A Report on the 2014 Global Resources Collections Forum

Session I: Libraries and the Records of Governments

Thursday, April 24, 1:00–5:00 p.m.

In the past, CRL and member libraries acquired and made available to scholars the records of key U.S., Canadian, and British government agencies. Those records included census and immigration records, State Department communications, British Foreign Office files, and the papers of various presidents and ministers. CRL is a repository of the transcripts of the 1960s–70s secret military tribunals in Brazil and the incriminating files of the Khmer Rouge’s Santebal police in Cambodia. The Cooperative Africana Microform Project, operating under the CRL umbrella, has preserved in microform the records of the French colonial regime in Senegal.

Opening Image from Matthew J. Connelly’s Leviathan presentation, Thursday, April 25, 2014.

Today most government records are created and managed in a multitude of digital systems and platforms, many of them in “the cloud.” With the availability of digital media, moreover, the volume of the records produced has mushroomed. (The Bush White House alone generated over 200 million emails and 11 million digital photographs.)

Both the Government Accounting Office and the Congressional Research Service have raised concerns about the potential loss of U.S. government electronic records and data. This Leviathan session explored the policy and political challenges the digital government ecosystem presents for libraries and the implications of this new reality for the stewardship of important historical evidence.

Thomas S. Blanton, Executive Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, offered a keynote on “Information, Transparency and Government Records in the Digital Age: A Public Policy Perspective.” Blanton spoke about the issues surrounding access to government records today, from the encryption of government agency emails to delays in the declassification of politically sensitive records. The National Security Archive efforts to secure declassification of U.S. State Department and CIA records through FOIA requests and legal action provided a number of case studies in archival disclosure. Blanton also noted the striking disproportionality between the resources devoted to government data, and those allocated to its preservation, as illustrated by the Utah data storage facility planned by the National Security Agency and the facilities of NARA.

Columbia University Historian Matthew J. Connelly provided a historian’s perspective on the barriers and obstacles scholars face today in obtaining access to electronic U.S. government records and internal communications. Speaking as one doing research on U.S diplomatic history, Connelly described the large and growing backlog in the declassification and processing of State Department records, and the “asymmetry” between the volume of records created by well-resourced federal agencies like the Defense, CIA, and State Departments, and the sparse funding and human resources available to NARA. On the other hand, Connelly noted, computer technologies offer new possibilities for automating and thus accelerating declassification and processing of such records. He cited recent work to develop tools to surmount those challenges.

The issues and challenges of preserving electronic government records constituted the topic of presentations and comments by a panel of representatives from the national archiving agencies: Paul Wester, Jr., Chief Records Officer for the United States Government, and William A. Mayer, Executive for Research Services, both of the National Archives and Records Administration, and Cecilia Muir, Chief Operating Officer, and Paul Wagner, Director General and Chief Information Officer, of Library and Archives Canada. The discussion covered the structural, political, and technical challenges both organizations are encountering in their efforts to fulfill their mandates to preserve the permanent records of government agencies. Challenges include inadequate funding in an era of government cutbacks; limited influence of the archives over agency adoption and deployment of records creation and management technologies; and the overwhelming volume, variety, and complexity of records being produced by agencies.

Why “Leviathan”?

The Forum title refers to the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 treatise, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. The treatise argued the need for “strong, undivided government” as a check on the disorder and brutality inherent in human society. Hobbes used in his title the biblical term for sea monster, referenced in the Old Testament and pictured on many maps from Hobbes’s era to signify uncharted territory.

Session 2: Libraries and the Information of Governments

Friday, April 25, 9:00 a.m.–12:00 noon

In the print era, many libraries served (and today continue to serve) as depositories of tangible government publications, bearing responsibility for providing local access to government documents and information in print and microform. Most academic libraries also acquired or subscribed to commercially produced microform sets and databases of government documents and information.

Today, the public information landscape is being transformed: by government agencies’ widespread adoption of social media, their embrace of “cloud” services for storage and management of records and information, and Open Government mandates that make oceans of agency data freely available on the web. This Leviathan session examined the implications for libraries of this new government information “supply chain.”

John C. Bracken, Director of Journalism and Media Innovation, the John and James L. Knight Foundation, gave a keynote on Open Government and Big Data, describing new creative and productive uses of data released by local and federal governments. Bracken showed how many of these uses, funded by Knight Foundation, are driving technological innovation and producing significant public benefits. Such initiatives are made possible by new government economic and transparency efforts at the federal, state, and local level that expose open, structured data, long collected by governments but until the advent of the Internet never widely disseminated.

James A. Jacobs, Technical Advisor for CRL’s Certification Advisory Panel, reprised the salient points in his study, commissioned by CRL, of the current state of archiving born-digital government content. It was clear from Jacobs’ report that so much information is published by U.S. federal government agencies that the scope of that information is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Jacobs pointed out that, in fact, there is not even consensus on the appropriate unit of measurement with which to reckon the dimensions of web-based agency output, vastly complicating the task of archiving that content. Jacobs’ study found that despite the efforts of the National Archives and Records Administration, GPO, the Library of Congress, Internet Archive, and others, only a small fraction of U.S. government agency content has been usefully archived to date.

R. Eric Petersen, Senior Analyst in American National Government, in the Congressional Research Service, spoke about the “The Digital Future of FDsys and the Federal Depository Library Program” from a public policy perspective. He noted that organizations in the commercial sector are investing large sums to maintain statistical data and “historical” content, and that such investments are on a scale that dwarfs the resources available to GPO and most government archiving bodies.

A panel discussion on “New Models of Access” then explored the role of thirdparty aggregators and publishers in organizing and enhancing governmentproduced records and information. Susan Bokern, Vice President for Information Solutions, ProQuest, described the work that ProQuest does to identify, gather, and authenticate the records of U.S. federal legislation, congressional hearings, and statistics, as well as the editorial value that ProQuest and other publishers add to the “raw” materials. Robert Lee, Director of Online Publishing and Strategic Partnerships, East View Information Service, spoke about the special difficulties of obtaining publication and data from oppressive regimes abroad, such as China and Russia. Lee elaborated on the political considerations that affect this part of the information supply chain. Robert Dessau, CEO of voxgov, described a new model for aggregating government information, one that involves real-time harvesting and annotating of public policy-related materials from media and government websites to produce value-added resources for policy research.

Session 3: New Models of Stewardship: An Agenda for CRL and North American Research Libraries

Friday, April 25, 1:00–3:00 p.m.

In Leviathan Session 3, three library leaders offered their perspectives on the appropriate role of research libraries in this radically transformed government information landscape. The presenters discussed what stewardship means in an age of digital government and big data. All agreed on the importance of defining this role in relation to the parts played by government itself, other civil society actors, and the commercial sector. The discussion suggested the outlines of a new strategic framework for cooperative action and new multi-year strategic priorities for CRL.

Mary Case, University Librarian, University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about the tension between the interests of scholars—and thus the libraries that represent them—and the imperatives of privacy, national security and other matters that drive government agencies and the archiving branches of government. The scholarly desire for greater disclosure of government records and information can run counter to government’s natural aversion to the risks that disclosure can create. Case also argued that digital preservation challenges require new models and approaches, different from the depository systems and “custodial model” of the print era.

Brent Roe, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Research Libraries, spoke about the successes and limits of collaborative efforts by Canadian libraries to date in this new environment, and the pressing need to deal with the legacy print corpus. He also argued the merits of a distributed approach to harvesting and archiving digital government information.

Responding to these comments, Ingrid Parent, University Librarian, University of British Columbia and former Assistant Deputy Minister, Library and Archives Canada, observed that access to persistent government information is a global issue, and that serving as “mechanisms of good governance” should be a priority of libraries everywhere. Parent encouraged the research library community to engage in what David Johnson called “the diplomacy of knowledge” and to work at the international level to advocate new partnerships and “drive new connections.” Parent suggested that IFLA’s new PERSIST initiative, undertaken in concert with UNESCO, would be an appropriate platform for library action on this front.