Government Documents – Bridging the Print/Electronic Divide

My last session of the OLA 2010 conference was called Government Information: Bridging the Print/Electronic Divide, presented by Carol Perry, Assistant Librarian, University of Guelph, and, David Burke, Government Information Librarian, Queen’s University.

Lack of policies for government electronic information
As more government documents are born digital and are only found on the World Wide Web, the problem of fugitive documents has grown. Government documents in electronic form are more prone to disappearing since many government departments and associated agencies do not have policies or legislation in place to guarantee the type of access that libraries require to serve researchers.

At the federal and provincial level in Canada there are agencies and legislation in place to co-ordinate access, such as legal deposit, but much depends on the degree of control at each ministry or department, and fugitive documents such as consultant’s reports are still a problem. At the municipal level legal deposit does not apply, and there are no co-ordinated preservation projects. The situation is improved somewhat where records management programs are in place, such as in Nova Scotia.

Because there is no one place to search for Canadian government documents, some institutions have set up customized web search engine sites. MADGIC (Maps, Data, & Government Information) was recently set up at Carleton University to provide some multi-search capability.

MADGIC blog:

Even with these efforts there is concern that the collection and preservation of government documents is not as straightforward as it used to be, and that information will be lost. Internet archiving efforts were cited as being stopgap measures until better policies were in place to collect and preserve documents, but there are many problems with Internet archiving, such as information not captured because it is buried in databases or behind search screens or login screens.

While there are many agencies involved and many stakeholders, the trend in electronic government information was worrisome. Technology by itself is creating as many problems as it is solving. Where policies and legislation are in place—where government ministries KNOW what they need to do with their publications—then successful collection development and preservation is proceeding, but that’s far from the norm at this time.

As an example of the problems that technology is creating, students and researchers rely increasing on Google searches to do research, but this causes a major problem with government documents since government information ideally requires some understanding of its context. Other countries are ahead of us. Australia and the UK have good web archive portals, and the U.S. Government Printing Office’s new FDSys (Federal Digital System) has an emphasis on version control. But there are complicating factors in the U.S., such as the downsizing of the Library of Michigan (the state library). The assumption is that other libraries, particularly academic libraries, will pick up the slack.

United Nations web site disclaimer
Many government web sites actually have policies in place to NOT guarantee availability of material in the future. As an example, this is the United Nations’ policy for its web site: “The United Nations reserves its exclusive right in its sole discretion to alter, limit or discontinue the Site or any Materials in any respect. The United Nations shall have no obligation to take the needs of any User into consideration in connection therewith” ( It’s hard to imagine a policy more antithetical to the core mission of libraries, and unfortunately this type of policy is all too common.

The message I took away from this session was public libraries need to co-ordinate their efforts with those agencies attempting proper preservation or linking to government information. While reference staff need to be familiar with government information web sites, long term access needs to be handled through proper catalogue and archive maintenance of government information. But there’s a minefield of problems in government documents, with many web sites providing access or assistance not guaranteed to be around indefinitely.

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