Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More web obfuscation from the Federal Government

From Computerword, via LIS News comes this story about NARA abdicating their responsibility to preserve digital content from the Federal Government. Normally, I would read an article like this and move on. Just another story about how organizations push content on to the web without any concern about access and usability. In this case, NARA prefers to have non-governmental agencies preserve content from the Federal Government.

Agency under fire for decision not to save federal Web content: "'The fact that digital preservation is done by others outside NARA isn't an excuse for NARA to abdicate their responsibility, but an argument that they should be capable of fulfilling it,' he said. 'As members of Congress and federal agencies increasingly move their work online, robust digital archiving will only become more important, so we can understand how our government is performing its duties.'"

However, I have a personal story on federal web content. I once worked in a Government Documents Depository that was 95%. The 95% meant that is collected 95% of the publications the government pushed out. Our library collected information sent to us by the Federal Government, collected information from the State government, and collected information from local governments. There are many valuable and interesting documents in all of these collections. This also one of the most complicated call number systems around. SuDoc, Superintendent of Government Documents call number system categorizes information by agency, not be subject. Each department has a letter, and the numbers branch out to refer to a division. The Department of the Interior is indicated by an I and then a number sequence would follow. I was responsible for organizing the paper collection.

Some of the document put out are very interesting. There are documents that show mining accidents that document what happened with illustrations. I can remember reading one where there was a child involved in a wall collapse. I can see the small child playing by the wall in the illustration just before the collapse. I don't think it needed an illustration. It's burned in my memory now. Some of the more amusing ones were call Preventative Maintenance, an Army document. It was a comic book that showed how to provide maintaince on weapons and vehicles. It was like Archie Comics meets Army maintenance.

Federal Documents were just coming online. MARC records would come in to identify which records would no longer be distributed in paper and then provide a PURL (Permanent URL). These links almost never pointed to an actually document, just the general webpage of the authoring organization. Crazy as I was, I began to look for the actual page for the document and place both the PURL and the url in the marc records for people to find. I went even further and placed these documents online. This webpage doesn't exist any longer. There was another university doing similar work, It stopped updating five years ago. Why is this important? You can't search for this information. It is buried in government webpage. I was also an intern for a government agency and my job was to search for fugitive documents. It is almost impossible to find these documents online.

It takes deep digging at the government agency to get at the information you want. So not only is no one preserving this information, it has been made extremely difficult to find. So when patrons come into our library asking for government services, we say it's online. It is almost a miracle if you can dig it out. This goes back to my post about poor career sites. The government needs to provide an easier way to get information and use services online. NARA shirking its duties is just another example of the Federal Government not taking information distribution seriously. All this information is extremely critical and once again, an agency responsible for distributing that information has passed it to libraries.

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