Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


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Issue Brief: Disappearing Government Information—August 2017


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Access to government information is a fundamental principle in a democratic society. Particularly in the digital environment, government information is a driver for economic and social progress as well as a predicate for an informed citizenry. From 2009 through 2016, open government was a hallmark of the Obama administration, which observed that, “openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.” Libraries and archives have historically served as stewards of government documents, and in recent years, these institutions have paid special attention to the unique vulnerability of information during changeover in presidential administrations. Since 2008, these efforts have been spearheaded by archivists through projects like the End of Term Web Archive. In 2017, these issues have particular currency as contested information has been removed from numerous government websites and government officials are increasingly relying on commercial social media platforms such as Twitter to communicate with the public. In response, many librarians, scholars, archivists, and other members of the public have come together to preserve government information with projects such as DataRefuge and Libraries+ Network.

All citizens need access to the government information currently under threat and the law makes it clear that librarians and archivists have a distinct role in preserving it. Constitutional law vests special authority in librarians and archivists making collection decisions and copyright law grants unique exceptions for library archiving, as well as immunization from statutory damages when librarians and archivists act according to their principles. With these privileges comes a singular responsibility to steward at-risk government information. Librarians and archivists should act with confidence to preserve and share this information.