A new Government Publishing Office project makes you ask, ‘are they serious?’

The Government Publishing Office wants to make every government document accessible online. For how they'll do it, Federal Drive spoke with GPO's director Hugh ...

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The Government Publishing Office wants to make every government document accessible online. Every government document. Let that sink in for a moment. For how they’ll chase everything down, and why, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GPO’s director, Hugh Halpern.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Halperin, good to have you back.

Hugh Halpern: Good to be here Tom, great to talk with you as always.

Tom Temin: So when I read that announcement that you’re going to try to digitize every government document, my first thought was, are they crazy? Is that even doable? Tell us more about this program.

Hugh Halpern: It’s really very much an aspirational goal. And it’s an announcement of work we’ve been doing for a very, very long time with our 1,100 federal depository library partners that we’ve been partnering with, really since 1895, or there about. And the goal is to try and bring in sort of two streams of information. So one is all of this new information that the government keeps creating, all these new documents, and even getting that corpus of information into our trusted digital repository, the only ISO certified digital repository in the world of info, that’s a tall order. But we’re also working with our federal depository library partners, to look at the tangible collections that they have all over the country, and really look at the information that they’ve got there, see what is missing from our centralized national collection, and try and digitize that and make it available. I mean, this isn’t something that’s going to be housed here at our GPO headquarters, it’s really sort of collecting and weaving together all of these documents that the government has produced over the last 150 years and longer, and then going on into the future, and making that accessible digitally, as well as maintaining those tangible collections.

Tom Temin: And these depository libraries throughout the country, these are still for the most part physical places that have physical holdings?

Hugh Halpern: Yeah, we have some that are digital only, but the vast majority have some mixture of a tangible collection, and digital holdings as well. And if you’ve looked at some of these libraries, particularly in the middle of the country, or out west, they’ve got collections that are very tailored to the regions they’re in. If you’re up in the Great Lakes, it might be a lot of government document centered on waterway maintenance or fishing. If you’re out west, you’re looking at things about how to work with grazing or other kinds of things that are of importance to folks in that region. And what we want to do is take that information, which has been built up over 150 years, and try and figure out what’s the highest value stuff, and make that available to everybody across the country. And frankly, across the world.

Tom Temin: It sounds like one of the difficult tasks or sub-routines here is to determine what it is the GPO centrally doesn’t have already that you would have to get from the depository library.

Hugh Halpern: We have a great team that really worked collaboratively with our partners and these libraries. And Laurie Hall, our superintendent of documents, really oversees a fantastic team of librarians and information scientists who really work with folks out in the regions to figure out what they’ve got, how we can make that accessible, and frankly, how we can leverage some of the really innovative things that libraries have done in the pandemic where even locally, they’re faced with trying to support their patrons, with some increased digital availability of their collections.

Tom Temin: And will this work require physical shipment of the items that you feel should be added to Washington for scanning? How will it work logistically?

Hugh Halpern: Yeah, I think we’ll work that out on a case by case basis. And there are some things that we already have been ingesting digitally, where we bring the tangible items here to DC and scan them and ingest them. But there are lots of other options here. We can work with those libraries, we can use contractors, there’s a lot of different options that don’t necessarily involve us shipping large quantities of books back and forth. But we think it’s a great opportunity to make a lot of information that was maybe a little bit harder to find in the past, make that available to everyone.

Tom Temin: At this point then there is probably a lot you don’t know you have that is really fascinating stuff out there in the hinterlands.

Hugh Halpern: Probably a lot of things that we don’t know that we have here in DC, but these really talented federal document librarians all over the country, they know what they have. Sometimes we help folks get reacquainted with their collections. I can think of one library in particular that was really frustrated that they had all these old books sort of taken up shelf space, and they really wanted to get rid of them, and we sent out a couple of folks and went through it with them. And we’re actually able to discover a huge trove of books and other documents that were pretty significant, regional significance. And I think that particular institution rethought its approach after we were able to visit, we really want to emphasize that kind of partnership going forward, and really do what we can to work collaboratively with our library partners. So last Wednesday was our spring depository library council meeting. And it’s great to get those folks talking with us here in DC. And these are the folks who advise GPO and me about how we best work with these folks out in the regions. And my message to them is we want to learn from what you’ve learned during the pandemic, and see what we can incorporate into what we do here in DC and how we can support those efforts out in the states and localities.

Tom Temin: And does this program have a deadline or a timeline? Sounds like something that could be continuously going.

Hugh Halpern: As I said at the outset, it’s really our aspirational goal. And it’s one of those things, if you talk about it enough, it’ll actually come true. And we want to take the work that we’ve been doing, put a name to it, really develop this national collection of government information, and use that as springboard so that we can really work to capture all of this new information that’s being created, as well as go back historically and work to make older government information more accessible to everyone.

Tom Temin: And while we have you, you mentioned just a moment ago, the pandemic and now it seems like there’s a little bit of blue sky in the clouds here for the pandemic in the United States. How has GPO done?

Hugh Halpern: It’s been a tough time for GPO. We never stopped working completely, we still had to produce a Congressional Record and the Federal Register every day, and our teammates came in through the height of the pandemic to get that work done, we did have to work differently. So about a third of the agency is still teleworking. And that’s actually been a huge success story for us, we’ve really discovered that a lot of our teammates are very, very productive when they’re working at home or working remotely. And that’s probably something we’re going to incorporate into our work habits going forward. We’ve put in place a maxi-flex schedule so the folks who are able to have lots and lots of flexibility about how they arrange their time. And we’re looking to release a new telework policy here in the next few weeks, month or so, that will really try to encourage teleworking, and remote working into the future. And as we look at our office space here in DC, we’re looking to rearrange that. So we have fewer cube farms and more collaborative spaces so that if folks are only coming in a couple days a pay period, we’ve got space that matches their needs for the time they are here in the building, when they can work independently when they’re at home or remote.

Tom Temin: And you recently hosted a vaccination clinic right there.

Hugh Halpern: We did, we did. So the other two thirds of the agency were manufacturing operation. So we make passports, we produce the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, congressional bills, all sorts of things here inside of our facility here in DC and our other facility down in Mississippi. And it’s critical for us to get back to normal to have large portions of our workforce immunized. And we’ve been able to work with some really great partners to get some vaccine supplies and really try to get as many of our production folks as possible immunized here as quickly as we can. Right now, we’re at about a third of the agency has gotten at least one vaccine dose. I’d like that number to be higher, we’re working really hard to try and ramp that up. We’re doing that for a combination of outreach to our teammates and hosting vaccination clinics and doing all sorts of things like that. Now, if I can take a second, whether you work for GPO or not, I would really recommend everybody go get vaccinated. It’s really, really one of the key things that we need to get back to normal and sort of a combination of getting folks vaccinated, really rethinking our operations here and focusing on safety. That’s enabled us to bring, for instance, our passport folks back full strength back in January, and we’re starting to ramp up our other production operations and have them at full strength. Hopefully, some will be this month and some will be next.

Tom Temin: Hugh Halpern is director of the Government Publishing Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Hugh Halpern: Thanks so much for having me. I always love talking with you, Tom.

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