How to Protect Official Information From Being Amended

Donna Ravenhill, Dandy Booksellers Ltd

 Do we have any control over parliament or government changing documents? – The answer is no. Once a document is published electronically it should be clearly visible. If the document is amended at a later date – no longer do we have the deposit libraries’ hard copy collections to rely on – what resources will allow us to ensure the path of history is not being changed by parliament or government? The subscription database Public Information Online stores the document as published, if the document is amended it shows both the original document and the amended version.

In the good old days when official publications were scrutinised by publishing teams, mistakes were still found and correction slips were issued. Due to austerity measures these publishing teams have disappeared. It is often the responsibility of civil servants within government departments or clerks of committees who have no experience whatsoever of publishing documents in hard copy or electronically. It becomes their job to ensure the information is freely available to whoever wants to look at it. The term ‘freely available’ makes many people believe it is worthless and unimportant – just get it uploaded without care or attention to the end product.

What happens if a new government decides to abolish a department? What happens if Parliament decide to abolish the House of Lords? Are they really going to want to leave all the documents available if they see no need for them? We could lose so much publicly available information by just removing a domain name. It might sound ludicrous but let’s look at the following example; the Audit Commission closed in March 2015. If you go to gov.uk now there are 13 publications available from the Audit Commission:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications?departments%5B%5D=audit-commission

We can assure you this is way off, on Public Information Online there are 171 publications going back to 2010

Let’s go to the TNA web archive for the Audit Commission:

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150211161456/http://archive.audit-commission.gov.uk/auditcommission/pages/default.aspx.html

Go to the past publications page and you will find: “If you would like a full digital set of our publications, please contact us quoting ‘Request for digital publications’ in your message.”

How to find the hidden gems:

The most comprehensive source of statistics in the UK, Annual Abstract of Statistics, was a statistical encyclopaedia that included over 10,000 series of data covering key aspects of the UK’s economic, social and industrial life. The final ONS edition was published in 2010. It covered the following areas: parliamentary elections; international development; defence; population and vital statistics; education; labour market; personal income, expenditure and wealth; health; social protection; crime and justice; lifestyles; environment, housing; transport and communications; national accounts; prices; government finance; external trade and investment; research and development; agriculture, fisheries and food; production; banking and insurance and service industry

Due to customer demand, we have continued to publish this information both in hard copy and electronically. It can take many months to gather the information from hundreds of different official sources. The very first edition was published in 1840 as Statistical Abstract of the UK and until 1938 (vol. 83) were published as parliamentary papers. In the Nineteenth century, the set was entitled Statistical Abstract of the British Empire and Statistical Abstract of British India. It has been published for 176 years. We believe it should continue to be available. Otherwise how can we expect any historian in a hundred years’ time to have a chance of capturing this valuable information from old archived datasets from 2016?

If you wanted to look at Annual Abstract of Statistics No. 1 from 1840 you could go to the BL and pull it off the shelf – whereas the same data from this century could become unavailable because this government does not currently see any worth in keeping official statistics in hard copy for perpetuity.

‘Tangible documents continue to have utility and historic importance. Libraries need to get together to assure their preservation.’ (James R. Jacobs, Stanford University).

Refer 32(2) Summer 2016

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