September 24, 1996
Letters to the Editor
The Washington Post
1515 L Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20071
Although we have agreed with many of your recent editorials on federal information policy, we were dismayed by the recent piece on "Congress on Microfiche" (September 16, 1996). It contains several statements which we would like to clarify. The Legislative Branch Appropriations Act of FY 1997 (P.L. 104-197) cuts funding for two important series of Congressional documents, the final bound Congressional Record (CR) and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. Beginning with the 105th Congress, both titles will be produced on CD-ROM, not in microfiche as your editorial would lead readers to believe.
The final bound Congressional Record is much more important than your unfortunate description conveys. Produced since 1873 as a continuous series, it is the official record of the proceedings and debates of Congress. The U.S. Congressional Serial Set, produced since 1813, is a national treasure. It includes Senate and House documents, Congressional committee reports, Presidential and other executive publications, and treaty materials.
The American public generally does not have access to the more recent bound CR in their local communities today. One of the reasons that Congress eliminated its funding beginning with volumes for 1991 was to save money on the costs of producing such a large series and of shipping heavy books to depository libraries. Only the 53 regional depository libraries have since received print volumes of the bound CR, but now even that funding has been cut as of the 105th Congress. Since the only available format for most libraries has been microfiche, 1,093 of the 1,381 federal depository libraries receive it in that format even though users strongly prefer print to microfiche. Less than top quality reader printers make viewing and printing difficult, especially for the general public. In addition, browsing is especially difficult with a microfiche product like the CR where print is small, the format is repetitive, and a user typically needs to read many pages.
Anxious to reduce budgets again, Congress is now taking a similarly short-sighted and ill-advised step with the Serial Set. Users will be forced to access this important title on CD-ROM, at a costly workstation where it can be used by only one person at a time, most-likely needing extensive librarian assistance, and with the user or the library faced with the costs of printing. In addition, the future of CD-ROM in terms of preservation is highly uncertain. Technological obsolescence almost certainly means that today's CD-ROM will be unusable in 50 years. How will the American public, students, teachers and the nation's historians learn then what we are doing today?
Indeed both titles provide valuable and necessary information for the American public, as well as for the legal and research communities where they are critical for the compilation of legislative histories. Both President Clinton and Congress are well aware of the benefits of electronic technologies in bringing government to the people, especially in the timeliness and breadth of information that can now be made available through the Internet. However, for some materials, print will always be the preferred format because it is authoritative and permanent. In the view of members of the American Association of Law Libraries, the final bound Congressional Record and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set are two such titles. We hope that Congress and the Government Printing Office will aggressively seek ways to reduce costs for these titles while preserving them in paper.
Robert L. Oakley
Washington Affairs Representative
American Association of Law Libraries