Metropolis: Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Wise: ‘I don’t think we’d be able to afford three-quarters of the things we’re getting.’ (Photo by Scott Latham)
Governing in the Dark

Librarians are once again fighting to keep public records public.


Uncle Sam first wanted permission to snoop on what you’ve been reading. Then he wanted to withdraw some public records from the public realm. And now, it seems, he wants to eliminate hundreds or thousands of government documents from the shelves of public libraries in North Texas and across the nation.
Judith C. Russell, the government’s superintendent of documents, has again roused the nation’s librarians with a plan to dramatically limit the number of government documents available at Federal Depository Libraries, such as those operated by the city of Fort Worth, Texas Christian University, and the University of North Texas.
Though the information being removed is supposed to eventually all be available online, North Texas librarians say Russell’s plan is going to make it difficult or impossible for some people to obtain basic government information — at least in the short term. Further, they say, at least one agency appears to be removing some information from its web site for political reasons even as other information is being held hostage by exorbitant demands for fees.
The war on terror, coupled with budget deficits, seems to have morphed into a war on information.
“This administration is trying to keep information from the U.S. citizens,’’ said Monika Antonelli, a UNT librarian who monitors attempts to restrict government information. “When I worked in government documents at UNT, the cost of the program was [about] 20 cents per taxpayer, and it was money well spent. The Depository Library program received less funding than the budget for military bands. This is not about saving money but about stifling information.’’
The latest skirmish erupted last month when Russell, at a meeting of the American Library Association in Boston, announced the federal government’s 2006 budget would include money for only “50 essential titles’’ for the nation’s 1,250 depository libraries. Hundreds of other documents that the government for years had deposited in the nation’s libraries would no longer be available except online.
The ALA and the American Association of Law Libraries said the proposal would “eliminate almost all’’ of the printed material traditionally made available to libraries. The law librarians further complained that the plan “represents a major disruption to the [Federal Depository Library Program’s] role of ensuring no-fee, permanent access to government information for the American public.’’
The Weekly wanted to ask Russell or her boss, Public Printer Bruce James, about the proposed changes. Both referred questions to Government Printing Office spokeswoman Veronica Meter, who did not respond to questions by deadline.
The so-called essential titles such as the Congressional Record, census reports, and publication on topics ranging from crime to economics would remain on the shelves. But librarians say soil surveys, navigational charts, patent and trademark information, IRS documents, administrative decisions, and many Congressional reports and hearings — even on matters of great national interest — would no longer be in print. Put the proposed rule in effect a few years back, they say, and you would no longer find any free printed government information about hearings on such topics as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the nomination of Al Gonzales as attorney general, or the failed impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
“If we had been under this proposal, then we would not have received them on paper,’’ said Brenda Barnes, a TCU government information librarian.
A comprehensive list of printed material destined for the dustbin is not available. Since Russell made her announcement, librarians say the government has been conspicuously tight-lipped about details. “We’re trying to determine how many paper documents we’ve received in the last years that under the new proposal we would not receive in coming years,’’ Barnes explained. “We don’t know exactly their intentions yet.’’
Others are worried that shifting the responsibility for archiving government documents from public libraries to the government itself will make political editing of information too tempting. Librarian watchdogs have already noted that at least one agency, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, appears to have deleted some documents critical of the Bush administration from its web site.
“What happens when the Bush administration wants to prevent a particular policy point of view’’ from being aired? asked Arlene Weible, head of UNT’s government documents department. Shifting control of information from the libraries to the government leaves the public “with less of a check’’ against government abuses.
She also said that having many documents available only on the internet will make it more difficult for the poor to have equal access to information. “The concept of the digital divide is not being taken very seriously by the planning that’s going on for the depository libraries, ‘’ she said.
Shirley Wise, who oversees government documents for the Fort Worth Public Library, said she doubts that the government will be able to make available on the internet all the records it now provides in print, by the time the program starts. “At some point, yes [they will be available on the internet],’’ she said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be [available] by the time they cut out the major print information.”
Russell’s program would also give each depository library a $500 to $1,500 allowance to purchase print copies of documents no longer being freely distributed. But that, librarians said, won’t begin to cover the costs of the lost material. “Once that [allowance] is gone, if you want anything else, your library would have to pay for it,’’ Wise said. “I don’t think we’d be able to afford three-quarters of the things we are getting.’’
During the 2003-2004 budget year, Wise said, the Fort Worth library received more than 5,400 titles from the federal government. Over the years, it’s amassed a collection surpassing 1.2 million documents.
The nation’s librarians have played an increasingly high-profile role in the fight to protect privacy and access to information since 9/11. They’ve wrangled with former Attorney General John Ashcroft over a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act that civil libertarians feared would give federal agents easier access to libraries’ records of what books and materials their patrons have checked out. And last year, they won a fight to preserve a set of seemingly innocuous publications that the Justice Department asked Russell to have libraries destroy “by any means.’’
But the shelves of the nation’s libraries are only one front on the government war on information. Increasingly, the government is thwarting requests for public information under the Freedom of Information Act with demands for exorbitant search fees. In one recent case, People for the American Way sought records about government requests to seal records about immigrants detained after 9/11. The Justice Department initially refused the request, saying that to release information about the detainees would violate the privacy of those individuals. It later amended its response, saying it would gladly conduct a search for the records — for a fee of $372,799.

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