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The vanishing act of government documents – and what to do about it

by Sam-chin Li 

As Phyllis Creighton[i] and Anne Kingston have lamented,[ii] an enormous amount of information has disappeared from Canadian government websites. Access to government information is a basic requirement for a democratic society. This information is not only essential for researchers, historians and scientists to do their work, it is also critical to many aspects of every citizen’s life.

I would like to share my story of how lost government information has impacted my ability to carry out my job as a government information librarian. I have been digitizing Canadian government publications[iii] without applying for copyright permission based on the 2010 copyright statement from a news release of Crown Copyright and Licensing (CCL). The news release states, that for non-commercial purposes, “permission to reproduce Government of Canada works is no longer required.” However, in 2011, the link to this news release was broken. Instead, we found this information on the CCL site: “A permission/license is needed when a Government of Canada work is being reproduced.” After searching frantically everywhere for a print copy of the 2010 news release with no success, we were worried that if the University was sued for infringement of the crown copyright law, we would have no evidence to back us up.

Based on our horrible experience, we used the Wayback machine in November 2012 to archive the Crown copyright page[iv] when the policy changed again dispensing with the need for “permission to reproduce Government of Canada works.” However, this policy was changed again quietly in November 2013. Michael Geist, a law professor from the University of Ottawa, questioned Tony Clement, the then President of the Treasury Board, via twitter[v] about the end of the Treasury Board’s administration of Crown Copyright and the disappearance of the non-commercial license for reproducing Government of Canada works. Clement’s response was: “The Crown Copyright non-com policy still remains in effect for all depts. I’m posting a notice to that effect.” This time, we have printed a copy of Mr. Clement’s response for our file to support our digitization projects.

Government information, including laws, regulations, policies, reports, statistics and more, keep changing on a regular basis. No citizen has the time, energy or knowledge to keep track of all the changes and to produce an archival copy for evidence in case it is needed. This is why preserving point-in-time government information is so critical. However, only current information is available on most of the government websites and as of April 2014, Canadian government information[vi] is no longer available in print; it is now exclusively available electronically. An unclassified Treasury Board document,[vii] requested by British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association in 2013, revealed plans for  consolidation of over 1,500 Government of Canada websites into a single site by 2015. As the result, a large amount of information would be cut from government websites according to a vague guideline entitled ROT[viii] (Reduce Redundant, Outdated and Trivial content). Preserving government information has never been so critical.

Despite a legal mandate to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) stopped their web archiving activities within the federal government domain in late 2007 and ceased the legal deposit program for provincial and territorial government publications in 2012[ix]. . It was only in late 2013 that LAC resumed the web archiving activity of the federal government domain after intensive lobbying by the library community. However, provincial and territorial government publications are now out of the legal deposit mandate of the LAC. Thousands of second copies of the provincial and territorial official publications were shipped out from LAC in 2013. Libraries that requested titles to fill their gaps from this collection received not only the title requested but a whole box of publications where that title sat. University of Toronto Libraries are sorting out duplicate titles from this shipment for overseas exchange programs.

Libraries have been taking an active role in ensuring access to government information as they face the daily challenge of assisting users to locate government information in an ever-changing online environment. And despite the radical changes in government information policies and procedures in the last decade, libraries work to preserve access to these materials.

Many efforts are underway to preserve born-digital government information. Since October 2012, the Canadian Government Information Digital Preservation Network (CGI DPN)[x] initiated by Amanda Warkaruk, University of Alberta Libraries (UAL), applies the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) software to preserve digital collections of government information. With eleven member institutions across Canada, the purpose of the network is to ensure long-term access to government information through a geographically distributed, tamper-evident preservation infrastructure. Their first initiative is an archive of the Canadian Depository Services Program (DSP) e-collection. Secondly, web archiving of government websites is made possible by a consortium Archive-It account to harvest at-risk government content as the html format of this content is not within the mandate of the DSP. Lastly in 2015, a collaborative effort with DSP to report at-risk documents, with a spreadsheet[xi] to identify fugitive government documents was created by a sub-group of the CGI DPN.

In May 2012, the government announced that funding would be cut in 2013 for the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), a body that explored ways in which economic and environmental concerns could be reconciled. The government refused to keep the papers on the internet and refused an offer of a NGO to maintain the database free of charge[xii]. It was through a collaborative effort among a few Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), that a copy of NRTEE’s e-documents, including official and consultant reports, is available to the public. NRTEE offered their documents to OCUL and University of Toronto Libraries obtained a copy via an usb drive, University of Waterloo catalogued the documents and now a total of 245 of them are available to the public via the Scholars Portal e-book platform.[xiii]

In view of the massive loss of government web content in 2013, individual institutions[xiv], such as the University of Alberta Libraries and the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL)[xv] have been involved in archiving government websites using their institutional Archive-It accounts. UTL have also purchased the Global Wayback captures of the Canadian government websites from December 2007 to June 2013 to be integrated into their Archive-It account to fill the gap left by Library and Archives Canada. However, without a mandate, funding, or staff, libraries cannot continuously support this archival activity.

In light of the new government’s move to restore the long form census there’s greater hope that the long term access of government information will be systemically supported again to ensure public access over time. In the newly released 2016 Budget[xvi], the Government has allocated $12.9 million over five years to the Treasury Board Secretariat for enhancing access to government and personal information and $11.5 million for accelerating and expanding open data initiatives.

These are all welcome changes in an era of growing concern about the perpetual access to digital government information. However, any decision on budget cuts or policy changes can affect its direction again. The stewardship of this important and yet fragile information cannot rely on a politically favorite climate alone but should have appropriate legislation to ensure a comprehensive, trustworthy and long-term access to it. Right now, there is no legal obligation for the departments and agencies to submit their publications to the Publishing and Depository Services (PDS). Many departments were publishing pdf titles without a GC catalogue or ISBN number, there is no systemic way to keep track of what has been published. Thus, there’s no way to tell what is not acquired by the PDS or the Library and Archives of Canada.

Given that it is supposed to serves as the permanent repository of Canada’s documentary heritage, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) should develop a digital strategy to preserve the government’s documentary heritage for all levels of government in Canada. There is already an existing infrastructure to collect and provide one-stop access to selected digital federal and provincial government publications among the government and legislative libraries in Canada. Gallop Portal[xvii], established by the Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada (APLIC), brings together the significant government document repositories that have been built by individual legislative libraries and the PDS. Library and Archives Canada should seek the opportunity to work with them to extend the scope of preserving provincial and territorial government publications.

With more institutions in Canada involved in web archiving, Library and Archives Canada should also follow the example of the British Library[xviii] to cooperate with major libraries to capture government web domains, including provincial and municipal ones.

A trusted digital repository[xix], should be employed by the LAC to safeguard the authenticity, integrity and long-term access to digital government information. In order to ensure the comprehensiveness of digital government information, Library and Archives Canada should also take a leadership role in coordinating the government departments and agencies to design website content which is archival friendly. Currently, many databases or pages with interactive or dynamic content use Flash or JavaScript. This poses challenges for web archiving.

 

Since 1981, the library community has been working closely with the PDS through the Depository Services Program Advisory Committee (DSP-AC) to advise on its operations, policies, practices, plans, direction and services. It has been playing an active role for the past few years to ensure a smooth transition of analog to digital Canadian government information. With their expertise and knowledge, the library community has also stepped in to help preserve government information at the time when LAC was experiencing difficulty. At an early developmental stage of the Open Information Portal[xx], an advisory body to the LAC with stakeholders from the library community and from institutions which support the acquisition, preservation and long-term access of government information would also be beneficial. Collaboration is key to the stewardship of the evolving landscape of digital government information.

[i] Phyllis Creighton, “Erasing history”, Our Right to Know, accessed March 22, 2016, http://ourrighttoknow.ca/erasing-history/.

 

[ii] Anne Kingston, “Vanishing Canada: why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data”, Maclean’s, September 18, 2015, http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/vanishing-canada-why-were-all-losers-in-ottawas-war-on-data/.

 

[iii] “Canadian Government Publications Portal”, Internet Archive, accessed April 12, 2016, https://archive.org/details/governmentpublications&tab=about

 

[iv] “About Crown Copyright”, Wayback Machine, accessed March 23 2016,

https://web.archive.org/web/20120819234555/http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/ccl/aboutCrownCopyright.html.

 

[v] ”About Crown Copyright License”, Twitter, accessed March 23, 2016, https://twitter.com/TonyclementCPC/status/406805087068385280.

 

[vi] Publishing and Depository Services of Canada, “About the Depository Services Program”, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.publications.gc.ca/site/eng/programs/aboutDsp.html.

 

[vii] Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, ”Action Plan for the Renewal of the GC Web Presence”,(Unclassified document obtain by British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association),  https://fipa.bc.ca/library/Government%20Documents/GoC_web_plan_Part1.pdf.

 

[viii] University of Toronto, “Canadian Government Information”, Archive-It Collection 3608, https://wayback.archive-it.org/3608/20130819212359/http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ws-nw/wu-fe/rot-rid/index-eng.asp.

 

[ix] Library and Archives Canada, “Legal deposit exclusions”, Legal Deposit, accessed April 21, 2016,  http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/legal-deposit/Pages/legal-deposit.aspx#dep-exclusions

 

[x] “CGI Network”, PlnWiki, accessed March 23, 2016, http://plnwiki.lockss.org/wiki/index.php/CGI_network.

 

[xi] Michel-Adrien Sheppard, “Canadian Librarians Track down Fugitive Federal Government Documents”, accessed March 24, 2016, http://www.slaw.ca/2016/01/10/canadian-librarians-track-down-fugitive-federal-government-documents/.

 

[xii] Carol Linnitt, “Harper’s attack on science: no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”, Academic Matters, May 2013, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.academicmatters.ca/2013/05/harpers-attack-on-science-no-science-no-evidence-no-truth-no-democracy/.

 

[xiii] Scholars Portal, “Scholars Portal Books”, http://books2.scholarsportal.info/search.html?searchTerm=&searchField=All+Fields&collection=NRTEE&sortBy=relevance&limit=full_text.

 

[xiv] Vicent Gogolek, “Harper Government centralizing, slashing federal web info” Huffpost British Columbia, March 10, 2013, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/vincent-gogolek/harper-government-websites-access-to-information_b_2838916.html.

 

[xv] University of Toronto, “Canadian Government Information”, Archive-It Collection 3608, https://archive-it.org/collections/3608.

 

[xvi] Government of Canada.  “Budget 2016”, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/ch7-en.html#_Toc446106839.

 

[xvii] The Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada, GALLOP Portal: government and legislative Libraries online publications portal, accessed April 22, 2016, http://aplicportal.ola.org/.

 

[xviii] British Library, “Click to save the nation’s digital memory”, accessed April 22, 2016, http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2013/april/click-to-save-the-nations-digital-memory.

 

[xix] Canadiana.org, “Canadiana.org certified as Trustworthy Repository”, Canadiana, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.canadiana.ca/en/tdr-certification

 

[xx] Government of Canada, “Open information”, accessed April 21, 2016, http://open.canada.ca/en/open-information

 

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