Bibliophilia, FOIA Style?

In the past, I’ve written here about the many and varied sorts of “records” that can be requested under the (American) Freedom Of Information Act, or FOIA: documents and reports, sure, but also photographs, books, videos… if it can be copied, it can – at least in theory – be requested from the appropriate government agency.

As near as I can tell, the same is pretty much true for the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act, as well.

Now, bear with me a moment…

The United States Government published a whopping great amount of stuff every year, through the Government Printing Office, or GPO. A lot of this is stuff that I hesitate to call excessively boring, though that’s a tempting description; let’s say instead that it’s highly specialized with minimal public interest. Recent publications can usually be found in a Federal Depository Library, but locating older publications can be tricky – especially if it isn’t listed in the Library of Congress’ electronic catalog.

Can you get old, out-of-print GPO publications through the Freedom of Information Act? I don’t think so, because everything they ever made should, theoretically, be available – if only on microfiche – through the Library of Congress, and the FOIA doesn’t apply to things that are available to the public already, even if access is, ahem, really difficult or expensive.

It doesn’t look like the UK FOIA has a similar restriction, and Her Majesty’s government has, not surprisingly, published quite a bit of stuff over the years as well. In years past, this was through Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, which is now (part of?) the Office of Public Sector Information, itself evidently a branch of the National Archives. They have an online catalogue of publications that are currently available, but what are you to do if you’d like a copy of something long out of print – say, Combined Operations 1940-1942, or any number of history guidebooks published throughout the 1970s and 1980s? Hit up the used bookshops, to be sure, turn to the internet… or make a FOI request?

I haven’t actually tried this myself, but it appears possible that the National Archives might photocopy historical publications in response to FOI requests (though probably for a fee). I’m not terribly familiar with the issues of Crown Copyright, but it looks like there would be no major issues to reproducing such documents online, either as individual efforts or through something like Project Gutenberg, as such reproduction would fall – I would think – under “Government’s interests to encourage unrestricted use.” Whether this is really in keeping with the spirit of the FOI Act is left to the reader to decide, but it seems like a potentially valuable option for researchers otherwise unable to access historically significant but essentially unobtainable publications…

If anyone wants to try this out – or point out why it isn’t workable – I’d love to hear from you. I’m also curious if anyone has a definitive answer regarding Crown Copyright and third-party internet republication, a la Project Gutenberg, et cetera. I know that when most people think “government publication”, they think of some gripping, suspenseful thriller like “Amended Minutes of the Provisional Interim Subcommittee on Interdepartmental Office Supply Acquisition, 1999-2004, Vol. XVIII”, but governments do occasionally publish some quite interesting books indeed – albeit ones that seem to go out of print really, really quickly.

Published in: General | on August 27th, 2009| Comments Off on Bibliophilia, FOIA Style?

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