The ideal of a government that communicates openly with the governed has been a central tenet of the American political psyche since before the founding of the nation. The founding fathers understood that providing broad and equitable access to government information was imperative for the creation of a successful republic. Yet trying to provide centralized bibliographic control to that information was easier when publications were produced only in print form by a government that consisted of far fewer departments and agencies than it does today. Many government publications (defined as “informational matter which is published as an individual document at Government expense, or as required by law”)1 have historically been made available through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), a program whose antecedents predate the founding of the Government Printing Office (GPO).2 However, this program never captured all publications produced by the three branches of government.
In recent decades, the Internet and changing information-seeking behaviors of the public have drastically altered the landscape in which the FDLP operates. E-government—the provision of government services and information via the Internet for businesses, citizens, and government itself—has changed and reduced the role of depository libraries in providing the public with government publications. There is no longer as great a need for the placement of physical collections in close proximity to where people live and work. Federal departments and agencies, as well as Congress, currently share assorted information directly with the public, businesses, and other communities through the Internet and engage in a dialogue with the governed via podcasts, blogs, and other means of communication. This communication is much broader than the delivery of information in the form of a government publication as strictly defined.
Today, the GPO distributes more than 95 percent of its information in digital form. With the emergence of e-government, the extensive distribution of digital documents, and the presence of historical collections of print material as well as microprint, microfiche, and CD-ROM holdings, public libraries are rethinking their collection priorities and their roles. This is true for other members of the FDLP as well. Since public library directors set the strategic directions for their institutions, their opinions about the participation of their libraries in the program are particularly relevant. Yet, to date, no study has asked these directors about continued membership in the program. We set out to address this gap, using a set of scenarios that suggest different futures in an attempt to determine the roles that these directors envision their libraries embracing.
The findings of our study have implications for public libraries as they cope with the aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008; reduced budgets; and the consequent impact on library services, collections, facilities, and staffing. As these libraries revisit their missions and planning processes, the scenarios we propose may enable them to review strategic initiatives and settle on the courses of action most appropriate for them as FDLP members.
What We Know
Hernon and Saunders provide an excellent review of the literature relevant to future scenarios for the FDLP, and they offer a set of scenarios applicable to member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).3 As they point out, the spring 2006 meeting of the Depository Library Council (DLC) included an exercise involving fictional scenarios rather than real-world ones.4 Scenarios put forth at the meeting concerned a terrorist attack, new legislation that was not under discussion at the time, and a dramatic increase in the number of libraries that participate in the CLOCKSS (Controlled Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) program.
In their review of the FDLP, Schonfeld and Housewright report that depository libraries have little incentive to remain in the program, as collections are dramatically underused, newly released digital government information is not adequately preserved, and systems that promote “findability” on government websites are inadequate. They offer recommendations that apply solely to the depository program, but that ignore the role of e-government (or at least they do not connect their recommendations to e-government).5
An ARL white paper from 2009 recommends that the FDLP engage in the following activities:6
- develop strategies to create a small but essential number of comprehensive, print legacy collections;
- increase development of network-based collaborative efforts between the GPO and depository libraries, and among the libraries themselves;
- create new knowledge-management tools and resources that enable users to have direct and independent access to content and the ability to work with the content effectively;
- form a participatory and open environment to encourage and engage in new partnerships;
- establish a new service model that is economically sustainable and provides sufficient flexibility for libraries and agencies to introduce new approaches to accessing and delivering government information; and
- develop a service model that sustains multiple preservation points for both print and electronic government information.
Some of these recommendations require revision of title 44, chapter 19, of the United States Code. The scenarios that Hernon and Saunders offer carefully avoid the need for any new public law in the near future. Their rationale is that President Obama and Congress have other legislative priorities. Hernon and Saunders indicate that their participants do not share the same enthusiasm for the traditional role of government documents librarians as that expressed by Chapman and Shuler.7 Jacobs, in a critique of Hernon and Saunders, argues that “some [directors] were unable to place their institution fully in one of the provided scenarios. There were many reasons for this, but it makes it harder for us to interpret and understand the results.”8
Comments such as Jacobs’s indicate a misunderstanding of the distinction between study objectives and the purpose of scenarios. The use of scenarios as a planning technique has been common since the early 1970s; the technique uses stories to describe possible futures to help managers engage in planning. Managers should be involved in the development of scenarios’ content. An individual library can then take any one of the scenarios, recast content, and plan as appropriate. Study objectives, generally speaking, are merely to gain a general sense of which scenarios managers prefer.
Our study attempted to identify library directors’ perspectives about different scenarios, which scenarios the directors see as most viable for their libraries, and what role the directors see their institutions having with regard to FDLP in the future, if none of the scenarios is preferred.
The libraries we studied are participants in the FDLP and members of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). ULC member libraries serve medium-to-large-sized suburban and urban areas, specifically those with populations of more than 100,000 residents. Focusing on ULC libraries allowed for a mix of regional and selective depository libraries. Based on the January 2010 ULC membership roster, sixty-four libraries hold depository collections; three of these are regional depositories and the remainder are selective. Selective depository libraries determine the percentage of items they want to offer from the GPO. Regional depository libraries are required to serve the selective depositories under their jurisdiction and develop comprehensive collections of government publications, a feat no longer possible (if it ever was).9
Building on the scenarios developed by Hernon and Saunders and the goals outlined in the FDLP Strategic Plan 2009–2014,10 we developed four scenarios that outline possible futures for public library involvement in the FDLP (see below). These scenarios meet criteria advanced by Mietzner and Reger: They are plausible, different from one another, produce multiple futures, challenge conventional wisdom about the future, and have decision-making utility.11 When scenarios adhere to these criteria, they can assist organizations in numerous ways, including “planning for future events and ensuring that an important [service] area is not neglected.”12
The scenarios were pretested by Joan Giesecke, dean of libraries, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Judy Russell, dean of university libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, both of whom are employed in FDLP libraries. The scenarios were revised based on their comments. Upon completion of the pretest, directors of twenty-five of the sixty-four ULC libraries were selected, using a nonprobability sample, to comment on the scenarios.These directors represent libraries in both urban and suburban systems across the United States.
Library directors were contacted via email in March 2010 to solicit their participation in the study. The four scenarios were emailed to those directors who agreed to contribute, and interviews were subsequently conducted by phone or in person in April 2010. The study proceeded in two phases.
In the first phase, two of us interviewed five directors each. These ten directors were asked to review the four FDLP scenarios. Then, during the interview, we asked the following questions:
- What comments or suggestions do you have for improving the set of scenarios?
- What suggestions do you have for titling the scenarios?
- Which scenario do you see as most viable for your library?
- If none of the scenarios seems particularly viable, what role do you see your organization having with regard to the FDLP in the future?
Following the first round of interviews, we revised the scenarios to reflect the comments and suggestions of the preliminary group of library directors. In the second phase of interviews, fifteen public library directors were asked to consider the modified scenarios. They were given the same questions to consider as the participants in the first phase and asked to comment. After completing the interviews, we again revised the scenarios to develop a final set reflective of the input from the second group.
The Final Scenarios
The final scenarios are presented in the following sections. The nonitalicized content represents the scenarios following the completion of pretesting and phase 1 interviews. The italicized content represents the suggestions made in the phase 2 interviews.
Scenario 1: “Government Documents—I Think We Have Those Here”
The library is shifting its priorities. It no longer views the resources in the depository collection as critical to meeting its strategic needs, especially since there is low use of depository holdings. Over the next fifteen years, the library is likely either to withdraw from the program or to decrease involvement by selecting minimal print publications and relying more on electronic access from the GPO. There is a shift away from a separate documents collection, and a move toward greater reliance on reference librarians and paraprofessionals to direct customers to e-government websites and assist them in finding the information they need. If the information needed is not available through e-resources, customers will be referred elsewhere, possibly a regional depository collection. The few depository collection resources that are still used regularly will be incorporated into the library’s circulating or reference collections. Older documents will be weeded, and there will no longer be a historical print collection.
The primary motivation for pursuing this scenario is a strategic move toward smaller collections and more open space. As the library reduces the size of most of its physical collections, money and space are directed toward mobile computer stations in an open, multipurpose environment that customers can arrange how they wish. Large amounts of shelving holding rarely used government documents do not fit this strategic vision. Significantly reducing the relationship with the federal depository program also makes sense with regard to staffing, as the library will no longer need to allocate staff to the depository collection.
Scenario 2: “Portal to the Digital World”
The library has long struggled with the cost, both in money and in physical space, of maintaining a collection of print government documents. Even so, the importance of the library as an access point for government information remains paramount. In order to reasonably manage costs and still serve as an information source for the community, the library focuses its efforts on establishing and maintaining a digital depository of online government information by helping users access materials created by a variety of sources from a single portal. The library keeps its existing physical collections and continues to receive some print materials from the GPO. The library’s greater emphasis, however, is on providing access via the library’s website to e-government information aggregated by GPO Access (www.gpoaccess.gov).13 In order to further enhance the public’s ability to access e-government information, the library also includes the MARC records for electronic government documents in its OPAC.
The library finds that FDLP membership has advantages such as no-fee access to services like National Weather Service data. The library purchases indexing and search tools developed by the private sector to enhance the depository. The library also purchases collections on microfiche and electronic databases of material not previously owned or owned only in print. The library does not digitize its own collections.
The primary motivation for becoming a digital depository is to ensure that the library continue to play a critical role in the use of and access to government information by members of the public. Teaching, learning, and research in the community all benefit from this service role. As the GPO produces information predominantly in electronic formats, it is in the best interests of both the library and the community to focus on an information delivery method that will serve both well into the future.
Scenario 3: “Getting Government Information at Your Library”
Given budgetary and space constraints, the library does not want to emphasize print collections of underused resources; instead, it wants to expand its digital collections in order to offer improved access to government materials. The library retains its historical print collection, but no longer receives new print materials from the GPO. The focus is on promoting federal materials through a dynamic webpage for government resources with links to GPO Access. In addition, the library includes in its OPAC catalog records for government resources that contain links to online documents. The library also digitizes historical materials of local interest and actively collects state and local government materials in print and electronic formats, which it hosts and archives on its website. Furthermore, the library is making plans to move in a “Web 2.0” direction of enabling community members to contribute their own historical materials to the digital and print collections.
The primary motivation for this scenario is to increase the use of government materials by making them remotely accessible and highlighting items of relevance to the community. In addition, librarians vigorously emphasize the value of government resources and strengthen the library’s role as a repository of local information. Essentially, librarians work to compile federal e-government resources, digitize and archive state and local materials, and market them to patrons. This scenario provides a robust collection of government information, one that is accessible to more individuals through the web and closely tailored to community needs.
Scenario 4: “Pay to Play”
In this scenario, the library includes on its homepage a wider assortment of government information than can be simply characterized as English-only “government publications.” It provides access to and service for data sets, including geospatial ones, imagery (including satellite imagery) and other multimedia, digital maps, and games. These services represent an extension of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) capability and helping the public set up government “my sites.”
The primary motivation for this scenario is for the library to assume a number of different roles, including those of educator, source for referrals, digital creator, and marketer. The library engages in workshops and other services to instruct educators and others on how to search for, locate, evaluate, and use digital information. The library also provides workshops and online tutorials for other libraries, showing them how to provide this expanded digital content to their patrons. Financial support for this educator role would rely on collaborative membership fees as part of the state library or state association organization. Alternatively, a “pay to play” model designed for cost recovery related to the services provided may be imposed through the collective, so if a library wanted to access the “educator” services, they would add this to their membership. While an additional cost to overall membership, it may allow public libraries without government documents specialists to offer these services without staff onsite.
Results of the Study
Representatives from twenty libraries participated in the study, nine in phase 1 and eleven in phase 2. All twenty were from selective depositories; the three ULC regional depositories all declined to participate. Table 1 shows the number of directors who favored each scenario in each round of interviews.
In phase 1 of the interviews, the nine directors heavily favored scenario 3, with 56 percent identifying it as the most viable scenario for their library. In general, all nine directors found the scenarios well written and plausible, but would have preferred them to be less detailed and better differentiated from one another.
In phase 2, the eleven directors favored scenario 2 most strongly, with 36 percent selecting it, and another 18 percent selecting a combination of scenarios 2 and 3. One director expressed disappointment that the scenarios all have a negative focus with regard to the FDLP, but in general, all the directors found the scenarios plausible. Several expressed concern about the financial cost of digitizing collections, and many commented that allocating space to house the FDLP collection is not currently a problem.
In both phases of interviews, some similar comments emerged. All participants expressed a belief in the importance of government documents in a public library collection. Overwhelmingly, directors are not interested in withdrawing from the FDLP. Of the three directors favoring scenario 1, only one is engaged in withdrawal; the other two have no plans to withdraw and are more interested in reducing the relationship. Scenario 4 was viewed by several directors as being either beyond the scope of what a public library does, or cost prohibitive. Three, however, said they liked scenario 4, referring to it as “the dream” or “the future,” with one commenting that they “aspire to it.”
Although there were slight changes in wording to each of the scenarios between the first and second rounds of interviews, it is possible to compile totals for them. Three directors (15 percent) favored scenario 1 as most reflective of their future plans, and no one favored scenario 4. One (5 percent) favored a combination of scenarios 3 and 4, and another (5 percent) expressed interest in combining elements of all four scenarios. By far the most favored were scenario 2 (30 percent) and scenario 3 (30 percent), with another three directors (15 percent) favoring a combination of scenarios 2 and 3. A full 75 percent of respondents, therefore, found elements of scenarios 2 and 3 to be the most viable for their libraries.
Analysis of Director Commentaries
The commentaries that follow are grouped into the following categories, which emerged as the most common themes in the interviews: imprecision in deciding on a scenario; how much thought directors give to the FDLP; a desire to retain some amount of print; a desire for digital access; an interest in collaborative collections; an acknowledgment both of the FDLP and how difficult it is to opt out; and economic realities.
Imprecision in Deciding on a Scenario
Although the directors were asked to select a preferred scenario, several were unable to select only one. Some liked features in multiple scenarios; others saw their institutions as falling between two or more scenarios, or they saw the scenarios as unlikely either due to budgetary constraints or because they felt that the law would need to be rewritten to make the scenario possible. One did note that “all of these scenarios are negative: it’s sad that everyone assumes the program is ‘bad,’ making it difficult to select an appropriate choice.”
Recognizing that public libraries must serve diverse communities, one director noted that “every library will be different based on history and trends,” and another commented that they found themselves agreeing with one part of a scenario but not another. Another director challenged the premise of this research project by asking, “Why should I have to fit into these? This isn’t how libraries work; they self-define based on money, resources, and staff.” Similar comments reflected the desire to form a hybrid of two or more scenarios, an observation present in most of the interviews. Several directors found the scenarios too structured and limiting while others felt that they were too similar to choose just one. More than one participant acknowledged that all of them are viable alternatives to consider.
How Much Thought Directors Give to the FDLP
Public library directors in major urban systems are often not particularly interested in the FDLP. As one wrote in her refusal to participate in this study, “I know so little about our service with Gov Docs, and don’t have time nor interest in learning more. This is such a busy and challenging time for us (and for many others as well . . .).” In other cases, the director was familiar with the program because it had been central to human resources management issues in the past or because of their work in another library, where staff worked more closely with government documents.
Directors who participated in the survey often collaborated with government documents librarians prior to their interviews and conveyed information from them. In some cases the directors delegated the interview to a staff person felt to be more knowledgeable about FDLP. These delegated interviewees included such positions as central library manager, deputy director, director of public service, and information services director.
The directors most involved in and aware of the program had robust library access both in print and online, reiterating its overall value to the community. They felt that the focus should not be entirely on federal documents but also on state and local government access, and recognized that current economic realities might make it less likely that public libraries could continue to offer the same level of service as in the past, especially in terms of education and promotion.
Desire to Retain Some Amount of Print
All respondents wanted to keep a print collection and to continue receiving new print materials, no matter which scenario they favored. Some cited such reasons as continuity with existing documents and the ability (or lack thereof) for their community members to access documents digitally, especially outside the library building. Other directors commented that some documents are difficult to view in a digital format and that it might be better to keep them in print until the GPO streamlines the formats. Nearly every respondent did note that they have reduced the size of their print collections or altered their storage methods to accommodate other uses or in recognition of low circulation or use.
One director mentioned that the print collection supports those items that are “frequently requested, [e.g.,] environmental, health and health studies. Sometimes we get additional copies of items that are requested frequently.” Making the print items easily accessible is mentioned as having value. “Huge amount of government documents [in many public libraries] are not cataloged. At a past job, when neighboring libraries cataloged, usage skyrocketed,” acknowledged one respondent. But another observed, “How many libraries would be likely to re-catalog? There’s not enough money. We will dump what we have and buy what we wanted to retain with cataloging attached.” For many libraries, however, neither of these may be a financially viable option.
Desire for Digital Access
In spite of the desire to retain print documents, all the directors recognized the importance of having digital access to a variety of documents. As one director commented, “Our goal is for patrons to have access to the same resources in the smallest library branch and in the larger regional branches. Government documents are the best example: even if we had all the space and money we could imagine, we would still be doing the same thing, which is not having regional collections, but access in all libraries, digitally.” Others wanted more emphasis on e-resources and websites from the GPO itself, with links to some documents incorporated into the library catalog to increase access.
An alternative future not presented by the scenarios was noted by several participants. For example, one director proposed that “eventually not all government documents will be housed electronically. Print could be more scan-on-request, stored regionally around the country.” The variety of formats in which government documents are produced makes it difficult for the public library to respond and make documents available. Before everything is digital, several remarked, there needs to be some streamlining of the formats (which would be undertaken by the GPO, not the libraries). Those who did comment on in-house content creation focused primarily on access to local and state information rather than federal.
Interest in Collaborative Collections
Many respondents mentioned developing a relationship with their state library or nearby academic libraries or creating some regional reference service to share space, staffing, and budget. One director indicated that their library puts most documents in a reference services center where the staff, including a government specialist, answer emails and phone requests and serve library branches. The public can come in, but the service also delivers throughout the system in paper and electronically.
Several directors felt that their state libraries could serve in this regional role. One director commented: “The state universities depend on the state library for government documents and the state library is more appropriate as the depository for the state.” At least one public library “worked with state library personnel on what was most relevant and what we could deaccession,” noting the state library’s role in assisting with collection maintenance. While it is recognized that state libraries may not have the financial resources to take on this role completely, the availability of staff specialists who can guide local libraries in their decisions regarding FDLP collections is valued.
Acknowledgment of the Value of FDLP and Difficulty of Opting Out
Most participants were adamant that the FDLP is an important service at their library. Several libraries (especially the ones with older depository collections) are proud of their government documents and the service they offer to the public. That said, one director thinks that the importance of the library as an “access point for government information” is not paramount for their overall plan of service. Another commented that he is “not even really thinking about this because there are other priorities.”
One noted that they are near a university that is also a depository and will begin researching whether there is a need for two depositories in their area. Most believe that the program will continue fifteen years into the future, though certainly in an “evolved” manner, as one person characterized the situation. One director felt “that the federal government moves too slowly to implement changes,” so that the fifteen-year horizon was too short. The FDLP needs to change in order to make it easier for libraries to remain members. As one respondent noted, the “program needs to be evaluated and changed, but not eliminated.”
While they might concede to limiting their involvement, no one would admit that they were considering withdrawing from the program entirely. When discussing scenario 1, a participant noted that it “seems difficult because it’s hard to get out of FDLP. There’s lots of work involved. In the short term, this is the most difficult and expensive option.” Others recognized this as a factor that influenced their decisions regarding FDLP participation, even without a cost-benefit analysis of remaining in the program versus opting out.
The difficult financial climate is making it hard for librarians at all levels to think about the future, and this factor influenced scenario selection the most. The financial meltdown of 2008 and its consequences made individuals hesitant to speak with confidence about the FDLP’s future in public libraries. One individual commented, “Due to the economic situation and projected changes in our library system, there are no guarantees of what services we will be offering in the future. I would be answering the questions based on my knowledge and understanding of the possible direction we would like to follow.” Because there are limited resources, some libraries focus on what has the largest impact. Frequently, this is not FDLP. When digitizing government documents comes up against early literacy, for example, early literacy was noted as having “the best impact.”
Further Use of the Scenarios
Similar to the Hernon and Saunders study, “This study neither directly addresses whether the depository program itself will exist fifteen years hence nor offers a vision of what future will emerge” after 2025.14 This would require expanded scenarios, additional interviews, and discussion of the projected economic climate for public libraries, in addition to revision of the laws related to the FDLP.
Further exploration using scenarios would require a broader, more inclusive scope, considering such factors as multilingual communities, a digital divide affecting access, and access for the physically, visually, or hearing impaired. Some communities have their own legislation affecting such issues, which may require attention at the federal level or financial input at the local level. These factors may require incorporation into possible scenarios. Several participants in our study noted their unfamiliarity with scenarios as a planning tool or as a survey discussion method, though most noted they were “helpful; their value is in helping people concretely imagine what other futures or options are like.”
Future scenarios for public libraries might include libraries as a central clearinghouse for government documents, floating collections that move between libraries, more innovative uses of technology, and developing customized services for patrons. Another possibility recognizes a growing emphasis on e-government and providing an expanded variety of activities, such as practical support to library patrons in need of government assistance. Again, these scenarios require further development and consideration of the role of academic, state, and research libraries. Moreover, extensive scenarios that drastically alter the FDLP’s mission must also consider any relevant legal ramifications.
Finally, by 2025, another future might be in order for the FDLP. Libraries might be separated from the FDLP network, but federal resources might be used to retain a centralized facility for government materials. Alternatively, libraries might rely entirely on digitized materials and web-based portals. Still another future might involve an as-yet unrealized choice, one which allows libraries to streamline all government information into a single access point.
The research described in this article is of strategic importance to public libraries as they seek to evaluate the role that the FDLP can and will play in their future plans. The GPO, Congress, and private companies that index, digitize, and provide access to government documents should also find the results useful as they plan for an increasingly digital future. While it is clear that public libraries are at varying stages of participation in the FDLP and plan to pursue a variety of paths, library directors clearly value the importance of the library’s role as a source for government information, both federal and local. Although the paths of the libraries identified here are not yet firm, each institution is seeking to find a balance between digital access and maintenance of print collections.
Comments on the scenarios generally reflected the need for libraries to tailor their level of participation in FDLP to their unique situations. The structured scenarios were useful to some participants, but constricting to others. It is likely that a hybrid of the proposed scenarios will be the result for the majority of participating libraries. It should be a comfort to Congress, the GPO, and nonparticipating libraries that the majority of public libraries surveyed intend to continue their participation in FDLP, in some form or another, for the foreseeable future.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
- Definition of Government Publication, U.S. Code 44, § 1901.
- For a history of the program, see P. Hernon, C. R. McClure, and G. R. Purcell, GPO’s Depository Library Program: A Descriptive Analysis (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1985), 1–21.
- P. Hernon and L. Saunders, “The Federal Depository Library Program in 2023: One Perspective on the Transition to the Future,” College and Research Libraries 70 (2009): 351–70.
- Depository Library Council, “‘Knowledge Will Forever Govern’: A Vision Statement for Federal Depository Libraries in the 21st Century,” Sept. 29, 2006, accessed July 24, 2012.
- R. C. Schonfeld and R. Housewright, “Documents for a Digital Democracy: A Model for the Federal Depository Library Program in the 21st Century,” Oct. 1, 2009, accessed June 17, 2012.
- Association of Research Libraries, “White Paper: Strategic Directions for the Federal Depository Library Program,” Apr. 2009.
- B. Chapman and J. A. Shuler, letter to the editor, College and Research Libraries 70 (2009): 419–20.
- J. Jacobs, “Comment on article: Depository Library Program in 2023,” Aug. 31, 2009, accessed June 17, 2012.
- U.S. Government Printing Office, “Regional Depository Libraries in the 21st Century: A Preliminary Assessment,” Dec. 2008, accessed June 17, 2012.
- Depository Library Council, “Federal Depository Library Program Strategic Plan, 2009–2014: Draft Discussion Document: 04/17/2009,” accessed June 17, 2012.
- D. Mietzner and G. Reger, “Advantages and Disadvantages of Scenario Approaches for Strategic Foresight,” International Journal of Technology Intelligence and Planning 1, no. 2 (2005): 233.
- Hernon and Saunders, “The Federal Depository Library Program in 2023,” 356.
- As of Mar. 16, 2012, FDsys officially replaced GPO Access as the GPO’s official system granting access to online information from all three branches of the federal government.
- Hernon and Saunders, “The Federal Depository Library Program in 2023,” 366.