MLA Position Statements and FAQs
Access to Government Information Position Statement
The Medical Library Association believes that government-generated information
is a public good and a vital national resource. Everyone needs access
to such information to fully exercise their rights as citizens. Therefore,
all available government information should and must be equally accessible
to all Americans.
Why MLA Supports This Position
Health sciences librarians serve society by providing the information
needed for the delivery of health care, the education of health professionals,
the conduct of research, and enhanced public awareness of health care
issues. To support this goal, health sciences librarians work together
to improve the quality of available information resources and to provide
timely, accurate, and relevant information.
As the federal government establishes a National Information Infrastructure
(NII), it is crucial that health sciences librarians be included in the
development of any national information policy, and that the policy support
equal access to government information, including medical information.
The medical library community has identified several issues that should
be factored into the development of a national information policy. These
include universal information access by the public, quality control of
agency materials, when and whether to charge user fees, keeping these
fees reasonable and fair, and ensuring funds for the development of computer
and communications technologies. Because these issues affect government
efforts to disseminate its information products and services, including
medical information, the Medical Library Association has endorsed several
related national information principles.
- Because government-generated information is a public good, MLA believes
that any discussion of privatization or costs and benefits of alternative
dissemination methods must proceed from this premise and not from purely
tangible definitions of economic value. Questions of commercial profitability
cannot be the deciding factor in the decision to offer continuing access
to government information.
- Because government information is generated with public funds, it
must be disseminated to the public with as few barriers as possible.
- If user fees must be charged, they should be restricted to recovering
the costs of reproducing information and making it available. While
MLA recognizes that the user, be it an institution, agency, corporation,
or private citizen, must bear some of the reproduction and access costs
beyond initial development of the databases, the association maintains
that access should be as free of charges as possible, because taxpayers
have already paid for the development of the databases.
- Maximum reliance on the private sector may not be the best way to
disseminate government information. Complex issues related to security,
proprietary controls, profit-motivated fees, integrity of databases,
confidentiality, archival access, and the appropriateness of public
subsidies for commercial interests must also be taken into account.
Access to information empowers individuals to confront issues that impact
their social, economic, and physical well-being. As health sciences librarians,
MLA members are committed to improving the quality of health care that
all Americans receive through the provision of accurate, timely, relevant
In recent years, MLA has addressed legislative and public policy issues
related to dissemination of government information to the public. Although
this legislation addresses all public information, it also applies specifically
to biomedical information.
MLA has supported GPO Windo legislation
(i.e., the GPO-Wide Information Network for Data Online Act of 1991
and the GPO Gateway to Government Act of 1992). This legislation resulted
in passage of the GPO Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act
of 1993, which establishes a public electronic gateway to a wide range
of federal databases (e.g., Federal Register, Congressional Record).
In addressing this legislation, MLA maintained that access to government
information benefits the library community and society at large. MLA
recognized that although taxpayer money has funded the research and
printing of federal documents, user fees that approximate the GPO's
incremental cost of disseminating the data must be fair to the agencies
providing the information as well as to the consumer. However, the
fees should not be so great that they dissuade individuals from accessing
federal information. Many federal electronic databases remain unused
by the public because of the high access prices imposed by private
vendors. MLA recommended that this be taken into consideration when
determining the incremental costs of disseminating the data.
Another concern addressed quality control of the federal databases
accessed under the GPO Windo legislation. Increased access to federal
databases gives private vendors a greater opportunity to provide information
dissemination services to clients unwilling or unable to access federal
databases on their own. These vendors, upon purchasing the information,
would be free to amend and edit it and then re-sell the information
to consumers. MLA advocated that information gleaned from federal
sources maintain its original integrity and not be resold under the
guise of a governmental publication. Maintaining the integrity of
the National Library of Medicine databases is particularly important
because it relates to the delivery of health care.
Depository Library Program (DLP).
MLA also recognizes
the major role of the depository libraries in the dissemination of public
information. Many academic health sciences libraries have cooperative
arrangements with depository libraries to support access to crucial
biomedical information for health care professionals, educators, researchers,
students, and the public. For this reason, MLA has supported the provision
of adequate funding to maintain the DLP. The association also believes
that electronic communication may remove barriers to public access to
valuable biomedical information. For this reason, MLA has supported
the position that electronic information should not be treated differently
from printed information and has encouraged the GPO to make information
in electronic format available through the DLP.
Providing the public with access to government information through the
emerging National Information Infrastructure is an increasingly complex
endeavor. The Medical Library Association recognizes that issues such
as universal information access by the public, quality control of agency
materials, when and whether to charge user fees, and funding for the NII
require the best thinking of our elected officials and national leaders
of both the non-profit and profit sectors.
Toward this end, MLA continues to establish coalitions to ensure that
the public interest is addressed in any national information policy. The
association will continue to play a leadership role in addressing these
issues as legislation and policies are developed.
MLA members can support the association's advocacy efforts by understanding
this philosophy of information access. And occasionally, association leaders
will issue action alerts which ask members to communicate this philosophy
to members of Congress and other government officials.
Prepared in April 1995 by
Sara Jean Jackson, M.D. Anderson Hospital, Houston, TX
Chair, MLA Governmental Relations Committee
For more information, contact Mary
Langman, 312.419.9094 x27.