June 8, 2018, is a significant anniversary for public access to government information: it’s 25 years since the enactment of the Government Printing Office (GPO) Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993, or the GPO Access Act for short. While it’s not a household name, it was a foundational law in driving government use of the internet to provide access to information.
Signed into law in the first months of President Bill Clinton’s administration, the GPO Access Act required GPO “to establish a means for providing the public with online access to electronic public information of the Federal Government.” This made it one of the earliest federal laws requiring the government to provide information online. (Then-Sen. Al Gore, noted proponent of the internet, had sponsored a similar bill the year before.) Even the first White House website was not established until more than a year later.
ALA had advocated for such legislation in the preceding years, and ALA’s Council adopted a resolution commending the law’s enactment at the next ALA conference (in New Orleans – what a coincidence!). The resolution presciently noted, “Enactment of this Act is a splendid first step in establishing a framework that will guarantee the public equitable, free, and easy access to government information in electronic format.”
In his signing statement, President Clinton commented, “The lessons learned from this program will be used by federal agencies to develop the most useful and cost-effective means of information dissemination.” With 25 years of hindsight, we can see how the GPO Access Act pointed the way forward. The system it created – first called GPO Access, then FDsys, and now govinfo – has been a model for providing public access to government information online, including through libraries.
The GPO Access Act is also notable as the most recent major revision to the laws governing the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). Needless to say, much has changed in the past 25 years – in libraries, publishing and information access – and the law has become increasingly out-of-step with today’s needs. The bipartisan FDLP Modernization Act would build on the 25-year legacy of the GPO Access Act, updating and strengthening the program for the next 25 years (or more). Now, as then, we need the advocacy of the library community to improve the public’s access to government information, in libraries and online.
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