Depository libraries in Canada have to evolve if they are to remain relevant to a technology-driven world. When the Depository Services Program (DSP) started in 1927, government documents were strictly in a physical format, in monographs, books, maps and other related media. The methods used then for keeping track of these records were sufficient for over sixty years. New technologies emerged during that time, such as microfiche and microfilm, which still required physical media as well as ways for the public to access them; these, the depository libraries were obliged to add to their existing structures. The introduction of the Internet caused a rift that sent shock waves which continue to reverberate through the depository libraries of the world, a potential cataclysm that threatens not only their own existence, but that which forms the very basis of the democracies they are committed to support.
2. The Roles of Depository Libraries
In the United States, 74,468 physical government documents were added to the Federal Depositories Library Program (FDLP) in 1992 (Shuler et al., 2010). By 2000, that number had dropped to 26,994. Nearly 90% of government documents were primarily only available in an electronic format in 2008; they were “born” digital. During this period, the number of institutions that subscribed to the FDLP began to shrink, as they recognized that the needs of their client base were being met by the new technology (Lev et al., 2002). The Internet had seemingly taken over, in a sense, the “currency” role of depositories, relegating them instead to the status of a graveyard of books.
The speed of the Internet in getting electronic documents to its audience is easily one of its greatest selling points. While remaining stored in a single location, electronic documents can be reached from anywhere in the world. Indeed, this seems to be the aim of the American Government Printing Office (GPO); according to Jacobs et al (2005), dissemination of records to depository libraries has become far less a priority than it had been in the past. In Canada, depository libraries continue to collect items in hard copy, which includes not only print items, but those on CD and DVD as well. In fiscal year 2008-2009, the depository program sent nearly a half million hard copy items to depository libraries (Depository Services Program, 2010). It is important to continue this program, as the Internet, and electronic documents in general, have problems associated with them over both the short term and the long term.
Single point storage of electronic government documents is problematic for a number of reasons. The documents may become corrupted over time, or their format obsolete, and thus become unusable. They may be modified at the point of storage, whether edited or removed completely, without the knowledge of a depository librarian. Free access to these documents may be removed at any time (at least in the United States) (Jacobs et al, 2005). Government documents that have not been added to depository programs continue to be made available on the Internet, and these “fugitive” documents may never be added as part of the depository system (Durant, 2004). And the long-term storage of electronic media is a challenge in itself; even DVDs don’t retain their data forever, and as anyone who’s rented a movie can attest, a single scratch can corrupt an entire disc, rendering it unusable.
3. The Roles of Government Information Professionals
The role of the government Information Professional (IP) has been deeply affected by the introduction of the Internet. Now that government information is widely accessible to the world at large without the use of the depository library, justification for their continued existence may be called in to question. But these libraries and their employees are not mere museums of materials; they can and do fulfil other roles, including doing their part with electronic documents. Government information professionals must recognize and champion their position within the government community, and ensure as well they can that the Canadian community as a whole is cognizant of these roles, and their importance in our increasingly technological world. They must continue to ensure that all users are able to find, use and understand government information, both online and off.
Government information professionals must maintain and update their knowledge of the many areas that affect their positions, which includes both technological and political/legal changes. Even long established laws are occasionally revised over time, with necessary additions that reflect the changes in government and technology. A decade ago, Web 2.0 had not yet hit the mainstream and the vast majority of websites were still developed as static HTML webpages, stored on hard drives in the 1990s. The Access to Information Act requires all government information, regardless of medium, to be stored for some period of time, as set by the institution where it was created (Access to Information, 2010). Email and other electronic documents must be saved according to the classification systems developed by the information professionals on staff. With Web 2.0, technology has become available that allows anyone (who can obtain access) to edit and create their own content. Blogs and wikis now form a part of the Canadian government information system, yet here too, the question of permanent storage of this information has not been answered (Shuler et al., 2010). Electronic documents that were only ever intended to be read-only are one thing when it comes to permanent storage; those that vacillate like a fly in a windstorm are quite another.
Authority control in an electronic world has been recognized as one major role for the future information professional (Shuler, 2010). As has been noted, documents online are often simply linked to a point source of information. That being the case, it is beyond the control of a depository librarian; electronic documents that are not stored on site may be removed, modified, etcetera, in ways that betray the fundamental purpose of a depository library. It is imperative that information professionals ensure that redundancy remains in the system if they are to remain trusted and viable sources of authentic documents. In order to do this, they must ensure that hard copies of the information available online also exists in a format that will be accessible for generations to come, and that these hard copies exist in multiple locations (Jacobs et al. 2005).
A final major issue for the information professional in a digital world is that of the fugitive document. As it stands in the United States, many documents that are made available online that ostensibly should be a part of their depository program never actually make it in. Even before the Internet, this was an issue, with government agencies making printing arrangements without going through the Government Printing Office, and now the problem has been getting worse (Durant, 2004). Insofar as it affects the States, information professionals must make sure to add these into the collections as well if they are to be preserved for future use.
In the non-digital world, the Canadian Depository Services Program must continue to perform outreach with other libraries, the public and author departments in a variety of ways. Information pamphlets, conference visits, presentations in various venues, and, of course, distribution of materials through the Internet, all form parts of the overall outreach and external communications of the DSP (Depository Services Program, 2010). What seems to be lacking, however, is a quality of service when dealing with the public (Dilevko, 2000). Better training for the information professionals in the government sector is required if depository libraries are to be valued at all by the public they serve; they need to develop not only better knowledge and awareness of the resources they have, but also they must understand how to communicate with the public.
4. The Future
While it is wonderful that, for the time being, the people of Canada are able to make use of the Internet, the system relies on factors that are not within the control of government or its people. It relies, for example, on the abundance and availability of the natural resources used to build this equipment and its infrastructure, and so too does it rely on an economy that can continue to support it. We talk about sustainability all the time in the developed world, yet we all continue to live more comfortably than kings of old. Computers now have an expected life span of three years. That is a very short period of time, and once they cease to function properly they are tossed on the junk heap, the cost of recovery prohibitive. It would be folly to count on computers and the Internet being around forever. Depository libraries must continue to collect physical materials even during this computer age, precisely because the age of near-universal ownership of computers will eventually come to an end. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” is all that remains written on those trunkless legs of stone…(Shelley, 1818).
Access to Information Act. Canada. Department of Justice. 22 September 2010. Department of Justice. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.
Canada. Public Works and Government Services Canada. Depository Services Program. “Quick Reference Guide for Depository Libraries 2010”. January 2010. Government of Canada Publications. Web. 15 Oct 2010.
Durant, David. “The Federal Depository Library Program: Anachronism or Necessity?” North Carolina Libraries, 62.1 (2004), 30-39.
Jacobs, James A., Jacobs, James R. And Yeo, Shinjoung. “Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Program.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31.3 (2005), 198-208.
Lev, Yvonne T., Gilbert, Mary, Olson, Carl and Gonce, Nancy. “Making the Decision to Relinquish U.S. Document Depository Status.” Libraries and the Academy. 2.3 (2002), 413-422.
Shuler, John A., Jaeger, Paul T. and Bertot, John C. “Implications of harmonizing the future of the federal depository library program within e-government principles and policies.” Government Information Quarterly, 27 (2010), 9-16.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias” (1818).