• Digital Documents – Access to Online Government Information

    As a government documents librarian, I spend a lot of time thinking about how people find and use government information. Lately I’ve been wondering if some of our attempts to make documents as accessible as possible have backfired, making information harder to access.

    In the old days you had to locate your nearest depository library, then trace documents through a special catalog with a special classification system, sometimes relying on indexes and reference materials and usually requiring the assistance of a librarian. Now, anyone can access PDFs of reports or digital scans of maps from the comfort of their homes or anywhere else they have an internet connection. You can use Google to find Department of Defense publications and databases to create your own tables of Census data.

    But does being online really make something more accessible? What about people who don’t have internet access or are limited to dial up? Are we creating a nation of information haves and have-nots, limiting access to tax-funded research? Are researchers missing valuable information because they are using the first publication they find (librarians like to call this satisficing)? But most importantly, how do we archive materials that can be posted and taken down in a second? Where do last year’s reports go and how do we ensure that documents aren’t being altered after publication to fit the needs of the creator?

    Have we given up access and permanence for convenience? Or is digital access (also known as e-government in some library circles) revolutionizing an entire body of knowledge?


  1. Wayne Johnston says:

    I would be interesting in contributing to this conversation, especially if you don’t mind bringing in the Canadian perspective. As government libraries are closed and academic libraries cut back on gov doc collections we are increasingly reliant on what is available online, but that is not comprehensive. And while some publications can be discovered through Google, Google doesn’t provide any context. Government websites do provide context but those sites are very volatile.

    • psycke says:

      Hi Wayne –

      I would be really interested in hearing the Canadian perspective. We don’t get much of a call for international documents where I work, so I don’t have as much experience as I do with US documents, but I imagine that the issues are pretty much the same (with some added language politics complications).

  2. I would be glad to share my perspective on this as a former NASA History Office archivist (lots of tech reports) warning: I tend to be way more optimistic about permanence and access to digital government documents than most.

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