Libraries as Gateways to Information - the Federal Depository Library

Shu-fang Hsia Lin
Government Documents Librarian
St. Johns University

I. Introduction

1. Federal Depository Library Program; a brief note

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) was originated from the Act of 1813 [3 Stat. 140] when Congress authorized additional copies of the House and Senate Journals and other Congressional documents be printed and distributed to institutions outside the Federal Government.

In 1858, a Joint Resolution [11 Stat. 368] authorized each Representative to designate a depository in his or her district. And one year later in 1859, each Senator was also authorized to designate one depository in the state he or she represented.

Title 44 of the U. S. Code and the Freedom of Information Act provides an important statutory framework for federal information dissemination. Title 44 Section 19 of the U. S. Code (44 USC 19) requires all federal agencies' informational documents, published at the Government expenses, have to be made available to the Superintendent of Documents for distribution to Depository Libraries, except a relatively small percentage of documents that belong to one of the following categories:


  1. strictly administrative/operational purposes with no public interest or educational value;
  2. classified materials for reasons of national security;
  3. publications must be sold in order to be self-sustaining for the agency.

Government publications were distributed to all designated libraries from the beginning of the Depository Program in 1813 to 1922 when a law in 1923 [42 Stat. 436] changed this practice. By that law, libraries could make their selection in advance through the classified List of United States Government Publications.

Until the Depository Library Act of 1962 (P.L. 87-579) libraries had to retain forever what they selected except for superseded issues. P.L. 87-579 allows libraries to dispose depository materials, with the permission from their respective Regionals, after five years' retention. Each state has one designated "Regional Library" to receive all publications distributed through the Program, and keep them permanently for archival purposes.

In the FDLP, only the 53 Regionals are obligated to receive all Government publications. The rest depository libraries, that is, the selectives, select only categories of publications to meet the needs of their primary clientele and the general public needs in the Congressional District.

From the Act of 1813 to present, the Federal Depository Program has grown and developed into a system of close to 1400 Federal Depository Libraries and over 7,000 class stems today.

2. U. S. Government Printing Office and the FDLP

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and the Government Printing Office (GPO) have been intertwined for almost a hundred years. The 1860 Printing Act authorized the Superintendent of Public Printing to execute the public printing himself and to be solely in charge of administrating all related matters. The title of "Superintendent of Public Printing" was changed to "Public Printer" in 1876.

In order to consolidate Congressional Printing, the Government Printing Office began its public printing monopoly in 1861. Prior to that, all Congressional printing had been handled by private firms.

A landmark legislation of public printing laws, the Printing Act of 1895 centralized all public printing, and, transferred the office of Superintendent of Documents from the Dept. of the Interior to the Govt. Print. Off., which also paid all distribution expenses.

GPO has been the world's most prolific publisher. The documents, covering a wide variety of subjects, appear in monograph, serial, looseleaf, pamphlet, poster, map, microfiche, CD-ROM, and electronic forms. They come from all types of sources of the three branches of the Federal Government.

II. Depository Library's Role in Information Dissemination

1. Gateway to Government Publications

The mission of the Federal Depository Program is to provide free public access to information produced by the Federal Government through designated libraries in various Congressional districts. While Depository Libraries have the privilege of receiving government publications free of charge, they also make a legal commitment to provide government information to the general public, especially in their respective localities.

The primary goal of FDLP is to provide the general public with a means of free access to government documents, which are published at taxpayers' expenses. While the underlying principles is that in a proper functioned democratic society, citizens have a right to information contained in Government Documents, and the government has an obligation to ensure the availability and free access to those publications. Thus, Depository Libraries play an important role in availing the Federal Government to disseminate information on the one hand, and, to provide access for all citizens to obtain information from the Government, on the other.

Under the direction of its Collection Development Policy, each selective depository library selects, receives, organizes, preserves, and makes U. S. Government Publications easily accessible to users. Just like other types of libraries, a Depository Library also serves the following functions:


  1. to select, receive, organize, preserve U. S. Government Publications and other necessary reference tools in accessing documents;
  2. to provide reference services, retrieve/disseminate resources that will assist patrons in their research and other informational needs;
  3. to facilitate efficient documents management, bibliographical control, inventory and weeding.

Each Depository Library plays an important role in information dissemination, and serves as a gateway to Government information, especially for people in its respective locality.

2. Taking Information to the User

Depository Libraries are, by law, obligated to provide free public access to the governments documents collection, which remains to be the property of the U. S. Government. Therefore, in some private institutions where libraries only serve their own patrons, their depository collection should still be free access to all, which includes but not limited to proper signage, restriction free, physically accessible, etc. In assuring public access, Depository Libraries are also obligated to promote public awareness of the FDLP's mission as well as the depository collection. Along the lines of assisting users in government information retrieval, in-house reference guides, handouts, and instructions are produced. Occasionally referrals are made to other documents/federal information repositories in the region when deemed necessary. Depository Libraries serve as an effective vehicle to carry out Washington's Mission in "taking Government information to the People", which ensures a wide availability of government publications to people in all localities.

III. Depository Libraries' Challenges in the Age of Change

1. Government Information in Electronic Format

GPO has been decreasing in massive paper printing of documents through the past two decades, due to significant cuttings in funds for printing and publishing from the federal expenditure. Budgetary constrains have deteriorated GPO's once centralized government printing. Since 1977 GPO has been increasingly producing more and more documents in microfiche format to reduce amount of paperwork, to decrease expenditure, and to save storage space for most libraries. At present, nearly two-thirds of items distributed to Depository Libraries from GPO are in microfiche format.

Thanks to the rapid advances in information technology in the past few years, GPO has been putting its full force in heading for distributing government information in electronic format, i. e. CD-ROMs, floppy diskettes, Electronic Bulletin Boards, on-line databases, etc. For example, from 1991-1994 alone, more than 800 CD-ROM products were distributed to Depository Libraries. GPO is marching into an electronic era in the 90's. Major developments can be summed up as follows:


  1. Communication through E-Mai
    As more and more Depository Libraries' staff have Internet connection and subscribed to the listserv GOVDOC-L (a professional discussion group on government documents issues), the Administrative Notes (a semi-monthly official newsletter of the FDLP) has become a regular feature on GOVDOC-L since June 1993. In March 1994, GPO officially adopted GOVDOC-L as the principal channel of administrative communications with Depository Libraries.


  2. Electronic Bulletin Boards
    Along the same line, in May 1994, GPO announced that the Federal Bulletin Board (FBB), a fee-based self-service access to some government information in electronic format, was made available through the FDLP free of charge. More and more electronic bulletin boards have been put out by various federal agencies ever since.


  3. GPO Access
    In 1993 Congress passed a landmark legislation, the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-40). The GPO Access Act comprises of three services:


    1. Online System of Access:
      Authorized all Depository Libraries to have free access to the GPO online publications.
    2. Locator Service:
      Required the Superintendent of Documents to maintain an electronic directory of Federal electronic information.
    3. Electronic Storage Facility:
      Establish and operate an electronic storage facility for Federal electronic information.

The GPO Access service started with three full-text databases:

  • The Federal Register, 1994-
  • The Congressional Record, 1994-
  • The Congressional Bills, 1993-
  • Other databases have been added as they become available.

This new GPO Access program was officially inaugurated in June 1994. It enables Depository Libraries, with a validated registration with GPO, to provide free off-site access through their own computer system. And, GPO has been expanding the availability of the GPO Access WAIS (Wide Area Information Server) system by developing model gateways for no-fee public access to GPO's databases, such as the LUIS System in University of Illinois, the QUEST System in Seattle Public Library, the COIN System in University of Missouri, to name a few. GPO's direction is to extend the gateway program nationwide, and to use Depository Libraries to link the general public with the GPO system. Using Depository Libraries as gateways to provide no-fee off-site public access to GPO's online services is a vital step toward the electronic based depository library of the future. Effective Dec. 1, 1995, GPO Access became free of charge to all users.

2. Depository Library and Electronic Government Information

This is an age of information technology revolution. The FDLP is definitely on its way to a period of transition. On the Dec. 29, 1995 issue of the Administrative Notes, the Superintendent of Documents officially announced a Transition Plan for the Electronic Federal Depository Library Program, FY 1996- FY 1998, and a Policy Statement on "Electronic Information Access and Dissemination Services of the FDLP", in which it states, "The FDLP will rapidly shift to a more electronically based program." Based on the direction from Congress, GPO expects "nearly all of the information provided through the Federal Depository Library (FDLP) will be electronic by the end of fiscal year 1998". And, Depository libraries are expected to" provide no-fee public access to information identified in SOD Pathway Services as well as to information made available directly through the FDLP", and "offer users access to work stations with a graphical user interface, CD- ROM capability, Internet connections, and the ability to access, download, and print extensive documents."

Retrieval of electronic data requires capable personnel and compatible facilities. For Depository Libraries, the immediate critical issues involved are:


  1. Staff Training To have library staff fully trained to be able to facilitate extraction of electronic information;
  2. Appropriate Equipment To meet "The Minimum Technical Guidelines" required by GPO; to select proper hardware, software; to house/store electronic products;
  3. Library Funding To obtain adequate funding to support the above two;
  4. Policy Statement To devise new Collection Development Policy; to establish Public Access Policy.

Without resolving those issues, to most Americans, GPO would only be a huge warehouse of unused Federal government information. How to meet the challenge of the electronic information in future? How to keep up with the expanding world of electronic information delivery, and, more importantly, how to select useful information from the proliferation of electronic data to meet users' individual needs? As the Superintendent of Documents Wayne Kelley pointed out, "Electronic publishing and dissemination technologies are shifting the emphasis from what a library owns to what the library user can access."

IV. Conclusion

In recognition of the growing importance of information technology as a means of communication in a democratic government, the Clinton Administration sponsored a National Electronic Open Meeting on the subject of "People and Their Government in the Information Age", from May 1-14, 1995. The primary goal of the meeting was to enable as many Americans as possible to participate in the dialogue, to encourage public opinion/discussion/comments on the respective roles of the Federal/State/local governments, the library community, etc., in developing an effective and efficient government. The Meeting was divided into five Internet discussion groups, among which "Access to Government Information" was one of the five topics discussed. Based on the fundamental belief that government information is a public asset, this Open Meeting was an extension of the Federal government's efforts to establish a framework for government's roles and activities in the information age.

The "National Information Infrastructure Initiative" has been on the priority agenda of the Federal government. The current trend within the Federal government is to collect, store, and disseminate information in electronic format, i.e., building more and more the so-called "Information Super Highway." A special concern is that Americans might become divided between information "haves" and information "have nots" when most Government publication are only disseminated in electronic format. How to ensure a free access to the "Information Superhighway" for all Americans? The local Depository Library is the answer.



1. "GPO Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993" (PL 103-40, 8 June 1993), U.S. Statutes at Large 107, pp.112-114.

2. McGarr, Sheila. "Snapshots of the Federal Depository Library Program", Administrative Notes 15:11 (Aug.15, 1994) pp.6-13.

3. Morehead, Joe and Mary Fetzer. Introduction to U. S. Government Information Sources, 4th ed. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1992.

4. "Paperwork Reduction act of 1995" (PL 104-13, 22 May, 1995)

5. U. S. Congress. House. Committee on Government Operations. Paperwork Reduction and Federal Information Resources Management Act of 1990, H. Rpt. 101-927, Washington, GPO, 1990.

6. U. S. Government Print. Off. Superintendent of Documents. Library Programs Service. "The Electronic Federal Depository Library Program: Transition Plan, FY 1996-FY 1998", Administrative Notes, 16:18 (Dec. 29, 1995) pp. 1-26.

7. U. S. Government Print. Off. 100 GPO Years 1861-1961: a History of United States Public Printing. Washington, GPO, 1961.

8. U. S. Government Print. Off. "Responses to Depository Library Council Recommendations from the 1994 Spring Meeting: Policy Issues", Administrative Notes, 15:13 (Oct. 15, 1994) pp. 14- 33.

9. U. S. Off. of the President. Technology for America's Economic Growth: A New Direction to Build Economic Strength. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1993), pp.28-30.

Copyright © 1997 Shu-fang Hsia Lin.
Submitted to CALA E-J on May 15, 1997.