San Diego Library giving up federal document depository status after 137 years


San Diego’s downtown public library will end its 137-year tenure as an official depository for federal public documents, library officials said this week.

Head librarian Misty Jones said the change was prompted by most federal documents now being available online, adding that the government documents floor of the city’s downtown library gets relatively little use.

It’s not a budget-cutting effort, Jones said, but it will eventually free up space and allow some of her staff to focus on services other than government documents.

Some critics are questioning why the decision was made without more public input and debate. They also say the move will cost the library some prestige and deprive users of access to some documents that haven’t been digitized.

San Diego is one of only five libraries in the region with federal depository status. The others are the county law library and three universities: San Diego State, UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.


Jones said she and her staff have spent nearly two years analyzing whether they should make such a switch, which she said has become a national trend as more federal documents get digitized and become available online.

“I don’t see the necessity to keep physical copies and online copies,” she said, noting that only seven of 2,600 questions asked of library staff last October were related to government documents. “It’s really about the usage and the changing nature of libraries.”

Jones estimated that 85% to 90% of federal documents are available online and stressed that the U.S. Government Printing Office aims to bring that up to 100% in coming years.

Bruce Johnson, who served as San Diego’s deputy library director during a 15-year career that ended in 2015, criticized the city’s move as “puzzling and vexing.”

“Status as a federal depository library has been an important component of the library’s service to the public,” he said. “It’s one of the many things that makes a large central library such a powerful community resource.”

Johnson also suggested that Jones and her staff should have presented a list of pros and cons to the city’s Library Commission and the public before making such a decision.

“Why has this decision not been discussed more widely in the community?” he asked.

Jones said she informed the Library Commission about the plan and received comments of support.


“I understand there are some that do not agree with this decision,” she said. “This was not easy, but a lot of thought and analysis was done that makes me confident in the decision.”

Jones said the city has more than 1 million documents in its Government Documents Library, which takes up much of the third floor at downtown’s Central Library.

“It is shelf-to-shelf full of government documents,” she said. “I think part of that is because we have not effectively gone in and weeded out the things we do not need to hold onto.”

Jones said it will take five or six years for staff to go through those documents and decide what to keep. Anything they decide not to keep must be offered to other libraries, she said.

The government printing office is scheduled to send staff to San Diego in coming weeks to help, Jones said.

“There’s a long process you have to go through to give up your depository status, and we’ve taken the preliminary steps,” she said.

When the process is complete, Jones said users will still have access to printed copies of federal documents through the local university libraries, which have a reciprocal borrowing agreement with the city library system.

In addition, she noted that the University of California system has launched a Federal Archives Document Project that aims to digitize all available federal documents and make them available online.


Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.