Open Access to Government Documents
In place for almost 200 years, the Federal Depository Library Program, which is run by the Government Printing Office (GPO), facilitates public access to government information through the distribution of publications to selected libraries around the nation. While in the past the traditional format was either microfiche or print, the government is increasingly providing access to this material online. Like many other depository libraries, Boston College Libraries is transitioning from a print-oriented to a digital collection. This shift is in keeping with a larger one in the publication world generally; still, government information presents some unique issues. To begin with, unless it is classified, all government material defaults to the public domain. In theory, this means that the material should be available online for free. However, because retrospective digitization initiatives are taking place in a somewhat piecemeal fashion and because the quality of the databases varies widely, it seems unlikely that libraries will move away from subscription databases altogether any time soon. A few examples of both public and subscription databases can be illustrative of this point.
To take a well-known example from the world of commercial vendors, LexisNexis Congressional provides several benefits over the freely available databases. For one thing, it aggregates in one place many different types of Congressional publications, including Hearings, House and Senate Documents and Reports, Legislative Histories, and Bills. In addition, Boston College's subscription includes historical indexing back to 1789. If the full text is not available in Lexis, the citation will allow us to find the publications in either the microfiche library or in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, another subscription database. The need for searching in print indexes is eliminated.
For an example of a public database on which we rely heavily, consider the Internet Archive's collection of government material. Run by the Open Content Alliance (to which Boston College contributed unique Jesuit materials) the Internet Archive provides access to a wide range of government publications, including hundreds of historical hearings, which were once quite hard to find. Additionally the Internet Archive includes multimedia, such as this film by the Department of the Interior on the construction of the Boulder Dam.
The Federal Depository Library Program also provides access to such databases as the Homeland Security Digital Library (HSDL). A collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Naval Postgraduate School, HSDL is “the nation's premier collection of open-source resources related to homeland security policy, strategy and organizational management.” In addition, the GPO maintains the Federal Digital System (FDsys) which is a publicly accessible collection of materials ranging from Presidential Papers to the Federal Budget to the nation's Public and Private Laws. Of course, not all government documents have been made freely available: databases like the Digital National Security Archive aid in the discovery of some of these valuable documents.
In short, there is a great range of sources of government information freely available. Though current publications are generally much easier to find than historical publications, even they can sometimes require some sleuthing. Nevertheless, the transition to a primarily digital mode of distribution is well under way, and will likely allow broader access to government information at all levels.