Americans connect with government at the library – so fix the Federal Depository Library Program

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This week, nearly 500 librarians and library advocates from across the United States are visiting Capitol Hill as part of National Library Legislative Day. They will meet with their elected officials to discuss issues that enable libraries to serve their communities, from broadband access to balanced copyright laws to federal funding.

Here in the capitol, events like this happen every day, so we may not recognize how truly remarkable they are. Even in a swipe-right age, millions of Americans engage in the indispensable work of our republic. For many people, that journey passes through a familiar institution: their local library.

{mosads}Libraries help the public access all kinds of information, including information about government and politics. You are likely to find voter registration forms, often with volunteers from a local civic organization encouraging people to fill them out. In libraries that offer meeting space to the public, you may find a legislator’s town hall meeting or members of a local political club. You will find people using the free Wi-Fi or computers that libraries provide to read about the political issues of the day and sharing their views on social media.

Another way that libraries provide information about the government is by partnering directly with government agencies. One such partnership is the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), a federal program administered by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO). More than 1,100 libraries across the United States participate in the program, which dates back to 1895.

The FDLP collects laws, regulations, and other publications by federal agencies that the public may be interested in. The program catalogs these publications to make them easier to find and provides them to participating libraries, whether online or in print. FDLP libraries then provide the information to businesses, the legal system, researchers, and the general public – at no cost to the users. For instance, a business might seek help finding a rule in the Code of Federal Regulations to understand their compliance obligations; a lawyer might review the Congressional Record to learn about the intent of a statute; or a historian might review the Public Papers of the president to study how different administrations approached an issue.

The FDLP contributes to the everyday labors of democracy by advancing citizen engagement and facilitating government transparency. However, much of the law behind the FDLP has not been updated since the 1960s – and it’s showing its age. Because the practices of libraries, government publishers, and information seekers has changed, the FDLP must change to keep up.

Today, Congress is looking at how to update the program to meet today’s needs. In 2017, the Committee on House Administration held a series of hearings to review the program and received testimony from librarians, the GPO, and information policy experts. All affirmed the program’s importance and ongoing benefit to the public, and all agreed that the law on the books doesn’t meet the information needs of the digital age.

Following those hearings, committee members introduced bipartisan legislation to update and strengthen the FDLP. Led by Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Bob Brady (D-Pa.), the committee members introduced the FDLP Modernization Act (H.R. 5305) in March 2018 and held a markup in April.

The bill’s commonsense fixes would remove outdated program rules such as requiring participating libraries to hold a specific minimum number of books in their collections, an anachronism in 2018 when library services range from online databases to 3D printing. In addition, the bill would bring the law in line with today’s electronic publishing practices and create new partnerships to safeguard invaluable documents of our nation’s history.

While this program may not be well-known, its footprint in communities across America makes the FDLP a vital tool for helping the public connect with their government, its laws and democratic processes. Libraries take pride in this work. We are grateful that Congress has taken the first bipartisan steps toward modernizing this program, and we are hopeful that, this year, Congress will get the job done.

Jim Neal is president of the American Library Association and University Librarian Emeritus at Columbia University. Follow him @jamesneal

Tags Bob Brady Gregg Harper

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