The importance of government documents to scholarship cannot be overstated. From demographic data to legislative proceedings, government documents are irreplaceable primary sources that support research in arguably every scholarly field. They are also critical to the historical record, documenting the actions and logics of states and their relations with other states, citizenries, and marginalized communities.
Academic libraries in the United States have been collecting government serials from South Asia at least since the 1960s, when the Library of Congress established field offices in India and Pakistan. Today, through the South Asia Cooperative Acquisitions Program, or SACAP, the field offices in New Delhi and Islamabad supply our libraries with over 2200 print government serials from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A recent review of 200+ such titles reveals that many have not been received in print for years, as many as half of them having migrated to electronic format. This shift from print to online format is a trend that is likely to continue, and raises numerous concerns among the library community about the future stability and discoverability of government publications from South Asia.
While e-governance is framed as a tool to empower citizens and enhance access to government information, the unstable nature of online content and its ability to be rapidly changed or removed entirely can paradoxically leave users with less control over information
than more traditional, print repositories. The sources of instability of online government content in South Asia are largely threefold: administrative, political, and technological or platform-based.
Regime change in South Asian countries is often accompanied by administrative changes in government bodies, with large-scale transfers of personnel across ministries, or even the merging or elimination of departments. These changes leave online data particularly vulnerable to loss, with websites of former or formerly independent corporate bodies often simply erased. Differences in political priorities of changing regimes can lead to more pernicious loss of data, with direct censorship or removal of publications that challenge or threaten the leading party’s agenda. Finally, the very platforms or formats adopted for online publication of government data can often work against the stability of such data. For example, some online government publications, like budget reports, provide only the most recent issue online, with no archived access to previous issues. Printed registers of government offices are often replaced by searchable databases, which may not preserve entries of former employees. A broader concern for currency more generally can come at the expense of the historical record.
In addition to their instability, online government serials from South Asia are much more difficult to discover than their print predecessors. This is often due, again, to administrative changes in government bodies and the shifting structure of associated websites. This can also be due to the format changes related to online platforms; for example, some government websites have conglomerate listings of archived serials by theme (e.g. statistics) without separate URLs for individual titles, requiring additional keyword or “Control-F” searching to locate serial issues (see, for example, Pakistan Demographic Survey). Finally, the shift to online formats has separated this vital government content from the critical work of bibliographic description. The Library of Congress and SACAP member libraries have long worked collaboratively to ensure the currency of the metadata for print government serials, noting title changes and changes to corporate bodies, and tracking preceding and succeeding titles in local and shared catalogs. With the shift to e-formats, this work has largely ceased.
Archiving both high level governmental websites and also the serials published therein will accomplish several critical goals. It will preserve, for unrestricted global use, vital primary source material that is at risk of disappearing. It will provide researchers with secure and ongoing access to not just current, but also historical government data, helping safeguard the integrity of the historical record. Furthermore, collecting these e-serials at regular intervals will ensure that any changes to government documents, from correction, to redaction, to removal, will be preserved, along with the serials themselves; this is of immense importance not only for scholarship, but for participatory democracy and the needs of citizens and activists. Finally, the collection and preservation of these government serials in a centralized online location will facilitate discovery and access, a crucial step in mitigating the loss of metadata support that has accompanied the shift away from print. [Goals 1 and 2]
Currently, while there are models to emulate, there is no openly accessible website or web archiving program that focuses on preserving South Asian government serials. While the Library of Congress has its own program of archiving government websites, the resulting archives are locked down to registered users physically onsite in the D.C. reading rooms, rendering them inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of users. The Ivy Plus Libraries Web Collecting Program has a collection dedicated to National Statistical Offices and Central Banks, which includes some South Asian content, but its current focus would need to be broadened to target high level websites and individual serial publications. Commercial options, such as those recently proposed by Coherent Digital to provide open access to government documents through its South Asia Commons, might be explored but research thus far suggests that the proposed OA model is not equitable, that there is no clarity on the long-term commitment to this initiative, and that they will only capture digital files, not the valuable data on the associated websites. Other institutions or libraries may also have repositories well suited for this archival work (especially those from SAMP member libraries and/or those with already established Archive-It accounts). [Goal 3]
Archiving and preservation form the core of this proposal and will be familiar and comfortable to SAMP. Web archives are critical tools to maintain access to knowledge through time yet we aim to push further, taking end-user experience into consideration while also promoting sister projects in the process. We request funds to pilot the description, download, and ingest of page, issue, and title-level serial content into SAMP’s sister concern, SAOA. Preliminary research to inform this proposal shows that ingest into SAOA demands multiple distinct and discrete tasks, ones for which all parameters and cost estimates are not fully known at this time. We seek a small amount of staff funds to explore the viability and desirability of SAOA ingest for these materials which will result in a recommendation. Development of recommendations from this pilot will demand separate proposals in the future (to SAMP, SAOA, or elsewhere). [Goal 4]
Beyond the academic and administrative rationales for bringing this pilot to SAMP, we contend that this pilot creates the opportunity to advance our professional field itself. The work proposed in this pilot will be undertaken in one of two ways: as an “internship” for a current graduate student in either Library & Information Science or in South Asian Studies or as a project to be undertaken by a trusted partner institution in South Asia. The former work plan would give “real world” experience for both supervisor and intern and would help the larger South Asia librarian community encourage newcomers to the field; the latter work plan would provide much needed financial support to our partners in South Asia while simultaneously enriching networks between the SAMP community and South Asian institutions. [Goal 5]