Gov Docs online – can you trust them?

This is something that only until recently started keeping me up at night. My LibPunk partner in crime, Sarah Glassmeyer, raised the issue with me once and it took me a second to get what she was saying. I mean, I understand why the legal community cares about the authenticity of an online document as it pertains to law, but why should I? That’s not should in a “screw authenticity” sense, but more of a “is this really an issue?” sense. I’ll admit, I sort of took it for granted that public agencies would put stuff online and we would trust it. Silly me.

Then I spoke to some other law librarians, and I realized this is an issue that more people should be worried about. Gov Docs Guy had a post earlier this month titled Claire Germain on Digitizing the World’s Laws: Authentication and Preservation. Here is a link to Germain’s paper. This is a topic that AALL has been working on for quite some time. I’m now happy that somebody else is.

It’s weird to me that I haven’t heard much from SLA’s Gov Info Division on this topic, though they have co-sponsored session about scholarly communication with SLA’s Academic Division. (I’m a planner for SLA-ACAD, FYI.) I’ll admit, this hasn’t really been on the radar for the Transportation Division either, even though we all rely heavily on government sponsored (and published) research/reports/standards/guidelines. There is a sweeping trend for agencies to stop issuing their reports in paper, and going exclusively electronic where there’s the new issue of discovery and archiving. I think that because we’ve been so focused on collecting, cataloging, and trying to preserve these documents, authenticity has just been sort of assumed. I mean, we still have some agencies who issue (contractually mandated) reports sort of under the cloak of night… hidden on some weird directory with no link to the outside world, and then they delete it months later. These errant engineers feel that’s due diligence. It drives the librarians (and other researchers) up the wall.

I guess it all comes down to the fact that gov docs and gov info is a mess. A huge intermingled mess. The requirements differ from agency to agency, tier of government and so forth. The end users also have a wide range of needs. You have the legal community who want to keep the ducks in a row and prevent (or be able to act) on litigation. Then you have the librarians and records management people (not always the same thing!) who want to keep things accessible (or not). There are also the producers who issue the report to be compliant, but who also might not really see the value in the report other than to fulfill an obligation. At the end you have the end user who wants the document. They care that it’s authentic for sure. They also expect the thing to be accessible and to exist. I don’t think our needs are all that different, but we need more coordination… which is a huge intermingled mess for now.