Thinking about FOIA Libraries

While you won’t find any card catalogs in agency FOIA libraries, the same principles of good librarianship — creating a resource that is helpful, useful and organized — apply. (ARC Identifier 558218)

On January 21, 2013, representatives of 12 agencies and several requester groups gathered to discuss online FOIA “libraries.” The Attorney General’s 2009 FOIA Memorandum encouraged agencies to post information online in advance of a formal request. Many agencies’ FOIA regulations also require them to post records for which they receive multiple requests, and other agencies such as the FBI wisely post records related to hot topics for which they expect multiple requests. Additionally, the Freedom of Information Act itself, 5 USC § 552(a)(2), lists categories of records that agencies should make available on their websites.

While creating a FOIA library seems straightforward, Tuesday’s lively, wide-ranging discussion revealed both challenges and opportunities for agencies.

  1. Agencies are feeling the squeeze. We’ve talked before about the difficult budget environment affecting FOIA offices dealing with backlogs. This is also true as agencies try to expand their FOIA libraries. Given the choice of dedicating already-limited FOIA staff to processing requests or uploading and organizing documents, roundtable attendees agreed that most agencies would choose the former. Compounding the issue is that FOIA professionals may not be technology experts and may face hurdles within their agencies to access the tools and know-how they need. While there may be no easy answer to this challenge, it’s important to continue discussing it so all members of the FOIA community — agencies and requesters — understand agencies’ limitations. 
  2. Save the time of the reader. We heard again and again that agencies face a major challenge as they attempt to implement S. R. Ranganathan’s Fourth Law of Library Science. Several roundtable attendees reported that they found some agency FOIA libraries to be inconsistent and disorganized. While making web resources accessible is a challenge faced by all content providers, the roundtable attendees expressed a desire for Federal FOIA leadership to develop best practices for FOIA libraries.  
  3. Beyond records. So what, exactly, should FOIA libraries contain? While FOIA libraries are an ideal place to make records available, those in attendance encouraged agencies to also include information about how they process FOIA requests. Ideally, this information would be in the form of FOIA regulations and policies as well as a plain language guide to making a FOIA request. Other attendees encouraged agencies to post information about what their agencies don’t have — for instance, the Department of Education does not have access to local schools’ records.
  4. Great FOIA libraries require a culture shift. While the attendees agreed that agency FOIA professionals tend to be strongly pro-disclosure, this is not always true for the agencies in which they work. Creating a useful FOIA library requires an agency to think like a requester in terms of what to include and how to organize it. Roundtable attendees reminded one another that although agencies generally agree that after three requests for a record, that record should be posted in the FOIA library, agencies don’t need to wait for even one request to post a record. Attendees also agreed that the FOIA library works best as a team effort, involving an agency’s Public Affairs, IT, records management and FOIA staffs as well as its leadership.

 Do you have thoughts on FOIA libraries? We’d love to hear from you!  

2 thoughts on “Thinking about FOIA Libraries

  1. Thank you for this post and for asking for comments. The members of the Public Interest Declassification Board recently presented the President with recommendations to improve the classification system. See” for more information. One of our recommendations centered on the need for agencies improve their organizational structure by integrating records officers, historians, FOIA and declassification professionals so that important agency information is “tagged” and identified. this information can then be prepositioned for access review. These staff know what records that public wants to see and will want to see. They can work together and with their agency policymakers to better prioritize what to include on their ageny’s FOIA/Open Government site so that it provides information that the public wants…and conserves and makes more efficient use of agency resources.

  2. Thanks for this comment. Great idea and great example of the team approach in action!

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