The Federal Depository Library Program . . . Going “All-Digital”?

With more than 1000 library participants nationwide, the Federal Depository Library Program has long served both as a means for the public to access materials published or authored by the federal government and for ensuring the preservation of current and historical government information.  Libraries that participate in the Program include academic, judicial, and government law libraries, college and university libraries, public libraries, and historical societies; member libraries have historically received print and /or microform copies of selected government documents at no charge and, in more recent times, digital access to some government publications as well.  In late 2021, the FDLP notified libraries that, beginning in 2022, distribution of documents in microform formats would be phased out.

Since 2014, libraries new to the FDLP have had the option of selecting only those documents that are available in digital formats (so, they’re all-digital FDLP participants!).  Having seen how the pandemic affected access and use of government information, and recognizing the needs of more and more libraries to move to nearly all-digital collections, the FDLP formed a Task Force on a Digital Federal Depository Library Program in early 2022.  This past September, the Task Force released its draft report for public comment. 

The Task Force was charged with determining “whether an all-digital FDLP is possible, and if so, [defining] the scope of an all-digital depository program and [making] recommendations as to how to implement and operate such a program” (Draft Report for Public Comment).  Data that lend context to the Report included the facts that (i) 25% of current FDLP participants already select only digital or nearly only digital documents; (ii) an additional 17% of federal depository libraries intend to transition to a truly all-digital collection; and (iii) 97% of new federal government documents published since 2009 are in digital formats.

The work of the Task Force was apportioned among six working groups charged with considering, respectively, the impact of an all-digital FDLP on access; the impact on depository libraries; the impact on federal agencies; the impact GPO, library services, and content management; Title 44 and legislative and policy issues; and implementation and strategic framework necessary to support a transition.  The first thing to note is that the Task Force’s use of the term “all-digital” does not imply that the FDLP would be exclusively digital.  Rather, the Task Force acknowledged that “alternative formats of both current and historical information would continue to be available” – for how long and which documents are included are yet to be determined (Draft Report for Public Comment). 

After outlining both the benefits of an all-digital program (e.g., improved access and metadata; flexibility for participating libraries) and the risks of not going all-digital (e.g., lack of standardization among agencies and lack of a systematic approach to collection and curation, let alone missed opportunities), the Report noted some corresponding barriers to and disadvantages of the all-digital approach (e.g., digital disparity; accessibility issues; challenges associated with particular types of government publications; authentication and version control; user privacy).

In the end, the consensus of the six working groups was that FDLP members would benefit from an all-digital approach and that the FDLP should indeed go all-digital.  Some working groups commented on the underlying laws and regulations that would affect or in fact inhibit the transition to an all-digital program and others described the infrastructure that would be necessary to develop and maintain an all-digital approach.  The recommendations in the Report focus on (i) ensuring cost-free access to government information; (ii) protecting the privacy of users of an all-digital depository library system; (iii) determining which documents should continue to be distributed in print and for how long; (iv) developing both standards to ensure authenticity and version control and best practices for digital preservation; (v) allowing different levels of participation among libraries; (vi) creating training to enable participating libraries to locate digital materials and curate digital collections; (vii)  collaborating with agencies, libraries, and others to ensure access to technologies that support the use of an all-digital FDLP; and (viii) considering new bibliographic resources and support for FDLP libraries. 

As the Report states, “[t]he move to an all-digital FDLP is not revolutionary, but rather in many ways, evolutionary and would result in the formalization of a process long-underway as increasing amounts of U.S. Government information are born digital.”  That said, there is much work to be done in reliably standardizing the creation and collection of authoritative government information.  But the fact that the FDLP is moving in the right direction – with thoughtfulness and a pretty comprehensive approach – is nothing but good news both for libraries that participate in the program and those who might want to do so in the future (and, really, for all of our patrons as well!).

Sources:

Draft Report for Public Comment, Task Force on a Digital Federal Depository Library Program, September 14, 2022.

Association of Research Libraries Statement on Digital FDLP Task Force Draft Report, October 31, 2022

$350 (More or Less) Could Be On Its Way to Your Law Library (From PACER) . . .

Litigation that began back in 2016 focusing on the amount and use of PACER fees collected by the federal judiciary settled last week (the settlement still needs to be approved by a federal judge).  The class action, filed in the federal district court for the District of Columbia, claimed that PACER fees were excessive and were used, in part, for unauthorized purposes (e.g., technology improvements for the federal courts).  Thanks to the settlement, PACER users will receive a refund of up to $350 of PACER fees paid from April 2010 to May 2018.  For those who incurred more than $350 in fees during that time, additional funds may be distributed after the initial refunds (of up to $350) have been made.  The settlement applies only to payments made in the past and does not affect current or future PACER fees. 

That said, apart from the litigation (but likely encouraged by it), the judiciary has eliminated some PACER fees since the lawsuit was filed and proposed legislation winding its way through Congress would make PACER cost-free.  That would mean that the judiciary would lose about $150 million in annual fees; reports have suggested that it costs around $64 million to update and maintain PACER annually. 

The following sources provide more information on the litigation and the settlement . . . and I am sure that the court filings are all available . . . . on PACER . . . .

Bloomberg

Law.com

Politico

Reuters

Washington Post