Printing office to continue using paper format for 'nonessential' items

Agency plans, however, to increase electronic access to government documents.

Good news for insomniacs: The Government Printing Office appears to have backed down from a plan to stop printing bound copies of congressional hearings and other "nonessential" government publications.

GPO Superintendent of Documents Judy Russell set off a firestorm in January with comments she made at the American Library Association winter meeting, where she suggested that the GPO was planning to decrease the number of documents it routinely makes available to libraries in paper format, as part of its transition to the digital age.

The change wouldn't affect an "essential titles" list of about 50 critical documents -- budget books, Congressional Records, and the like -- that would still be sent to hundreds of libraries across the country that are part of the Federal Depository Library Program.

But for congressional hearings, maps, geological information, and other items, libraries would have to make a special request to have a print copy made, would have to "pay" for the printing -- with vouchers provided by the GPO up to a limit -- and would get a paper version of sufficiently low quality that it would be readable for only 20 years, according to several people who heard the presentation.

"What they said at the conference is that they want to eliminate the distribution of most print materials," said Arlene Weible, who supervises government documents for the University of North Texas libraries. But that means that for many documents, "we would no longer have an archival copy of the document anywhere except on a government Web site," and no guarantee that the document would remain available, in its original form, next year, in 10 years, or beyond.

Printing the congressional materials in particular is expensive, Weible said, and the GPO budget request for fiscal 2006 is essentially the same as in 2005.

GPO officials would neither discuss this story nor provide a copy of Russell's remarks, but in response to an inquiry, Russell issued a statement Wednesday to "clarify" her January remarks.

"We respect and value our long-standing partnership with the library community and will make no changes in [distribution] policy without first consulting with the community and Congress," Russell said.

But Russell reaffirmed that the GPO has "made it a priority to increase access to government information electronically, while at the same time working side by side with our library partners in the Federal Depository Library Program to establish what should be kept in print."

Russell plans to convene a session on "the future of tangible information products" at an April meeting of the Depository Library Advisory Council, a GPO source said.