Monday, March 12, 2012

Where Do Government Websites Go When They Die?

The U.S. Government Printing Office recently announced that Friday, March 16 will mark the official retirement date for its long-running GPO Access website. At the end of the week, FDsys, which has been available since its 2009 beta test (see earlier Blogson post), will officially take over as the default source for federal government publications, including public and private laws; the federal budget; congressional reports, debates, and hearings; the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations; federal court opinions; and countless other materials.

Outdated links will redirect from GPO Access to FDsys for at least one more year, but GPO cautions: “In the event that an exact equivalent could not be provided, users will be directed to the best available resource or the FDsys homepage.” This has left some bloggers worried about resources which are still missing from the FDsys platform, including the e-CFR, an unofficial version of the Code of Federal Regulations which is updated more frequently than the official version’s quarterly schedule. The Office of the Federal Register quickly assured concerned readers that the e-CFR will live on, despite its absence from FDsys, explaining that “[w]e could not migrate the unique e-CFR platform to FDsys, nor could we move it to a non-GPO Access URL before the shutdown.” An updated URL,, will ensure that e-CFR will continue without interruption.

The website transition, and the potential for some collections like e-CFR to fall through the cracks, does highlight the volatility of online materials. In a few years, how can researchers with an outdated GPO Access URL – or any other government website, for that matter – easily access the material they need? In 2011, the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group published the results of a three-year study which examined “link rot” in its collection of archived online documents, many of which were harvested from federal and state government websites. The group discovered that over a three-year period, nearly thirty percent of the original URLs had stopped working. Government domains (such as and .gov) were the most frequently-broken URLs.

Thankfully, the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group and other organizations are working to preserve historical government web information. The University of North Texas’s CyberCemetery archives defunct federal government websites. Generally, these are sites from agencies which have ceased operation, or commissions which have issued their final reports. The option to Browse by Date of Expiration provides an interesting timeline view of federal websites which have been dismantled. The Internet Archive also crawls government websites regularly and takes “snapshots” which are preserved for future reference. (For example, here’s the January 2009 home page where the FDsys beta was announced.)

For assistance with using the new FDsys site, or for help finding the new location of a broken URL, be sure to Ask a Librarian.