Developing a Library Collection Development Policy: Government Documents

This is another in a series of columns about developing a law library collection development policy for the new, digital information environment. In my last two columns, I discussed journals. In this column, I’ll consider legislative materials as a subset of government documents generally, their role in legal research, their place in a contemporary law library collection, controversies surrounding print vs digital formats, and possible policies for collecting them.

A discussion of the role of government documents has recently taken on immediate significance in light of last month’s press release from Publications Canada that the decision has been made to completely transition all publications published by the Government of Canada Publishing Program and publications provided by federal departments to the Depository Services Program (which provides copies of government documents to most university and public libraries free of charge) from traditional print to exclusively electronic publication within two years. Commencing in 2014, Publishing and Depository Services will no longer be producing, printing, or warehousing hard copies of publications. However the Depository Services Program will continue to provide electronic access to Government of Canada publications through the Government of Canada Publications website,

The government’s decision was, of course, driven by a desire to cut costs: By fully transitioning to free web-based publications, the costs of printing, distributing and warehousing hard copies will be eliminated. But there were other policy considerations – for example, making government documents freely available and accessible to all Canadians while recognizing a public preference for digital over print materials, and the desire that our governments pursue green initiatives. Regardless, this move will have major consequences for our libraries and collection policies surrounding government documents, and not least for the preservation of these materials – and we have less than two years to address them.

What Are Government Documents?

Government documents (govdocs) are publications which, regardless of physical form, are issued by the authority of a government body – from the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government at all levels: national, federal, provincial/state, local and municipal, as well as international and intergovernmental bodies (UN, EU, OECD, WTO, WIPO, etc). They include documents produced by public (Crown) corporations, boards and investigative commissions (including royal commissions) and task forces, including any briefs submitted to them by third parties.

We in law libraries don’t generally include publications from the legislative and judicial branches when we think of government documents, probably because they are so central to our collections and research activities as the “primary sources” of law. We give them separate and special treatment as “legislative materials” and “law reports”, constituting separate collections within our libraries. Generally, we class the “other” government documents – i.e., non-legislative and non-judicial materials – with the monographs (texts) in our collections and apply to them similar collection development policies. In this column, I will consider the narrower aspect of government documents as perceived by law librarians (i.e., documents emanating from the executive branch) and treat legislative materials and law reports in separate, later posts.

Government Documents “Libraries”

Most university libraries have separate government documents collections, managed by specialist govdocs librarians. Acquiring govdocs is generally not a problem. Our university libraries and many public libraries are official depositories for federal and provincial govdocs, receiving all publications automatically and without charge. Many are also official depositories for govdocs from some foreign governments and international bodies. So, in the academic environment, we have immediate access to comprehensive govdocs collections from our immediate domestic jurisdictions and some foreign/international jurisdictions, fully catalogued by our specialist in-house govdocs librarians. Many public libraries are also full or partial depositories of government documents (a full list is available here), so government documents are widely available.

Though almost all government documents are now “born digital”, university libraries continue to acquire domestic government documents in print for their govdocs collections. Print is an option which non-academic and special libraries (especially in law firms) can no longer afford. One commercial publisher has collected Canadian “born digital” govdocs into a comprehensive collection and made it available to subscribers online: the Canadian Electronic Library-Canadian Public Policy Collection from Gibson Library Connections. This is a collection of “monograph” publications (no periodical series) from Canadian federal and provincial government agencies, public policy institutes, advocacy groups, think-tanks, university research centres and other public interest groups, in both English and French. The collection, which is built on the ebrary ebook platform, currently includes over 24,000 titles. Licences are surprisingly liberal and subscription costs reasonable, so that it is as easy for law firms to subscribe as it is for a larger public or academic library.

Some academic libraries no longer collect non-domestic govdocs in print. This decision is supported by the increasingly comprehensive availability of these documents in digital formats, whether free on government or organizational websites or subscription from commercial services.

Collection Development Policy for Government Documents

Because our university library – as does the library of every university with a law school – has a govdocs library that is an official government depository, and also because we subscribe to the Canadian Electronic Library described above, we at the Osgoode Hall Law School Library essentially no longer acquire govdocs. To avoid duplication of effort (acquisitions, cataloguing, processing, etc) and of collections within the university, we depend on the main library to acquire and document government documents. If the library’s primary concern is simply the documentation of and access to the govdocs in our subject areas, we already have access to these documents on the web (the problem of “link rot” will be considered at the end of this post) and as ebooks. They can also be readily researched and retrieved from other library catalogues (for which see the next section below). All in all, online documentation of and access to govdocs is excellent.

We make some limited exceptions to the “no govdocs” rule in our library. Because of our association with the Law Commission of Ontario, which has its offices at Osgoode and for which we provide research facilities, we continue to acquire in print the reports, study papers and research papers published by law reform commissions not only in Canada but anywhere in the Commonwealth. We also acquire in print any government and public policy documents (e.g., from law societies and bar associations) dealing with legal education, the legal profession or the administration of justice. When we acquire these materials, we acquire them specifically in print and specifically for archival and preservation purposes; that is, to ensure that print copies of these documents are preserved in a Canadian law library. If preservation were not a concern (as it wouldn’t be in most other law libraries), then access to a digital version of the document would be sufficient.

Tracking and Finding Government Documents

Keeping abreast of new government documents used to be easier than it is now. Government of Canada Publications has an excellent website and continues to offer weekly checklists of new publications and an excellent search function. The site can be used both as a selection tool (weekly checklists can be delivered to your email) and as a catalogue. You can search for Canadian federal publications using Amicus, “Canada’s national catalogue”, from Library and Archives Canada. Both the Amicus and Publications Canada catalogues offer links to the digital (PDF) version of any document if it is available in that format.

The Government of Ontario, on the other hand, discontinued its weekly checklists many years ago and the ServiceOntario Publications website offers neither checklists not an online catalogue. Fortunately, the Ontario Legislative Library offers its comprehensive Library Catalogue to the public (despite the fact that, as they make clear, they are a library for the members and staff of the Ontario Legislative Assembly and are not the provincial library). The catalogue is not user friendly and often difficult to fathom. Personally, I prefer the “Command Search” to the “Guided Search” function, finding the former more accurate and satisfactory. A version of the Legislative Library’s catalogue is available through OurOntario as the Government Documents Collection, but I have no confidence in the results and it is updated only quarterly. Another version of the Legislative Library’s catalogue is available from the Scholars Portal service of the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) under the name Ozone – though again, I find the interface clumsy and have no confidence in the results.

The level of documentation of government documents in other Canadian jurisdictions varies considerably, though another stands out: The Legislative Library of British Columbia continues to produce and provide access to monthly checklists of publications and an excellent catalogue, both with links to online versions of the documents.

Preservation of Canadian Government Documents

As I stated at the beginning of this post, the recent announcement regarding the cessation of print publication in favour of exclusively electronic publication of Canadian government documents raises serious issues for those of us who serve as stewards of access to and preservation of government information generally and legal information specifically in Canada. The main problem with the transition to digital is not format; rather, it’s the absence of any comprehensive policy on digital integrity, preservation, and long-term access. A study by The Chesapeake Project of born-digital government publications shows an incidence of “link rot” as high as 37% over a period of only a few years. Without a policy in place, it is likely that a substantial number of born-digital government publications will simply disappear.

Presented with similar challenges, our American colleagues have pursued two interesting initiatives.

Libraries belonging to the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) Network build local digital collections with a LOCKSS Box and acquire mission-critical assets that grow over time. Private LOCKSS Network participants have common interests in specialized subject areas; these networks are highly targeted collaborative efforts. Like-minded institutions work together to share the preservation responsibility (including governance and sustainability) of e-content important to the group.

The Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group began as the Chesapeake Project, a two-year (2007-2008) pilot digital preservation program established to preserve and ensure permanent access to vital legal information currently available in digital formats on the World Wide Web. The purpose of The Chesapeake Project was to successfully develop and implement a program to stabilize, preserve, and ensure permanent access to critical born-digital legal materials. The goal was to establish the beginnings of a strong regional digital archive collection of US legal materials as well as a sound set of standards, policies, and best practices with the potential to serve as a model for the future realization of a nationwide digital preservation program. The State Law Libraries of Maryland and Virginia and the Georgetown Law Library have now been joined by the Harvard Law School Library in this significant venture.

Despite the fact that government documents are “born digital”, there are those who insist that we must continue to preserve copies of them in print. Producing govdocs in print will now be an expensive and time-consuming process, requiring the library to print (presumably and hopefully on acid-free paper and in colour), bind and process the documents themselves from the digital originals. At a time of library budget reductions and shrinking staff, this will be increasingly difficult to realize.

Bibliographic access to born digital publications is another major area of concern. Over the past century, libraries have developed a complex system of cataloguing to ensure that users are able to efficiently identify and locate published information. To date, much of this effort has focused on print resources. Current online catalogues for government publications (described above), departmental websites and even Google are useful finding tools but are simply inadequate to meet the needs of research.

The move to digital-only government documents presents an opportunity to rethink of the role of depository libraries and to re-evaluate the impact of exclusively electronic publications on public access to Canadian government publications.


  1. Does this mean that the Gazette, annual statutory volumes, and Canada Supreme Court Law Reports will no longer be available in print starting in 2014?

  2. Sue — Two months after the draconian government press release, it seems that, in practice, the policy will may not be applied unilaterally and that each agency and department is being left to make their own decisions with respect to print. Some departments may decide to continue print production so long as the department is prepared to to cover the production costs in addition to the incremental costs of warehousing, distribution and managing subscriptions through Publications Canada. If you have an opinion, I would suggest you make it known sooner rather than later to the appropriate agency — whether the Supreme Court of Canada (, the Parliament of Canada (, the Department of Justice ( or Public Works and Government Services (