A Long-Term Goal For Creating A Digital Government-Information Library Infrastructure

Now that so many have done so much good work to rescue so much data, it is time to reflect on our long-term goals. This is the first of two posts that suggest some steps to take. The second post is A rare opportunity to make a long-term difference.

The amount of data rescue work that has already been done by DataRefuge, ClimateMirror, Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) projects and the End of Term crawl (EOT) 2016 is truly remarkable. In a very practical sense, however, this is only the first stage in a long process. We still have a lot of work to do to make all the captured digital content (web pages, data, PDFs, videos, etc) discoverable and understandable and usable. We believe that the next step is to articulate a long-term goal to guide the next tasks.

Of course, we do already have broad goals but up to now those goals have by necessity been more short-term than long-term. The short-term goals that have driven so much action have been either implicit (“rescue data!”) or explicit (“to document federal agencies’ presence on the World Wide Web during the transition of Presidential administrations” [EOT]). These have been sufficient to draw librarian-, scientist-, hacker-, and public volunteers who have accomplished a lot! But, as the EOT folks will remind us, most of this work is volunteer work.

The next stages will require more resources and long-term commitments. Notable next tasks include: creating metadata, identifying and acquiring DataRefuge’s uncrawlable data, and doing Quality Assurance (QA) work on content that has been acquired. This work has begun. The University of North Texas, for example, has created a pilot crowdsourcing project to catalog a cache of EOT PDFs and is looking for volunteers. This upcoming work is essential in order to make content we rescue and acquire discoverable and usable and to ensure that the content is preserved for the long-term.

As we look to the long-term, we turn to the two main international standards for long-term preservation: OAIS (Reference Model For An Open Archival Information System) and TDR (Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories). Using the terminology of those standards our current actions have focused on “ingest.” Now we have to focus on the other functions of a TDR: management, preservation, access, and use. We might say that what we have been doing is Data Rescue but what we will do next is Data Preservation which includes discovery, access and use.

Given that, here is our suggestion for a long-term goal:

Create a digital government-information library infrastructure in which libraries collectively provide services for collections that are selected, acquired, organized, and preserved for specific Designated Communities (DCs).

Adopting this goal will not slow down or interrupt existing efforts. It focuses on “Designated Communities” and the life-cycle of information and, by doing so, it will help prioritize our actions. By doing this, it will help attract libraries to participate in the next stage activities. It will also make long-term participation easier and more effective by helping participants understand where their activities lead, what the outcomes will be, and what benefits they will get tomorrow by investing their resources in these activities today.

How does simply adopting a goal do all that?

First, by expressing the long-term goal in the language of OAIS and TDR it assures participants that today’s activities will ensure long-term access to information that is important to their communities.

Second, by putting the focus on the users of the information it demonstrates to our local communities that we are doing this for them. This will help make it practical to invest needed resources in the necessary work. The goal focuses on users of information by explicitly saying that our actions have been and will be designed to provide content and services for specific user groups (Designated Communities in OAIS terminology).

Third, by focusing on an infrastructure rather than isolated projects, it provides an opportunity for libraries to benefit more by participating than by not participating.

The key to delivering these benefits lies in the concept of Designated Communities. In the paper-and-ink world, libraries were limited in who they could serve. “Users” had to be local; they had to be able to walk into our buildings. It was difficult and expensive to share either collections or services, so we limited both to members of our funding institution or a geographically-local community. In the digital world, we no longer have to operate under those constraints. This means that we can build collections for Designated Communities that are defined by discipline or subject or by how a community uses digital information. This is a big change from defining a community by its institutional affiliation or by its members’ geographical proximity to an institution or to each other.

This means that each participating institution can benefit from the contributions of all participating institutions. To use a simple example, if ten libraries each invested the cost of developing collections and services for two DCs, all ten libraries (and their local/institutional communities) would get the benefits of twenty specific collections and services. There are more than one thousand Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) libraries.

Even more importantly, this model means that the information-users will get better collections of the information they need and will get services that are tailored to how they look for, select, and use that information.

This approach may seem unconventional to government information specialists who are familiar with agency-based collections and services. The digital world allows us to combine the benefits of agency-based acquisitions with DC-based collections and services.

This means that we can still use the agency-based model for much of our work while simultaneously providing collections for DCs. For example, it is probably always more efficient and effective to identify, select, and acquire information by focusing on the the output of an agency. It is certainly easier to ensure comprehensiveness with this approach. It is often easier to create metadata and do QA for a single agency at a time. And information content can be easily stored and managed using the same agency-based approach. And information stored by agency can be viewed and served (through use of metadata and APIs) as a single “virtual” collection for a Designated Community. Any given document, dataset, or database may show up in the collections of several DCs, and any given “virtual” collection can easily contain content from many agencies.

For example, consider how this approach would affect a Designated Community of economists. A collection built to serve economists would include information from multiple agencies (e.g., Commerce, Council of Economic Advisors, CBO, GAO, NEC, USDA, ITA, etc. etc.). When one library built such a collection and provided services for it, every library with economists would be able better serve their community of economists. And every economist at every institution would be able to more easily find and use the information she needs. The same advantages would be true for DCs based on kind of use (e.g. document-based reading; computational textual-analysis; GIS; numeric data analysis; re-purposing and combining datasets; etc.).

Summary

We believe that adopting this goal will have several benefits. It will help attract more libraries to participate in the essential work that needs to be done after information is captured. It will provide a clear path for planning the long-term preservation of the information acquired. It will provide better collections and services to more users more efficiently and effectively than could be done by individual libraries working on their own. It will demonstrate the value of libraries to our local user-communities, our parent institutions, and funding agencies.

Authors:

James A. Jacobs, Librarian Emeritus, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Federal Government Information Librarian, Stanford University