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March 19, 2001
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Freedom of Information Day

Freedom of Information Day was observed this past week on March 16, the birthday of James Madison, the fourth U.S. president and one of the principal figures in the constitutional convention. President Reagan proclaimed the day a national holiday in 1986 as a result of efforts by journalists, librarians and other information professionals.

The expressed purpose of the holiday is to celebrate the public's right to know. The 1966 "Freedom of Information Act" (P.L. 90-23) gave citizens a legally enforceable right to access federal government records and documents. In brief, the act requires federal agencies to disclose records to the public for inspection or copying, subject to certain exemptions (e.g. national security).Since then, the protections afforded under the act have been bolstered by a number of amendments, an important one being the 1996 "Electronic Freedom of Information Act," which sets forth procedures designed to facilitate the public's access to information from federal agencies in electronic format.

Those who are concerned with the preservation and access to government information, however, see the holiday as an opportunity to advocate for further protections surrounding the public's right to know. Information professionals are concerned that the greater freedoms that accompany the increasing availability of information in electronic format may be offset by the potential for more limited access. The amount of records and documents provided to federal depository library collections, for example, is decreasing, as more information becomes available over the web. And increased electronic access raises issues of capturing and preserving electronic publications for the future.

The American Library Association has identified the following areas of concern with respect to public access to government information:

  • elimination of one of every four of the government's 16,000 publications;
  • decline in the quantity and quality of federal statistical programs;
  • higher prices for census, weather and other data collected with tax dollars but now published by private sources;
  • attempts by the federal Office of Management and Budget to use its paperwork review power to control substantive federal agency decisions;
  • weakening of the Freedom of Information Act;
  • attempts to restrict access to a broad range of "sensitive" but unclassified government information; and
  • erosion in overall quality of public access to federal information. (1)



1. For more information, see the American Library's Association's publication, "Freedom of Information Day" (http://www.ala.org/pio/foiday/), which contains a resource list of books, reports, journals and web sites concerned with the issues discussed above.

Written by: Sunil Rao
Reference Librarian
strao@facstaff.wisc.edu

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