At the time this article was
written Bruno Gnassi was Head of Official Collection (Canadian) Section at the Library
of Parliament. This article is based on a paper delivered to a meeting of the
Canadian Study of Parliament Group in Ottawa in October 1988.
Two centuries ago, Voltaire noted
that "the multitude of books is making us ignorant. In that phrase we capture
the central dilemma facing each and everyone of us in our effort to cope with
the information explosion.
With the growth of the information
industry has come not only wider dissemination of ideas and insights but also
information saturation. As more is written by more people for ever specialized
audiences, it has become impossible to keep up. Just over half a decade ago, it
was estimated that, in the sciences alone, over one million articles were
published the world over, and that professionals were then said to be spending
a quarter of their working day reading, to keep abreast of developments in
their fields. I shudder to think what the tally is now.
The parliamentarian, in particular,
is hostage to this information overload. A former MP noted that Members of
Parliament and their staffs are an integral part of this information industry;
depending on it, feeding it in their quest to transform that information into
meaningful policies that will direct the public and private debates that shape
our nation. Daily, they are swamped with more information than they can ever
hope to assimilate. "The fact is, that politicians need intermediaries to
help them realize the benefits of access to information, for information alone
is just dead weight. It needs interpretation to make it fly."(1)
Parliamentary libraries are
uniquely placed to facilitate this process. We bring to the task, not only
specialized resources and services, but also a unique understanding of
government and the particular requirements of our clientele. This value-added
feature can readily be demonstrated in the area of grey literature, and
especially in the case of the grey literature that is most frequently the prime
target of our legislators -- the government document.
What is Grey Literature?
The termgrey literature describes
any document, regardless of medium, that escapes the normal channels of
publication and distribution. It has been in use for some two decades, and is
synonymous with "non-conventional" and "semi-published"
literature. The phrase originates in the fact that, in the days before desk-top
publishing and high-speed and high-definition copiers, grey literature
materials were often drab in their presentation and quasi-illegible.
Grey print literature is primarily
characterized by its small runs, variable standards of editing and production,
limited target audience, specialized nature and originator/source. When one
thinks of such literature, the most obvious candidates that come to mind are
technical and research reports, working papers, theses, unpublished conference
papers, market research reports, and pre-prints; grey literature increasingly
includes such media as microforms, computer tapes, diskettes and optical disks.
The chief variables that condition their lives is that they are neither well
publicized nor readily available.
Government is a major producer of
such literature. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and as far back as the 1930s
in the case of the United States, as government took on a more active role in society,
it became a pivotal clearing house for information. Some would go so far as to
claim that the flow of information among government institutions and to the
public is currently the mortar of our society.
Government in Canada accounts for
almost 60 per cent of all the information produced. The Canadian Government
Publishing Centre (CGPC) is our single largest publisher, putting out 10 times
more titles than any other Canadian publishing house according to its Director,
Patricia Horner. This represents over 400 new monographs per year, as well as
some 4000 subscriptions. Nevertheless, by some estimates, CGPC captures less
than 50 per cent of all federal government documents. It is a safe bet that
these missing volumes will continue to increase in number.
Impact of Supply-Side Economics
Doctor William Converse, a former
President of the Canadian Library Association, speaking recently at a seminar
on the "Private Enterprise Philosophy and Federal Libraries" made the
point that the mandate for cost recovery will be the dominant reality of our
information lives well into the next decade and beyond. Public debate about the
role and nature of government as an information supplier has been going on for
well over two decades. The sheer volume of information generated by government,
and the massive cost imposed by this, have now finally come into clear focus as
a major management challenge.
This new "economic"
approach to the management of information offers a theoretical framework
through which government can hope to come to terms with its information
explosion by making information a commodity that can b measured, valued, and
efficiently managed. The principal tenets of the approach are:
load shedding or the withdrawal of government from the information sphere
where this does not meet immediate and clearly defined government objectives,
or failing this, at least a reduction in government involvement;
user charges wherever possible in order to have those who use the data
bear the cost;
maximum use of arrangements permitting competition in order to insure
that information remains affordable and saves government dollars.(2)
At its crudest, there are some that
view this as little more than the dominance of blind financial cost-accounting
over information policy and the public good. I do not intend to embark in a
policy debate. There are others more qualified than I to discuss these issues.
However, I believe it is important to note that the debate, because of the
polarization that it creates, has had a tendency to ascribe to government a
maliciousness of purpose that is not there. Central to the approach is also a
commitment to the belief that the free-flow of information between government
and its citizens is essential to the operation of a democracy, and that the
public's right to access to government information must be protected. The most
visible embodiment of this approach in Canada is the recently released
Government Communications Policy, commonly referred to as Chapter 480. It is
the first element in a major review of government information practices that
will see these practices brought into line with this economic approach to the
management of information. Chapter 480 will modify, in one form or another, no
less than 21 major directives affecting all aspects of the government's
information procedures, policies and practices, including Treasury Board's
Administrative policy Manual Chapter 335 on Government Publishing, which
establishes the parameters of Canada's depository services program.
The fundamental objective of
Chapter 480 is to ensure the effective management of government communication
within the context of set priorities and objectives. Government agencies and
ministries are specifically charged with five key tasks in order to achieve
institutions must make information about federal policies, programs and
services available in all regions of Canada;
they must respond fully to all public enquiries in the spirit of access
to information and privacy, so that there is no unnecessary recourse to the
Access to Information and Privacy Act;
they must identify and designate primary spokespersons to communicate
with the public, the media and Members of Parliament;
they must notify Supply and Services Canada ofpublications they plan to
produce, and where Supply and Services Canada and the institutions agree that
publications should be priced, arrange to have them published through Supply
and Services Canada wherever possible by co-publishing with the private sector;
they must compile and maintain an index of published material, or
material available for purchase, and ensure that published material is
available for examination by the public.(3)
Chapter 480 also states that the
provision of information is costly, and should be undertaken only where there
is a clear duty to inform the public, or where the user is willing to pay for
it. As a result, government agencies and ministries have also been charged with
the task of making information available only where significant demand exists
for it, particularly in the area of government information data bases, and to
cost it in such a manner as to take into consideration the full costs of
collecting, compiling, preparing, producing and disseminating it.
The criteria applicable to this
process are spelled out in detail in section 12 of Chapter 480. In essence, the
government stipulates, here, that government information should not serve the
proprietary interests of individuals at public expense. Section 12 makes it
clear that the federal government fully intends to control the unimpeded
generation of information for information's sake.
It is still too early to determine
the effects of this policy. Work is only now underway to define the specifics
for its application. Trends in the United States may offer some insight as to
its potential consequences, however.
The American Experience: More
Americans have been living with
their version of Chapter 480 since 1980-1981. Government publications
librarians have been signalling the loss of access to publications from the
moment Reform 88 came into being. Reform 88, and the package of legislation and
directives that implement it, seek to ensure, in the area of information, that
government costs are efficiently managed. The end result of this activity appears
to have been a cutback, not in paper burden, but in access.
Although the Office of Management
and the Budget claimed, at the end of 1982, a reduction of between 14 per cent
and 16 per cent in all government publishing, studies suggest that what has really
happened is an increase in the grey literature of government. Writing in 1984,
Valerie Florence, a government publications librarian, discovered that, during
the period when OMB 81-16 was in force, government production of the types of
publications specifically intended to be curtailed (pamphlets, promotional
literature, etc.) actually increased while serious research reports declined by
about 13 per cent.(4) Publications captured by the United States Government
Printing Office for sale certainly declined in both 1985 and 1986. Sara Knapp,
another government documents specialist, writing just recently in the Reference
Librarian, suggets that much of this information has actually migrated from
external to internal use, citing as examples the publishing patterns of
agencies such as The Securities and Exchange Commission, The United States
Census Bureau and The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Emerging publishing trends
discernable at Statistics Canada suggest a similar pattern.
Government publications librarians
are aware of the growing controversy surrounding Statistics Canada's Publishing
program's direction. At the centre of this debate is its officially mandated
policy to cost recover. This policy arose, in part out of the need to conduct
the 1986 census in an environment of fiscal restraint, but has its roots, as
Doug Newsome, Associate Director of Communications at the agency points out, in
the government's commitment to a policy of cost-conscious information
management.(5) The agency is steadily moving to assess its product line, to
define its marketable outputs, to examine privatization options for data
products, and to streamline its information activities in line with Chapter
Within the next five years, the
agency proposes to produce more compendia type publications of a general
character and to consign detailed data to shelf papers or machine-readable data
sets which would not be deemed published and would not be catalogued. It is
even now struggling to determine software requirements, resolve protection of
information issues, assess the effect of computer accessible products on its
publication program and establish pricing parameters. In the last two years
alone, the Library of Parliament has identified and acquired no less than a
dozen products which fall into this category of grey literature. These products
range from computer accessible diskettes of census data by federal electoral
districts, to unpublished paper tabulations of taxation and administrative data
reproduced on the microdata level. Most of this material would likely have
resulted in new catalogued publications at one time or not have been generated
Libraries as Facilitators
The Parliamentary Library sits at
the centre of this information flow. Tracking the government's grey literature
is essentially the art of sleuthing through a combination of experience and
persistence. In this, my colleagues and I are aided by a large network of
contacts throughout the federal community, and by the moral suasion that comes
with our association with Parliament.
The Official Collections Section of
the Library of Parliament acquires and processes well over a 100,000 items per
year. A fair percentage of these can be qualified as grey literature. The
Treasury Board's administrative policies on government publishing confers a
special status on the Library, and requires that 5 copies of any publication
available through the Canadian Government Publishing Centre be automatically
deposited with it. It aso requires deposit of two additional copies of any
other publications produced by a federal department or agency.
Our Section monitors compliance
very closely, ensuring that all lapses brought to its attention are vigorously
pursued. Staff of the section estimate that each such request requires an
average of one to two hours follow-up, depending on the nature of the
publication sought. In addition, the section actively represents its clients'
interests and concerns on the Library Consultative Committees of both the
Canadian Government Publishing Centre and Statistics Canada. These activities
have allowed the Library to ensure continued involvement in Statistics Canada's
ongoing development of CD-ROM as a medium for the dissemination of statistical
data, for example, and to participate in the evolving discussions surrounding
the future of the depository services program which provides Parliamentarians
with complimentary access to government publications.
Access to Information: An Aid
The newest tool in our arsenal is Access
to Information and Privacy (ATIP).
The key benefit of the Access Law
is the enhanced bibliographic control it generally imposes on government
departments and agencies. In establishing the specifics for public release, the
Access to Information and privacy Act sets up, not only the parameters and
costs of access and the criteria for refusal, but also the mechanisms for such
retrieval. In creating access to information coordinators, ATIP provides us
with a new and critically placed window to the government's departmental
structures. In addition the Act, albeit unintentionally, expands the leverage
the Official Collections Section can exercise in its sleuthing.
Government departments are
particularly sensitive to the cost involved in the use of access. A sense of
this can be gathered in the fact that, by some estimates, in the last five
years, federal departments have processed more than 16,000 requests at a cost
of almost 14 million dollars, and cases have been reported where the charges
for a single access request have averaged about $1000.
This is not to suggest that access
is an ideal tool. It remains fundamentally a last recourse. In the five years
since the Act has been in force, The Library of Parliament's Official
Collections Section has had to make use of it once, although we have had on
numerous occasions to make reference to it in our attempts to acquire
Access to information provides a
safety net to government departments uncertain of the appropriateness of
releasing a publication and also provides a vehicle for seeking clarification.
Most of the paperwork associated with an access request, and the delays
involved, can be avoided when requests for specific items are channelled
through the Library. Services in kind can be exchanged, favors garnered and a
successful resolution brought about without the undue sensitivity departments
still display when dealing with requests from parliamentaians.
If the quality of public policy, no
less than the quality of science depends on maximum exposure of data and
propositions it is no less true that the quality of that exposure rests on the
successful management of that information. It is unlikely that the information
overflow will diminish. The position of government as a prime information
generator, its attempt to come to terms with this, the potential impacts of
this on users, both in terms of increased costs and search time, fully suggests
that the role of information facilitator traditionally played by libraries and
librarians will grow rather than diminish. This is not to say that this role
will not evolve; computers and machine-readable data sets are already
fundamentally restructuring the nature of our approaches to information
processing and access, by adding new levels of complexity and speed to our
work. The librarian now sits at the centre of a team of information experts.
The profession is not at risk, as some have feared.
Parliamentarians can ill afford to
struggle with the additional volume of information. They have neither the time
nor the resources to deal with this overflow. The Library with its expertise
and mandate is there to do just that. In this, we are aided by the partnership
that exists not only between clients and ourselves, but between information
professionals generally. It is true that information suppliers often tend to
forget that we are there, choosing instead to deal directly with the end user.
As King Associates admirably demonstrate in their seminal study, libraries are
better able and better suited to this end.(6) In this sense then, I think it is
safe to conclude as William Osler did "Money invested in a library gives
much better returns than mining stock".
1. David Daubney, "Technology
and Power on Parliament Hill", Canadian Parliamentary Review, (Autumn
1987), vol 10, no 3,p. 3.
2. Sara D. Knapp, "OMB A-130:
a policy which could affect your reference service", Reference
Librarian, (1988), no 20, p. 35-S4. Caponio and Gaffner, op. cit.,
3. Canada, Treasury Board, Administrative
Policy Manual, Chapter 480: Government Communications Policy, Ottawa, 1988,
4. Valerie Florence,
"Presidential policy and information dissemination: an analysis of the
Reagan moratorium on government publishing", Government Information
Quarterly, (1984), vol. 1, no. 3, p. 273-284.
5. See Feliciter, (January,
1988), p. 4, Letter to the editor by Laine Ruus, also Feliciter,
(October, 1987), p. 1 & 8, Letter to the editor by Douglas Newsome.
6. King Research Inc., A study of
the value of information and the effect on value of intermediary organizations,
timeliness of services and products, and comprehensiveness of the EDB,
Rockville, Maryland, King Reearch, 1984.