The longest-running open source project: US Federal Depository libraries

200102744_6973023d9b.jpg The Federal Depository library Program (FDLP) is a geographically dispersed network of 1250 libraries around the US who for over 150 years have worked with the Government Printing Office (GPO) to insure that government information is deposited in local libraries and freely available to everyone. FDLP libraries have also assured the authenticity of government information through this distributed system. Documents librarians have long been advocates for government transparency, freedom of information, privacy and civil liberties (freedom to read etc).
224274216_c7c9867d26_m.jpgFDLP librarians are now trying to apply that distributed concept to the digital world to figure out ways to give access to -- and more importantly to preserve -- digital government information. They're doing things like harvesting Web content (see for example web archiving @ Stanford, & CA digital Library's web archiving service) preserving digital govt information in distributed archives (Government Documents Private LOCKSS Network ), working with government agencies like GPO and transparency activists to advocate for bulk data, "digital deposit" and open content standards. While the concept of a distributed system can be applied perfectly to the digital world (think napster for govt information!), the FDLP network is being threatened by the very idea that the FDLP is a print concept only. With digital deposit, harvesting, bulk data, open standards etc, we can continue the FDLP to assure the distribution, access to and long-term preservation of government information. Contact your local FDLP librarian and tell them you support a distributed digital FDLP. Further reading: Images from the completely great Best Titles Ever project.


  1. Hi Jessamyn,

    Thanks for spotlighting the FDLP’s important legacy and current efforts to adapt to the digital environment. Some readers might be interested in Ithaka S+R’s December report of a broad examination of the Program:

    Our report recommends that the program adopt a framework for the digital environment, including a program of digitization and the coordination and preservation of the federal government’s digital publications. The FDLP has long made a critical contribution to the health of American democracy and can continue to do so in the future as well.


    Roger C. Schonfeld
    Manager of Research
    Ithaka S+R

  2. Needs more bittorrent tracker action. Donate your hard drive citizen! How’s that for open source, de-centralized and distributed content… ok enough thinking out loud for tonight.

  3. I’m surprised that the Randroids haven’t flooded this with screeds about how tax dollars should not be used to provide a service that a ‘for profit’ privately owned company should be doing.

    But of course, the Randroids DO hold that libraries are a “scourge” and also “represent houses of death”. So I guess that just there mere mention of the word “library” is anathema to them and they flee from it light cockroaches flee from the light.

    The non-delusional citizenry will continue to use these libraries and have access to the research and documents paid for by their taxes.

    To paraphrase the closing text from most of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes:

    “Keep Circulating The Books!”

    1. One problem with the government providing a service, like libraries, is that they end up pushing out other groups that might want to provide the same service, either for profit or for charity, out of operation. Really, a for profit library might be a very good thing – providing the newest books for a fraction of the purchase price, bringing in innovative ideas to draw in new readers, etc. As it is, libraries do more or less the same thing they did 100 years ago, maybe with the addition of a few computer terminals, classes, and DVD check outs. But when was the last time you saw a private, innovative library? I’ve never seen one; no one would give them any business when we already pay for them with our tax dollars. The same principle is true in many services that the government provides – for instance, why don’t we have a dynamic, consumer and doctor driven database of pharmaceutical efficacy and risks? Well, because the corrupt and ineffetive FDA monopolizes this service, so no one bothers to make a better alternative. The same principle applies to many areas.

      The more fundamental principle, of course, is simply that is not morally justifiable for the government to use force to extract money from the population to achieve an end, no matter how laudable that end might be.

      If I use a Gun to rob someone on the street, and use that money to buy sculpting materials to design a beautiful sculpture to put in the town square and enrich the life of the citizens, it was still not right how I went about doing it.

      Certainly, a library is just about the best use of taxpayer money I can think of.But, because the root of the action is violence, it is not morally justifiable. In order to progress as a species, we must learn a way to solve all social problems, and provide all the useful services which government provides, without use of the threat of violence to get them done.

      The first thing we teach our children is to not use violence to solve problems; can’t we embody that belief as adults?

      For what it’s worth, nobody has a problem with libraries per se. To quote the article you link:

      “Libraries are a nice “end.” I think libraries are great. But ends cannot be divorced from means. And the means of any public library is tax dollars — dollars that were extorted under the principle of “Your money or your life.” Pay your tax or go to jail.”

      1. I approve of the general sentiment that governments should not spend money doing what others will do. However the particular case of libraries seems to demonstrate that there are at least some things that no commercial interests find profitable enough to provide. Anyone who wants to can set up a lending library yet even before such things were commonly provided at public expense there were very, very, few of them. In my opinion the biggest problem with lending libraries now is that they have become almost irrelevant, most are so unresponsive to trends in publishing that they are useful only if you need to consult historical documents or read the latest airport novel. I live only 20 metres from my local library but I haven’t even bothered to sign up because the chance of it actually having a book I would want to read is practically nil. Take a look at the non-fiction shelves next time you are in a library and check what proportion of the books in your own field are less than ten years old. In the great days of public libraries they were repositories of new, exciting, information. Laymen went to libraries to improve their education by reading about the latest scientific discoveries and technologies. There is no point anymore because almost all of it is years behind what you can find in seconds on the net and a substantial part is so out of date as to count as misleading at best and sometimes dangerous.

        And as for the FDA, well the pharmaceutical companies had plenty of time to create such a thing and they didn’t do it. Exactly how would anyone have made money out of telling the inventors of a drug that they must delay introducing it by proving that it doesn’t harm people? The FDA might or might not be corrupt, I have no opinion on that, but who would actually pay the costs of the private version?

      2. I love this fantasy world you talk about, where private companies are fighting each other for the privilege to sell people what they are provide, by law, for free.

        I work at the library at a small University in the Pacific Northwest. We’re a depository library, the only one in the county, because the public library doesn’t have the resources to maintain the service (and also, the university was here long before the public library).

        If the FDLP were privatized, there would be huge swaths of the country where no one would have access to government documents and publications. There’s very little money to be made in selling people this information, so it would be a failure as a business. But it’s just the right size for the government to do.

      3. And the means of any public library is tax dollars — dollars that were extorted under the principle of “Your money or your life.” Pay your tax or go to jail.”

        Libraries are local. Not every town has one. If you don’t want a library, vote for supervisors or council members or aldermen who won’t fund them.

      4. Just out of curiosity, do you own a leather-bound copy of Atlas Shrugged with the words of John Galt printed in red?

        1. Xopher, I do believe it is in my Objective best self-interest to offer to buy you a drink of your choice when next you’re in Boston!

  4. Well the FDLP program is really about enabling taxpayers to access information THAT THEY HAVE ALREADY PAID TO CREATE. Journey back with us just a couple of decades, before internet access was common. This, coupled with the NTIS was a really good way ensuring access. Of course since, in general, copyright doesn’t impair the distribution of “works of the United States Government,” distributed depositories of digital governemnt works is conceptually easy, alghough the devil is always in the details.

  5. I used to love working at the Federal Depository in New Orleans, they had things down in their basement that went back to the 1800’s. You could litteraly take anything off the shelf at random and find something entertaining to pour over. I spent hours in that basement; I read the Congressional meeting investigating the Titanic disaster, I read the Roswell report, the Challenger shuttle disaster report, the proper lubrication and maintenance schedule for a M1-A1 Abrams tank to a cute 1950’s guide on how parents can keep their children away from the “dangers” of Rock-and-Roll music. This was before Katrina though. Every state has at least two depositories, and it’s all free for anyone to access because YOU paid for it with your tax dollars.

  6. One of the things to keep in mind about recent pushes to destroy these collections to “save money” and post everything online is that online records can be deleted or changed at will, but when you have printed materials that are years old and distributed to hundreds of locations it makes it that much harder to hunt down all the old copies and edit them.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists ~ What’s At Stake? The EPA Closes Its Libraries, Destroys Documents:

Comments are closed.