Interview: GPO’s Mary Alice Baish
Librarian Takes on the World’s Foremost Collection
Mary Alice Baish is a founding member of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of “outside” groups that promotes secrecy reduction. Now she is helping promote the opening of the government from the inside. Baish became the Assistant Public Printer and Superintendent of Documents at the Government Printing Office January 31, after a more than 20-years career in the library field. Having spent 16 years at the government relations head of the American Association of Law Libraries, she said in coming to the GPO, “I felt like I was coming home.”
The title, superintendent of documents, might sound like someone peering over a room of file cabinets and tons of paper. But in fact the job duties include shepherding The Federal Digital System, the comprehensive online repository of federal information. FedSys emerged from its beta phase in December. It replaces GPO Access, which dates to 1993 and will shut down this summer.
With all of that digital history, you might be surprised at what Baish says is the biggest issue before the venerable GPO: “The transition away from print to the digital realm,” she said. “Print and microfilm are still the only agreed-upon standards internationally for long-term preservation,” Baish said. She points out two challenges for digital.
First, without an unambiguous way to ensure authenticity, the user of a digital document can’t be 100 percent certain the version is as the sender intended. That’s why GPO is working with the Library of Congress to standardize the way digitization of government documents is authenticated. The two agencies want to digitize the U.S. statutes and Congressional Record going back to the beginning. The aim is to make them available online. Many of the Federal Deposit Libraries are digitizing such documents, and GPO wants to be aware of what they are doing. But “no standards exist to assure that when they digitize records from print that it’s an official, authenticated version,” Baish said.
GPO has capabilities of digitally signing documents to guarantee their authenticity. Digital signatures more recently backed electronic transmittal of the voluminous 2012 federal budget proposal from the White House. Under GPO leadership, Baish said, “we’re convening governmentwide committees to develop standards for authenticating conversion of Library of Congress and another other material that’s historic,” she added.
Baish pointed out that the authentication requirement also applies to the many federal documents that originated digitally and never did have a print origin.
The second big challenge involves longevity. Whereas books and microfilm can be readily used 100 or 1,000 years after issuance, electronic records can be rendered unreadable within a few years.
“I still have boxes at home full of six-inch and four-inch floppy disks I can’t read,” Baish said. Of a long term solution, she said, “I think we’re close.” Research in this area is conducted by GPO, the LOC and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The ultimate answer will involve a schedule of migrating digital content to new file formats and equipment as they emerge, Baish said. That and adoption of emulation technologies. The key will be ensuring this activity continues in perpetuity. She said interest in this capability is coming from across the government and not just from the three agencies primarily involved in records retention and dissemination.
Baish will be giving a keynote talk about all of these issues at the Federal Senior Management Conference conference at Cambridge, Md. on Tuesday, April 12.