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Magazines > Information Today > December 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 11 — December 2003
Up Front with Barbara Quint
The Numbers Racket
By Barbara Quint

In October, Bruce James, the Public Printer and head of the U.S. Government Printing Office, told a meeting of federal depository librarians that the GPO Access service does not have a sustainable business model and that GPO needs to "create a business model that will once again allow us to bring revenue in the door."

GPO Access is probably the federal government's greatest success on the Web. As currently constituted, it's a vital source of information and a revolutionary improvement in the delivery of government information to the American public. But it's also a model of commitment to the right way to handle that information. It doesn't skimp on what it offers, including most of its best-known and even bulkiest titles. Most important, it has a standing and publicly announced policy that any publication it carries—and they now number in the hundreds of thousands—will be carried forever. GPO Access is a true archive, a repository for the ages, a "Web site of record." It has earned its more than 37 million uses a month.

Further inquiries determined that James' remark, while possibly a trial balloon, was at least not a trial announcement. According to a respected spokesperson, GPO executives worried that the rising use of GPO Access to supply electronic versions of government publications had led to declining revenues from the GPO sales department. The spokesperson indicated that James wants GPO and the library and information communities to work together to come up with a feasible business model that might help the organization recover revenue.

Actually, in a Searcher magazine interview, James said he "wouldn't be surprised if in 5 years the government is delivering 95 percent of documents only in digital form." Far be it from me to underestimate librarians (loyal to my profession as I am), but it does stretch credulity a bit to imagine that we would be able to come up with a business model that can recover all but 5 percent of the GPO's sales revenues in 5 years' time. At least any model that would also protect the public's right to know.

GPO arrived at its for-free policy through experience. Originally, it did try to set up payment mechanisms, both subscription and per-document. However, a law (PL103-40) required GPO not to charge depository libraries. As one might have predicted, those libraries started reproducing and redelivering GPO Access content and building mirror sites—all available for free on the open Web. In 1995, GPO decided to go with the flow and opened its service to free access.

Since they lack copyright protection, government documents are the most public of public-domain material. Even if GPO did return to some payment mechanism, you could envision libraries continuing to redistribute. Library vendors might even help, perhaps by offering a service attached to their existing ones that supplied a cheap or free "federal depository" collection.

GPO's problems could soon get bigger. A new arrangement hammered out of a fight with the Office of Management and Budget should substantially increase the flow of electronic government documents. All printers working with federal executive branch agencies must supply GPO with electronic copies of reports (and at least two print copies for cataloging). No electronic copies, no checks. With this new enforcement mechanism and a prospective closing of in-house printing plants, GPO expects a sharp drop in "fugitive" documents and a sharp rise in government documents available for public access.

So why shouldn't the American public simply enjoy this tremendous increase in service from the federal government as each computer and Internet connection turns every user into a federal depository library? Our tax dollars at work—finally!

Well, as Benjamin Disraeli, the famed 19th-century British prime minister, said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." The multi-administration battle between the OMB and GPO over the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of centralized printing saw statistics hurled like grenades. Boom! You lose $$$! Bam! We save $$$! Frankly, if GPO ends up establishing business models based on replacing revenue from the sales department, the war for public access may already be lost.

If I were Mr. James, I would reconsider even collecting such dangerous statistics. Instead, I would brandish those 37 million hits a month—not one of which caused a single GPO (or GPO contractor's) printing device a single drop of ink. GPO Access has not only expanded the delivery of federal documents exponentially, it has also transferred the physical printing (when necessary) of those documents to the public's own computer printers.

Instead, if I were Mr. James, I'd collect every statistic in existence on the cost of producing and disseminating information for every federal agency and add in projected increases. And when anyone attacked my operation, I'd stand and fight on that statistical barricade and no other.

The bottom line is that the people own the government. The people pay for the government. The people own the information the government collects and the documents it produces. The government owes the people what they have paid for. The Web now reaches into the homes and offices of most Americans. No matter what statistics anyone throws out, the Web is the bargain of the millennium. But even if it weren't, it would remain the best way for the government to do its duty—i.e., to supply citizens with the information they own. All measurements of success and failure should be made against that macro-statistic.


Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her e-mail address is
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