Info agencies built on paper shift to meet demands of digital age

Two legislative-branch agencies built on paper are working hard to reinvent themselves as Congress’s consumption of and demand for digital information increases.

“We’re responding to technology because technology is affecting how information is created and distributed,” Robert Dizard, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress (LoC), told The Hill.

According to Dizard, the “great majority” of the library’s products are now delivered electronically to lawmakers and staff, a far cry from when the agency was founded in the early 19th century.

Leaders at the Government Printing Office (GPO) report a similar congressional demand for digital data. Paper might have served as the agency’s primary medium when it was created in 1860, but the rise of the Internet has significantly changed the GPO’s strategy.

“Today, I would say we’re partnering with Congress as they move forward to transform into less of a paper factory … and more into digital information,” said Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks.

What has resulted are two careful balancing acts for a pair of agencies struggling to fulfill the changing needs of a tradition-steeped Congress that has gained a reputation as a digital backwater.

For instance, rules dictating the use of electronic devices on the House floor are readopted only once every two years, during which time technology can take leaps and bounds forward.

The GPO produces both print and digital information materials as it aims to meet Congress’s needs.

The agency still produces paper copies of the Congressional Record, Federal Register and Federal Budget but in far smaller quantities. In the 1990s, the GPO printed 20,000 copies of the Congressional Record per day; today it’s down to 2,800.

Much of that data has migrated to the agency’s online database, FDsys, which boasts more than 680,000 available titles and has racked up more than 200 million retrievals since it was launched in 2009, Vance-Cooks said.

As a result, the agency has witnessed a sea change in its workforce.

“Our skill sets are changing,” Vance-Cooks said, noting that many new agency hires are technologically savvy and have knowledge of database management.

Most striking, however, is the shift away from labor-intensive practices.

“If you look at the historical content of GPO, when we were still using totally conventional printing processes, it took 8,000 people to get work done to support Congress,” said GPO communications officer and congressional liaison Andy Sherman.

But since the agency started using digital systems in the mid-1970s, it has consistently decreased its staff size, which today stands at 1,900. That’s meant a reduction in costs of almost 70 percent, according to Sherman, from a 1970s congressional printing budget of about $80 million a year (or $240 million in today’s dollars) to $83 million this year.

“The savings to the taxpayers from the technological conversion of GPO has just been tremendous,” he said.

Advances in technology have not prompted the same reductions in workforce or funding requirements for the LoC, however.

“To this point, the digital [information] has added to our work requirements,” Dizard said.

“Digital technology presents challenges in terms of acquisition and preservation,” he added. “The Library serves as the record of America’s creativity. So one of the challenges for us is, as more and more information is created electronically, how will we capture that, how will we preserve it and how will we provide access to it?”

In addition to procuring, cataloging and disseminating data, the LoC must preserve information in all formats. And new technological advances are not always as reliable as their predecessors.

Researchers at the LoC have determined that the lifespan of some modern media, including CDs and DVDs, can be as little as 15 to 20 years, at which time the material degrades and the information is lost, unless transferred to more stable formats.

“There is a hesitancy to go strictly to digital too quickly because of the uncertainties about long-term preservation,” Dizard said.

While the LoC still acquires many titles in physical formats, the agency is dedicated to providing an increasing amount of digital legislative data to Congress and the public.

Technology has significantly changed how congressional research is done, what members and their staffs want, how that information is delivered and on what devices, Dizard said.

The public has also demanded greater current and historical legislative data, as well as increased functionality and faster search capabilities, he added. Many users also want such information to be accessible on tablet computers and smartphones.

“We’re working aggressively to provide both additional information and greater functionality on our congressional system … as well as our public system,” Dizard said.

Though both agencies are in the midst of great changes, their leaders are emphatic that an increasingly paperless society is far from the death knell for Congress’s library and printing office. How the GPO and LoC do business might be shifting, but their core missions remain the same.

“The Library is an institution built on obtaining, preserving and providing access to information, regardless of format,” Dizard said. “We’ve always had to adapt to new formats … We’ve literally been dealing with this for a century. Now it’s just a situation that changes more rapidly and with a broader impact probably than ever before.”

Vance-Cooks echoed the sentiment, noting that GPO’s role is not to provide Congress with paper, but to provide lawmakers and the public with information in whatever format they require.

“People always say, ‘Well, gee, would GPO be around if we didn’t have paper, because we can access the information on the Internet?’ ” she said. What “people don’t realize is we’re the ones who put the information on the Internet to begin with. So you will always need someone at GPO.”