Do You Know Where Your Government Information Is?

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A true fact, but unfortunately not widely-known, is that over 1300 US Government depository libraries exist for the public’s free use. The US Government is the world’s most prolific publisher, and depository libraries receive 1000s of government titles annually at no cost for the publications. Two important corollaries, these libraries are required to provide
direct access to electronic government information and databases on the Web, and to have specialists available to help anyone and everyone locate and utilize government documents
in all formats. Locally, the Government Documents Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is a designated Federal Depository. It is a community, as well as a
campus, resource. Its librarians are specialists and advocates, who help users access  government information. UIUC’s Law Library, although more selective in terms of its collection policies, is also a Federal Depository.
Depository libraries include the obvious, such as a 1980 congressional hearing, “Effect of Iraqi-Iranian Conflict on U.S. Energy Policy,” or a 1998 congressional hearing, “Iraq:
Can Saddam Be Overthrown?” Even Frank Zappa’s congressional testimony on song lyrics may sound like standard fare. However, the range of subject matter which government
information encompasses may surprise the uninitiated, and its educational and instructional value in a land-grant university environment such as ours extends far beyond the campus.
Libraries continue to receive depository shipments of government documents in paper, and audio-visual materials, CD/DVDs, maps, microfiche, posters, videos, etc.; yet, the
passage of the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993 marked the beginning of the official trend towards a predominately digital Federal
Depository program. This initiative evolved into the present GPO Access site, a marvelous resource for tyros and technocrats alike, which has official information from all three
branches of the US Government. The possibility of relatively easy, unparalleled access to government information led to visions of “downloading democracy,” and increased awareness of US Government practices and programs. Then and now, Federal Depository librarians develop web sites for their local congressional districts and communities, and promote e-government resources through a myriad of access tools. Examine the Affirmative Action web site, created by Grace York, Documents Center, University Library, U of M, Ann Arbor, or The War with Iraq, a webliography, done by James Jacobs, Data, Government and GIS Services, UCSD Libraries. Or in your own virtual backyard, view Government  Information for a Changing World, the work of many, Government Documents Library, UIUC Library. The depository library system originated in the country’s oldest right-to-know laws. To many, an informed citizenry is fundamental to our vision of American democracy. Federal
Depositories, encompassing tangible and virtual government documents, also function as the “nation’s collective memory.”
These collections and services, combined with basic government information literacy skills, represent at least one major means of finding out what’s what, and holding our public servants, elected or otherwise, accountable.
Throughout the country’s history, “fugitive” documents have existed. Although the web environment has given new meaning to the concept, fugitives are basically government
documents not cataloged in, nor distributed through, the Federal Depository Library Program. This would include, for example, a government agency fee-based electronic journal or database that was unavailable for free at a Federal Depository. Another example, Congressional Research Service reports, prepared specifically for Congress, are not distributed for free to Depository libraries. Three recent titles, Low Power FM
Radio Service: Regulatory and Congressional Issues, Substantive Due Process and a Right to Clone, or Patient Protection and Managed Care could conceivably be of interest to area
The meaning of “fugitive” took on another dimension in the aftermath of the devastation on September 11, 2001. On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush issued  Proclamation 7463, declaring a national emergency by reason of the terrorist attacks. The vulnerability of electronic government publications, databases, and records did not originate with the 9/11 tragedy. However, the US Government’s procedural response to it in terms of openness precipitated the removal of thousands of important government documents and information resources from the Web. In many instances, these web-based editions were the only official depository copies disseminated. Between September 11, 2001, through mid-October, 2001, US Government agencies and the Executive Office of the President either immediately shut down or restricted access to electronic government information. The Federal Aviation Administration took away its enforcement files, which included information about security violations, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission removed publications that had detailed specifications for energy facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and its Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry removed individual reports
from agency sites. A number of Department of Transportation agencies, including the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ Geographic Information Services, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the International Nuclear Safety Center, all removed maps or atlases from their web sites.
The list of agencies is long, and ranges from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to the US Geological Survey. Selected actions by some of the agencies may seem
justified. In many cases, it has been excessive. The Department of Energy eliminated over 15,500 reports from its DOE Information Bridge. These resources were part of the Federal
Depository Library Program electronic collection. The Environmental Protection Agency, excepting its own employees and contractors, and military, federal, and state employees, is
now allowing the public only limited and less flexible access to Envirofacts, which the agency describes as “your one-stop source for environmental information.” Although it is to be
expected that the Department of Defense would do a sweep of what it considers sensitive, accessible e-information, journalists, lawyers, librarians, and many Americans really,  wondered why the Department of Education, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Internal Revenue Service felt compelled to do so.
The Government Printing Office rarely asks Federal Depositories to remove paper or other  tangible format publications from the shelves. Since 1995, twenty tangible items, out of a total of 230,000 titles disseminated, have been recalled or withdrawn. In October, 2001, the Government Printing Office instructed libraries to “withdraw and destroy” US Geological Survey Open-File Report 99-248, Source-Area Characteristics of Large Public Surface-Water Supplies in the Conterminous United States: An Information Resource for Source-Water Assessment (1999). This official request was sent to 335 Federal Depositories holding a copy. Breaking this CD was not a natural act for us. This product, done in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, was to assist the agency and states in meeting the  requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 by identifying selected characteristics of source-water areas for drinking water for fifty million people. In some areas, the FBI followed up to make sure the CD had been destroyed. A few individual depositories have been approached about removing other government titles.
This trend was accompanied by a series of policy issuances that redefine open government  and access to government information. Most of these have been fairly widely discussed.
Attorney General John Ashcroft’s October 12, 2002 memorandum to federal department and agency heads on the Freedom of Information Act, essentially a reinterpretation of the act, began the trend. If agencies are able to identify any “sound legal basis” for withholding information, the Ashcroft Memorandum clearly states that they will be protected. The
USA Patriot Act, signed into law on October 26, 2001 by President Bush, and also his December 10, 2001, Administrative Order, empowering the Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, to classify the department’s information as “secret,” confirmed the direction the Administration was taking. Heretofore the department had no classified
documents. The result was many unclassified documents were removed from public view. The Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency now have
“original classification authority” as well. In total, over 4,000 individuals at agencies have this type of authority.
On March 25, 2003, one year after White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card issued a   memorandum that contained guidelines for reviewing classified, reclassified and declassified, and also, “sensitive but unclassified” information, President Bush issued Executive Order 13292 – Further Amendment to Executive Order 12958, as Amended, Classified National Security Information. It “prescribes” a uniform system of classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information. Foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources and weapons of mass destruction are just two of the specific categories that could be restricted. It also provides new authority to reclassify
previously declassified documents. Congressional Research Service has prepared a comprehensive report on Executive Order 13292, entitled, “Sensitive But Unclassified” and Other Federal Security Control on Scientific and Technical Information:
History and Current Controversy. It points to problems, including the lack of a statutory definition, individual agency interpretation, and the potential expansion of the applicability
of the “sensitive but unclassified” label. The Office of Management and Budget is apparently developing guidelines. In light of increased secrecy and further limitations on egovernment
information, many activist groups, think tanks, organizations and professional associations, and individuals are speaking out, lobbying and campaigning, and challenging such restrictions in the courts and elsewhere. For example, the American Library Association adopted a resolution on Security and Access to Government Information at its June 2003 annual conference. Another group, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, has
released Homefront Confidential: How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information
and the Public’s Right to Know, 3rd ed., RCFP White Paper, March 2003 (see RCFP’s web
On a related note, the Information Security Oversight Office’s fiscal year 2002 Report
to the President indicates that 23,745,329 classification actions – original and derivative
– occurred. This is 2,909,520 more than the previous fiscal year, a 12.2% increase. The
Department of Justice reported an increase of 39%. A dramatic jump occurred in fiscal year
2000, when the number of actions went from 8,038,592 in fiscal year 1999 to 22,965,363.
This represents an increase of 64.9%, and each successive year, the number has grown.
Stephen Aftergood describes the Bush Administration’s secrecy as an “empirical
fact,” and predicts, given the state of military affairs, that this pattern will continue and
expand (“The Bush Administration’s Suffocating Secrecy,” Forward, March 28, 2003).
Certain provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, passed on November 22,
2002, create a broad exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. In response, on
March 12, 2003, Senator Patrick Leahy, Vermont, introduced the Restoration of Freedom
of Information Act of 2003, which would amend the Homeland Security Act. It
was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and no further action has occurred
on the bill. On June 19, 2003, Representative Barney Frank, Massachusetts, and Mark
Udall, Colorado, introduced a similar bill, H.R. 2526, with the same title.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 harks back to another
age, as it would allow the Director of the National Security Agency, in coordination
with the Director of Central Intelligence, to exempt the agency’s operational files from
public disclosure requirements. As of July 22, 2003, it is in the process of being reported out
of committee.
If this bothers you, find out where, when, and how US Government information is  disseminated, how it is organized, and read and use it. Whether you are attempting to understand the labyrinth of 1980s export controls vs. military items and technology sales to
Iraq, tracking the latest activities of the Department of Homeland Security, or planning
a visit to a national park, drop into your local depository library – virtual or otherwise.
Talk with your depository librarians.

Advocate for no-fee, broad public access to government information with as few restrictionsas possible. It belongs to all of us.

Agencies Who Have Had Information Removed From Their Websites

• Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
• Bureau of Transportation Statistics: Geographic Information Services
• Center for Disease Control (CDC)
• Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC)
• Department of Defense
• Department of Education
• Department of Energy (DOE)
• DOE Information Bridge
• Department of Transportation
• Environmental Protection Agency
• Federal Aviation Administration
• Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
• Fish and Wildlife Service
• Food and Drug Administratio (FDA)
• Internal Revenue Service
• Los Alamos Laboratory
• National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
• National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
• National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA)
• National Institiute of the Humanities
• Nuclear Regulatory Commission
• U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) From The Working Report of the Task Force on Restriction on Access to Government Information

Mary Mallory has been a librarian for 32 years. For 23 of those years, she has been a government information specialist, serving as the Head of the Government Documents Library of the UIUC Library since November 1999. Mary has has worked as a librarian in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, MA, Manhattan, and CU.

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