GPO to Charge for Publications on Web

Posted October 21, 2003 at 6:13pm

In an effort to reverse declining sales revenue at the Government Printing Office, Public Printer Bruce James announced Tuesday that the agency will consider charging fees for many of the publications it now offers to the public at not cost.

“How are we going to make money at this?” James queried attendees during a morning session of the Federal Depository Library Program conference in Arlington, Va.

In the past decade, as the printing agency made many of its fee-based publications available at no cost on the Internet — like the Congressional Register and Federal Record — its revenue has declined by nearly $52 million, GPO Superintendent of Documents Judith Russell said.

“It’s not a sustainable model,” James said, noting that without additional revenue, GPO must continue to depend on Congressional appropriations for much of its funding. “We will be at the mercy of Congress forever.”

Although GPO initially charged for documents available on its Web site, www.gpo.gov, it discontinued the practice within a short time. James criticized the current structure, stating: “Nobody sat down and dreamed up the model we have today, it just happened.”

One example of a possible fee structure would be akin to that of newspapers that allow users free access to recent articles, but charge a nominal fee for older items.

“We’ve got to create a business model that will once again allow us to bring revenue in the door,” James said.

Many librarians attending the conference expressed concerns over restricting government publications by charging fees.

“This is the most contentious issue here,” James acknowledged.

Grace York, a librarian at the University of Michigan, asserted that providing free government documents is essential to maintaining foreign diplomacy.

“If you begin charging for the basic documents of democracy, you are in fact affecting the whole world,” Grace said.

Some attendees suggested various fee-for-printing models like those used at universities and other institutions including the National Academy of Sciences, but others expressed concerns about the viability of a Web-based program.

“E-commerce is scary and risky, and we really don’t know the end of the story,” said Cass Hartnett, a librarian at the University of Washington.

At the suggestion of a Depository Library Council member, James agreed to convene a meeting to discuss possible fee structures at the FDLP’s next biannual meeting, set to take place in St. Louis.

“I’m not looking to take away from our depository partners any advantages they have,” James said. GPO will continue to distribute the majority of its information through the depository libraries, he explained. “We don’t expect to change that at all.”

GPO will likely introduce its first pilot program for a fee structure in about 12 to 18 months.

The fee-for-printing plan is not GPO’s first step toward bringing its finances into balance. Within the past few months, the agency shut down nearly all of its remaining bookstores with the exception of the facility at its North Capitol Street headquarters and a warehouse for dealers in Laurel, Md.

During the conference, James also addressed “fugitive documents,” those publications printed by government agencies but not supplied to the Federal Depository Library Program.

GPO officials are hopeful a program for executive branch printing created through a compact with the Office of Management and Budget will reduce the number of fugitive documents. The program, now in its pilot stage, will likely be introduced to all executive branch agencies in fiscal 2005.

In addition, James said, GPO Inspector General Marc Nichols is heading a project to encourage agencies to comply with the current laws, including the Anti-Deficiency Act.

“We are going to look at building an effective enforcement mechanism to enforce those rules and laws,” James said.