPO.
In 2017, the Committee on House Administration hired Robert Tapella, who served as Public Printer from 2007 to 2010, to work as a majority staff member and expert on GPO issues. Although Mr. Tapella led the agency, and is familiar with its challenges and strengths, his working knowledge is 7 to 10 years old. A lot has changed. GPO has moved forward, particularly with digital authentication and preservation. Technology has evolved and improved. In 2012, GPO embarked on the FDLP Forecast Study, a multi-year project to survey depository libraries. The project included discussion of needed amendments to Title 44 as well as changes GPO could make, and has made, within the existing law, to support libraries struggling with space and budget restrictions. In 2016, GPO released the National Plan for Access to Government Information, created in part by the results of the FDLP Forecast Study.
When news broke of a possible significant revision of all of Title 44, GPO, through its advisory group, the Depository Library Council (DLC), reached out the library community asking for feedback. Individuals submitted comments as did the library associations. The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) submitted comments to DLC as well as to the Committee on House Administration. At this moment, GPO is again asking for feedback, this time on the draft House bill.
What do law librarians want? AALL is committed to a “thriving FDLP.” AALL “believes that members of the public have a right of access to comprehensive government information, including access to the basic materials necessary for legal research.” And “the FDLP should ensure a system of equitable, effective, no-fee, efficient, and dependable dissemination of and access to government information.” Law libraries and legal researchers have a special place in the discussion and an important role in advocacy because our core material is the core material of the government – the law. We understand the need for historical print and digital collections so researchers can reliably find the law as it existed at any point in time. And we understand and believe that access to reliable, no-fee print and digital collections of the law is an issue of access to justice.
This is a big deal, and it is a political process. What is there to do? Keep informed. Work with your library associations (especially AALL). Read what other information advocates such as Free Government Information are saying. Submit comments to GPO. Reach out to your legislators. And advocate for no-fee permanent public access to trustworthy government information, published by the government.