Publication Date

December 1, 1988

Perspectives Section


National Endowment for the Humanities

Before adjourning, the Senate confirmed two nominees to the National Humanities Council, that advises the NEH chairman on grants and policy matters. The two new members of the Council are Hillel Fradkin, who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and literature and is vice president for programs of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Wisconsin, and Donald Kagan, professor of history and classics, Yale University. The Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources took no action on the nominations of Gary McDowell, a historian and former NEH employee who is currently a Wilson Center fellow, and Jean Smoot, a member of the comparative literature faculty at North Carolina State University. Since time expired on these two nominations with the adjournment of the 100th Congress, the new administration will have the opportunity to select nominees to fill four existing vacancies on the NEH Council. Until replacements are confirmed, four members whose terms expired in January 1988 will continue to serve.

NCC Establishes Priorities for a New Federal Information Policy

With the pending change in administration, the NCC in coalition with other concerned groups has established a list of federal policies that effect access to government information and need attention. Recognizing legitimate national security needs and balancing these with the public’s right to be informed, the NCC has made recommendations for immediate action in seven areas:

  • Administrative procedures for requesting government information through the Freedom of Information Act and mandatory review should be simplified. The commitment of agency resources to processing requests for information should be sufficient to provide responses in a timely and considerate manner.
  • Fee policies for the Freedom of Information Act should not interfere with the essential purpose of the act—assisting efforts to inform the public on matters of interest and importance. Waivers and reductions of fees are to be given whenever there is any substantial likelihood of furthering this basic purpose. A broad interpretation should be used in considering requests from scholars, educators, libraries, the news media, and non-commercial scientific institutions.
  • Federal documents thirty years or older should, with few and precisely delineated exceptions, be available for scholarly research. Decisions to continue classification beyond thirty years must be supported by a compelling rationale, and personally concurred in by the head of the agency concerned and the U.S. Archivist. Except in extraordinary circumstances, historically significant documents in the National Archives that are more than fifty years old should automatically be declassified.
  • All agencies should assist in implementing a systematic review of classified records, with special efforts to insure that the entire process, including all necessary interagency consultation, is completed within thirty years.
  • Restrictions on sharing and disseminating scientific and technical information should be the minimum sufficient to protect our national security.
  • The Federal Depository Library Program should be strengthened to insure the dissemination of unclassified federal government publications and government produced information of public interest or educational value. This information should be distributed in whatever format is most appropriate, most useful for government agencies, libraries, and the general public, and priced at a level affordable for individuals and nonprofit organizations.
  • The Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A–130, “Management of Federal Information Resources,” must be modified to insure the government’s fundamental responsibility to nurture the exchange of information. Some data gathering and information dissemination activities of the federal government should not be privatized under “for-profit” procedures but should remain the government’s responsibility in order to assure that each citizen has equal and ready access to government information.

The intent of these initiatives is to insure a federal information policy that rests on the assumption that government information is public information and should be accessible to people, unless there is a sufficient and lawful reason for nondisclosure.

Challenges Posed by Federal Use of Electronic Records

In October the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a research arm of the U.S. Congress, completed a major study on federal information policy and issued a 333-page report entitled “Informing the Nation: Federal Information Dissemination in an Electronic Age.” The expansion of technological advances has opened up many new and potentially cost effective ways to disseminate federal government information, but the OTA report makes clear that the advent of electronic dissemination has also generated serious conflicts over how to provide public access to government information. Existing laws and institutional relationships generally predate the electronic era.

Previous distinctions between reports, publications, databases, and records have been replaced by a “seamless web” of information activities. Despite dramatic increases in the use of electronic records by federal agencies, the U.S. Government Printing Office and the Depository Library Program are still geared primarily to paper or microfiche formats and are thus disseminating an increasingly smaller percentage of federal information. Another area needing clarification is the handling of Freedom of Information requests for information in computer records. For example, the Freedom of Information Act does not require agencies to create new records in fulfilling requests. But with electronic information, some degree of reprogramming, which could be interpreted as record creation, may be necessary to obtain access to electronic information. This and many other complicating problems are carefully examined in considerable depth.

The report begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson concerning the responsibility of every American to be informed and focuses on the central concern of the cost and accessibility of federal electronic information for American citizens. While OTA concludes that congressional action is urgently needed to resolve federal information dissemination issues, it offers no overall plan for achieving this objective. However, discussions of alternative options and Congressional and agency responsibilities will prove most useful in clarifying the issues and moving federal information policy into the electronic age. Copies of the report are available for $14.00 from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325, stock number 052-003-01130-1.

Library of Congress

In October the Joint Congressional Committee on the Library met to review reports by the Librarian of Congress on current and future plans and activities of the Library of Congress (LC). James Billington, who recently completed his first year as Librarian, described the work of a year-long management and planning committee which has had the directives of “reaching in more deeply to intensify and energize the intellectual life of the Library of Congress and to reach out more broadly by sharing its richness with the Congress and the people of the United States.” New program initiatives discussed by Billington include a pilot project with seven or eight libraries to test the feasibility of online access to the LC’s bibliographic files; an “American Memory” program to disseminate currently unavailable LC collections to libraries throughout America on a pilot basis on optical disks; traveling exhibits on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Congress; and establishment of the Jeffersonians—a private advisory board to assist in increasing private financial support.

Committee members had specific questions about the the LC’s retrieval capabilities; preservation of brittle books; affirmative action policies; and various management issues. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), the chair of the Joint Committee on the Library, expressed concern about the composition of the top leadership at the LC and asked for a table of the organization with an indication of the top officials with library degrees. Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) addressed the problem of the LC’s ability to deal with its growth rate since the Library receives more than 30,000 items daily and retains about one-sixth of these. Due to scheduling difficulties, the hearing lasted less than two hours, but it did give some idea of the plans and new directions underway at the Library of Congress.

Page Putnam Miller
Page Putnam Miller

University of South Carolina