The delightfully named SCOOP (Standing Committee on Official Publications) has been in touch about a project that aims to retain vital legal records. The Print Still Matters project has the ambition of listing all the holdings of printed Official Publications  within UK Libraries.  This is so that access to these valuable records can be maintained, that one does not have to go to London to get them and that there is some knowledge of how rare particular titles are.

This comes at a critical time as libraries and other stores are faced with cutting costs and moving towards online resources.  In this, there is a danger that some vital printed documents are discarded.  Cut to the quick by this threat to our heritage, I asked a few questions of Peter Chapman, the project co-ordinator, who kindly enlightened me as to what is involved:

Do you have any idea what proportion of official publications are only available in printed form?

All ‘official publications’ are now published by default digitally but only a relative few are available in printed form. The main publishers are HMSO (for Parliament’s records), TSO, and Dandy Booksellers. However, the concern of the Project is the fate of official publications published in print prior to the adoption of digital publishing in the late 1990s.

“only a relative few are available in printed form”

What are the reasons behind being worried about a purely digital store of information?
Reasons to be worried are:

  • Lack of access for those unable or unwilling to use computers
  • Lack of a preservation strategy for digital publications (though both the BL
    and The National Archives (and their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish
    equivalents) are working hard to get Government to face up to the realities
    of archiving electronic formats)
  • The loss of the ‘double-check’ available when printed documents are there to
    compare with the digital version

Have you come across any examples of official publications being lost for good due to lack of proper storage?
‘Parliamentary Holdings in Libraries in Britain and Ireland’ (PHIL) published in 1993 was the last snapshot of the print holdings across the UK (there was a 1997 publication specifically for London). Since that date, reorganisation, cuts, and loss of expertise has meant that many public library authorities have ditched their printed stock of Parliamentary and other Official Holdings. The Project aims to uncover the extent of this loss. In the meantime, Steven Hartshorne’s survey from the North-West (attached) makes salutary reading.

“Making trips to London or any of the other national repositories for this material is frequently impossible for the average public library user … As this brief summary indicates, the maintenance of hard copy OP collections is patchy across the region: the acquisition of current material in hard copy is rare and the retention of legacy collections is even rarer….

This does prompt the question of why maintain a collection, no matter how selective, of official publications in hard copy? To be sure there are remote means of access by electronic format, both free and by subscription. As I mentioned earlier, the provision of electronic access can be prohibitively expensive and there is an inevitable ‘archival information gap’, where retrospective digitisation lags behind current electronic provision. It is also a truism that electronic availability and actual accessibility are not synonyms. If a document sits behind a paywall, somewhere on a badly designed website or in an inadequately indexed database, it is available but inaccessible. It is also the case even now that for some library users, the very fact that a document may be in a digital format is a barrier in itself, but that is a point for a much wider debate.” Hartshorne survey

In the Academic Sector, it appears that collections are being frozen – ie little or no new print material is being added.

“loss of expertise has meant that many public library authorities have ditched their printed stock of Parliamentary and other Official Holdings. The Project aims to uncover the extent of this loss. “

Has the cut in professional staffing affected the storage of documents?
There are examples of public library authorities ceasing to fund an ‘Official Publications’ specialist (where one existed in the past) – especially when the post holder retires. In the academic sector, specialist Official Publications librarians have found the work merged in to business or law support. The Project report will reveal the extent of this loss of expertise.

“some years ago SCOOP published a list of OP specialists which was a slim pamphlet. Now it would probably be two sides of A4.”

Andrew Coburn (SCOOP Chair)

So what can we do?

If this subject interests you, and you work in a public library, keep an eye out for the survey form coming to your authority soon.  You may also want to consider joining the Information Services Group, which is a a Special Interest Group of the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (CILIP). The purpose of the Group is to give voice to the professional concerns and interests of reference librarians and information specialists within the UK. Currently membership stands at over 1750, all of whom chose to be members of the Group as one of the benefits of their membership of CILIP.