Don Quixote Rides Again: Instead of Windmills, the Target Is Official and True Government Documents

December 8, 2022

I read “Archiving Official Documents as an Act of Radical Journalism.” The main idea is that a non governmental entity will collect official and “true” government documents, save them, and make them searchable. Now this is an interesting idea, and it one that most of countries for which I have provided consulting services related to archiving information have solutions. The solutions range from the wild and wooly methods used in the Japanese government to the logical approach implemented in Sweden. There’s a carnival atmosphere in Brazil, and there is a fairly interesting method in Croatia. France? Mais oui.

In each of these countries, one has to have quite specific know how in order to obtain an official and true government document. I know from experience that a person not a resident of some of these countries has pretty much zero chance of getting a public transcript of public hearing. In some cases, even with appropriate insider assistance, finding the documents is often impossible. Sure, the documents are “there.” But due to budget constraints, lousy technology, or staff procedures — not a chance. The Vatican Library has a number of little discussed incidents where pages from old books get chopped out of a priceless volume. Where are those pages now? Hey, where’s that hymn book from the 14th century?

I want you to notice that I did not mention the US. In America we have what some might call “let many flowers bloom” methods. You might think the Library of Congress has government documents. Yeah, sort of, well, some. Keep in mind that the US Senate has documents as does the House. Where are the working drafts of a bill? Try chasing that one down, assuming you have connections and appropriate documentation to poke around. Who has the photos of government nuclear facilities from the 1950. I know where they used to be in the “old” building in Germantown, Maryland. I even know how to run the wonky vertical lift to look in the cardboard boxes. Now? You have to be kidding. What about the public documents from Health and Human Services related to MIC, RAC, and ZPIC? Oh, you haven’t heard about these? Good luck finding them. I could work through every US government agency in which I have worked and provide what I think are fun examples of official government documents that are often quite, quite, quite difficult to locate.

The write up explains its idea which puts a windmill in the targeting device:

Democracy’s Library, a new project of the Internet Archive that launched last month, has begun collecting the world’s government publications into a single, permanent, searchable online repository, so that everyone—journalists, authors, academics, and interested citizens—will always be able to find, read, and use them. It’s a very fundamental form of journalism.

I am not sure the idea is a good one. In some countries, collecting government documents could become what I would characterize as a “problem.” What type of problem? How about fine, jail time, or unpleasantness that can follow you around like Shakespeare’s spaniels at your heels.

Several observations:

  1. Public official government documents change, they disappear, and they become non public without warning. An archive of public government documents will become quite a management challenge when classification changes, regimes change, and when government bureaucracy changes course. Chase down a US government repository librarian at a US government repository library near you and ask some questions. Let me know how that works out when you bring up some of the administrative issues for documents in a collection.
  2. A collection of official and true documents which tries to be comprehensive from a single country is going to be radioactive. Searchable information is problematic. That’s why enterprise search vendors who say, “All the information in your organization is searchable” evokes statements like “Get this outfit out of my office.” Some data is harmless when isolated. Pile data and information together and the stuff can go critical.
  3. Electronic official and true government documents are often inaccessible. Examples range from public information stored in Lotus Notes which is not the world’s best document system in my opinion to PowerPoint reports prepared for a public conference about the US Army’s Distributed Common Ground Information System. Now try to get the public document and you may find that what was okay for a small fish conference in Tyson’s Corner is going to evoke some interesting responses as the requests buck up the line.
  4. Collecting and piling up official and true information sounds good … to some. Others may view the effort with some skepticism because public government information is essentially infinite. Once collected those data may never go away. Never is a long time. How about those FOIA requests?

What’s the fix? Answer: Don Quixote became an icon for a reason, and it was not just elegant Spanish prose.

Stephen E Arnold, December 2022

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