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David Walls is overseeing the transition at the GPO to digital archiving

By Lisa Rein
Friday, July 30, 2010; B03

The U.S. Government Printing Office provides Americans with permanent access to government information, printing about 2 billion pages every year.

As it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, it has hired its first preservation librarian to oversee, among other things, the transition to digital archiving. David Walls comes to Washington from Yale University, where he worked as a preservation librarian for 12 years.

Walls, 47, just finished his fourth month on the job.

Q.How did you get interested in library preservation?

I volunteered years ago in the rare-books collection at the Baylor University library in Texas. I got bitten by the bug then. It's a very small field and a young one. You could probably put every preservation person in the U.S. in one large hotel ballroom. Most people who do this work are in academic settings or private libraries, but there are government libraries, too, beyond the Library of Congress. You've got the National Library of Medicine, for example.

Why did the office create a position for a preservationist?

We're in an era of digital publications being produced all over government. We're continuing to supply printed copies of the Federal Register and other publications, but most every federal agency is producing things with only digital content. If you get on almost every federal Web site you'll click on things that, in a previous age, would have been produced in a report or a book.

The GPO is updating a digital system we rolled out last year to disseminate and authenticate all of this government information. If you go to http://www.fdsys.gov, you'll see the Federal Register, the new health-care law, the financial reform law, congressional bills, the president's budget on there. And a lot more, of course. We're designing a new server that's more robust. The federal digital system is part of our mission.

Where were government documents such as legislation and the federal budget preserved in the paper-only days?

This is an organization that for 150 years has been distributing publications to various libraries across the country. It's called the Federal Depository Library Program. There are 1,220 of these libraries in the U.S. and Guam, usually departments or units within other libraries. Georgetown Law Library is one. They may specialize in saving Supreme Court briefs or statutes at large. A library in Missouri might preserve Small Business Administration publications or Fish and Wildlife documents.

Some libraries accept everything the government puts out and keep it forever. Others select which stuff to keep. Right now, we're reaching out to this community to do a basic review of our operational plan, to look at our content and develop a set of preservation services to offer the libraries, digitally as well as on paper.

Some publications the libraries carry are old enough to become brittle. If we're about permanent access to government information, what is our plan for reaching out to these libraries to make sure that happens? My job is to provide some leadership and act as a facilitator.

What is digital security, and why is it important?

We need to make sure the information that the printing office disseminates is secure. So right now, we're doing an internal audit project to make sure our digital repository is trusted. It'll be preserved according to modern standards. Think of it as a bank audit. A bank has to go through an audit to make sure it's a trusted repository of money. The same is true for us.

What are the challenges of carrying out the agency's mission without paper?

The paper publication had a physical form, so there was some intellectual control over what it was and where you could find it. You could sit there for quite a long time without worrying about it becoming obsolete. You weren't going to go into the library one day and find out that a publication was inaccessible because it was in a different file format.

With digital, you have the whole issue of how do you know it's authentic? That all the information is there? The digital publication requires almost constant vigilance.

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