Daniel P. O'Mahony
Brown University Library
Senate Committee on Rules and Administration on
Public Access to Government Information in the 21st Century
Tuesday, June 18, 1996, 9:00 a.m.
301 Russell Senate Office Building
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, my name is Daniel
O'Mahony. I am the Government Documents librarian at Brown
University in Providence, RI. This past year I also served as
chair of the Depository Library Council, a national advisory
board to the Public Printer. The Council has been one of the
Advisory Groups this past year during the GPO Study to Identify
Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic
Federal Depository Library Program.
I am delighted to be here today as the Committee begins to
examine public access in the 21st century, and I appreciate the
opportunity to offer you my perspective as someone who works day
in and day out with all forms of government information.
My job as a documents librarian is to enable Rhode Islanders
to gain access to government information. To effectively
accomplish this, I rely heavily on the products, services, and
support provided by the Federal Depository Library Program. This
program, based on Madison's vision of an informed citizenry, has
successfully fulfilled its role in meeting the government
information needs of the American people for the past 139 years.
But its mission never has been as important as it is today.
In the "information age" of the 21st century, our very
survival -- as a nation and as individuals -- will be determined
by how successfully we utilize information. It is imperative
that we make it as easy as possible for people to find, access,
and use government information in ways that are meaningful for
them and equitable and economical for us all. My message to you
is that the most effective and cost-efficient way to achieve this
is to strengthen the Depository Library Program.
Let me give you just a brief glimpse of the present
landscape of electronic government information out there. On the
one hand we have the promise of new technology. A student at
Brown last year, for her senior project, used a number of
electronic government sources, including the 1990 census on CD-
ROM and the EPA Toxic Release Inventory database, to analyze the
presence of lead-based paint in Providence homes with small
children. The results were shared with local agencies to help
identify neighborhoods at risk for lead poisoning. Electronic
government information made available at Brown helping the
On the other hand, however, we have the daily pitfalls of
the electronic reality, with which I am sure all of you are very
familiar. Another patron recently needed voting and registration
statistics for the 1994 election. This information is now only
available electronically. Despite two phone calls to government
offices and an hour of searching the Internet, the patron could
not find the data anywhere. The patron then asked the depository
librarian, who luckily remembered coming across this file once
before when looking for something else. When the patron finally
downloaded the data, for some reason the format of the file made
the data totally unreadable. It took three experienced computer
technicians over three hours to determine the problem and
reconstruct the information into a format that the patron could
Obviously, we are still a long way off from easy and instant
access to government information at the touch of a button or the
click of a mouse. We must be realistic in our expectations
about how quickly we can implement electronic technologies,
and not lose sight of the overriding goal of improving access
for the public at large.
So how do we get there from here? As we look to the 21st
century, what can we do to improve the system? How can we make
it easier for the public to get the government information they
Well, first they have to be able to find it. Anyone who has
attempted to locate anything on the World Wide Web -- or for that
matter, relocate again what you found there just YESTERDAY --
knows firsthand the confusion and frustration of users of
electronic information. There needs to be a effective,
standardized, and centrally coordinated mechanism for locating
and cataloging government information on the Internet. We can't
rely on serendipity or librarians' memories.
Second, the information has to be there when we need it.
Some of the most heavily used documents in our library are older
census reports and congressional documents from the 19th century.
Fortunately, we have the tools and the structures in place that
enable us to preserve these printed materials. We must be sure
that there are adequate and reliable systems to guarantee that
electronic information will be preserved as well.
Third, we must recognize that print is still very much a
viable and cost-effective format. Without question, some
information is highly suited for electronic access. When bank
officers and hospital administrators come into our library and
need to use the Federal Register, I don't point them to our room
full of microfiche cabinets; I sit them down in front of a
computer and show them how to search the Federal Register online
through the GPO Access system. But ALL information is not always
appropriate in electronic format only. Congressional hearings,
and documents like the high school debate materials, are
excellent examples of publications best suited for print. As we
plan for the future, we must recognize the relative advantages of
the many information formats at our disposal and understand the
continued need for printed materials.
Fourth, in the highly decentralized world of electronic
information, there is a critical need for centrally coordinated
library-related services through the Superintendent of Documents.
1,400 depository libraries individually making arrangements with
hundreds of federal agencies for access to government information
equals chaos and inequitable service.
Finally, we must strengthen the support system. At Brown,
we have over 250,000 books in our federal documents collection.
For any one of these volumes, any person can walk in off the
street, take one off the shelf, and have a decent chance of
finding -- and then READING -- the information they are looking
for. By contrast, we have only about 1,100 CD-ROMs. But every
one of these has its own equipment needs, software requirements,
and other special idiosyncrasies. We need common standards,
sensible documentation, and practical training to give libraries
and users a fighting chance against the tidal wave of electronic
information heading our way.
Mr. Chairman, there is no question that electronic
technologies can greatly improve public access to government
information. I see examples of this everyday. We must be
certain, however, that, in our efforts to utilize these new
technologies, we do not erect new barriers for the public.
In closing, I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator
Ford, Senator Pell, and the other Members of the Committee for giving
full hearing to these important issues, and for soliciting the input
of the depository library community in that process. I also am
delighted to see represented on the panel this morning a USER of
government information -- probably the most important perspective
of all. I would like to offer for the record, Mr. Chairman, a
compilation of statements by other users of the Depository Library
Program included in this publication recently put together by the
Depository Library Council entitled, "Fulfilling Madison's Vision."
I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to appear before you
this morning, and I thank you for your consideration of my comments.
I would be pleased to take any questions you may have.