This was an essay written by Oz Frankel looking Congress’ role as a publisher in the late nineteenth century. What I found to be interesting was how people didn’t just rely on the federal government for information, they demanded accurate information be published.
Frankel noticed two features of Congressional publishing. First, the tangible features of a book were just as important as the content being published: the size, shape, binding , and materials used to create book covers were vigorously debated in Congress. Woodcuts, lithographs, metal engravings, and colored pictures were added to increase the aesthetic value of the reports (sometimes publishing the findings of a scientific expedition were more expensive than the expedition itself!)
Second, Frankel argued that authorship was never obscured despite these massive, bureaucratic undertakings. Public officials and lawmakers had ambitions, taking advantage of the government’s services to publish their memoirs and inflate their egos. Party affiliations were also involved (the Whig Party liked to publish reports that promoted internal improvements – see pg. 143 if you have access to the essay). Authors were very much attached to their reports.
What I found to be very interesting was the series of concerns Congress had to confront concerning publishing practices:
Did Congress have the Constitutional authority to interfere in the publishing business? Was Congress obligated to present information to the public? Was that information supposed to be free to the public?
How was the information going to be displayed? Was too much information being presented? Was too little information being presented? Would the book contain only dry statistics, or have pictures and personal anecdotes from the authors of the findings? Should Congress only cater the the preferences of its voters? Would publishing such information advance a political party’s agenda? Would authors get eclipsed in the bureaucratic process?
How much money should be spent on making the book: should Congress go the cheap route, or create an artistic masterpiece? Should the books be split up into volumes? If so, how would the federal government keep track of who has what book?
It is no wonder, then, that Congress would feel overwhelmed at times, and this is all before the invention of the Internet. Many of these concerns are very much relevant today. In today’s world’s obsession over current events, it’s easy for the federal government to bombard us with all kinds of information on various websites. The bigger concern nowadays is how up to date is that information.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think it’s necessary for Congress to continue publishing information now that we have websites like Wikipedia? what can the government do that private enterprise cannot? Do you trust the government to provide us with accurate information, or are you skeptical? Do you think its possible for the government to do anything without devolving into political games (I don’t think so but maybe some of you out there are optimistic)?