MIT Libraries launches initiative to revise government information storage laws

‘Government information is disappearing,’ event organizer says

Members of the MIT community gathered for a discussion in 4-251 Oct. 19 with the aim of publishing a manifesto on the revision of Title 44 of the US Code, which governs the dissemination of government information. The event was co-organized by MIT Libraries and the Engineering Activism organization.

“In the age of print, libraries get physical copies of documents and offer access. But now we get a lot less physical copies. While for digital publications, it is way easier for the government to delete or alter its content. Government information is disappearing,” Karrie Peterson, an event organizer from the MIT Libraries, said during the discussion.

Government documents, including budgets, judicial publications, congressional documents, are printed and binded by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), and sent to, stored at, and conveyed to the general public through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). MIT Libraries is one such Federal Depository Library, providing any U.S. citizen with free access to the federal depository collections.

The laws underpinning the FDLP have remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. “Clearly, the law is out of date in that it frames the issues of government transparency as something tied to the world of printed publications,” Albert Carter, an event organizer from Engineering Activism wrote in an email to The Tech.

Davita Vance-Cooks, director of the GPO, charged a review on the modernization of Title 44, Chapter 19 in June, and the Depository Library Council (DLC) requested ideas from the public. Chris Bourg, Director of MIT Libraries, offered some guiding principles and suggestions in a response to the DLC. “The MIT Libraries have a keen interest in the health of the FDLP, and believe its effective operation is essential to the health of our democracy,” Bourg wrote.

Other challenges Peterson recognized include easy, convenient access. “Government information collection is giant and complicated. Whether in print or in digital form such as databases, they should be presented in a way that people can easily search, find, and analyze.”

Engineering Activism is a graduate student organization aiming to leverage the specific technology skills of MIT community to social and political changes, while the MIT Libraries is very concerned about an equitable, neutral, and inclusive information sharing ecosystem. Thus, the parties had overlapping interests in government transparency and partnered up to work on the manifesto.

“A very good role for MIT students and researchers is to help frame what government transparency should look like in the digital age. It's a technical topic that's filled with jargon and specialized information, not many people have heard of it, and yet, it touches our lives in incredible ways … It's the primary way in which people can get primary source materials,” Carter wrote.

Two relevant documents were referred to during discussion: the response to the DLC by Bourg, and a manifesto from the Stanford University Libraries Aug. 4. Participants decided that the principles of an ideal FDLP include privacy for citizens, free access and free use, modernized scope and preservation for digital information. On the technical side, specific conducive technology such as metadata, cryptographic keys, optical character recognition are cited.

A follow-up session is scheduled for Oct. 26 at 5 p.m. in 4-251. Meanwhile, MIT community members are welcome to contribute ideas to the manifesto to