Submitted: The Two Sides Team November 14, 2012
One sunny afternoon this week, the giant presses at 732 North Capitol Street NW rumbled to life, a reminder that the ink-and-paper era has not yet come to an end.
By Lisa Rein
One sunny afternoon this week, the giant presses at 732 North Capitol Street
NW rumbled to life, a reminder that the ink-and-paper era has not yet come to an
The Department of Homeland
Securitys Voter Assistance Guide for new citizens rolled off a Heidelberg
press at the Government Printing
Office. A journeyman wearing earplugs and a red T-shirt stood sentry over
the massive machine, replenishing five-pound cans of ink as soon as they emptied
onto the printing plate.
The scent of ink and paper and the oils that lubricate the engines of one of
Washingtons last manufacturing facilities wafted across the plant floor. Aside
from the whirring of the press, the room was quiet, another reflection of the
fact that the legions of compositors, proofreaders, platemakers and press
operators on three shifts who once filled these press rooms a block from Union
Station have long since disappeared.
In their place are young Web developers and information technology
specialists trying to reinvent one of the governments oldest, proudest
institutions. And, for now at least, succeeding.
In an era when 97 percent of federal documents are now created
electronically, people ask why the printing office still exists. Politicians are
calling for smaller government, and some have sponsored legislation ordering
that printed copies of congressional bills and resolutions cease. House
Republicans tried last year to slash the agencys budget by more than
Evidence of its obsolescence is mounting. The Federal Register and
Congressional Record, GPOs signature publications, have plummeted to 2,500
copies from a 30,000-copy run two decades ago. In that time conventional
government printing has shrunk by half. At 1,900 employees, one of the last
blue-collar strongholds in a white-collar bureaucracy is at its lowest
The printing offices leader has a salve for this decline: rebranding.
We needed a plan, Davita Vance-Cooks says. People are asking questions
like, Your name is GPO. Are you still printing?? Her official title is
public printer, the k lopped off public sometime in the last century.
Her answer, when she became the first woman to lead the agency last January,
was this: You cant just come into the situation were in and say, Status
quo. Then she smiles. Were a poster child for adaptation.
Vance-Cooks released a five-year strategic plan this week that sets out a
trajectory for the agency, which was founded on the eve of the Civil War. The
GPO will still print the federal budget, the Code of Federal Regulations and
many other publications that people can touch. But its in the process of
becoming a digital library holding the governments most important electronic
documents and a workhorse for a post-Sept. 11 security culture.
The GPO began printing passports 80 years ago, stitching them together by
hand in its bindery. For several years it has served as the printer of secure
government IDs biometrically designed passports and border-crossing smart
cards. With $200 million worth of secure cards printed in the past fiscal year,
the agency is counting on the business to continue its exponential growth.
The strategic plan enshrines the new mission in nine pages of bureaucratese,
to wit: GPO will continue to leverage its historical strengths to sustain and
advance openness in government. Theres a new motto, too: Official. Digital.
Secure, seemingly designed to make us feel we can trust this newfangled entity
as we did in 1863, when it first printed the Emancipation Proclamation.
This is still a very vibrant agency, says John Crawford, its 71-year-old
plant manager, walking the wooden press floor to oversee Thursdays run. Hes an
ebullient man with a shock of white hair, whose wife of 51 years still lays out
his clothes in the morning. When he started work as a bookbinder 47 years ago,
the GPO had 8,500 employees.
Its not dying. Its growing, Crawford says. But in a different way than
Indeed, Vance-Cooks calls Government Printing Office a misnomer. I
personally believe we should be called Government Publishing Office, she
One of her first acts as printer-in-chief was to meet with the unions, which
agreed to buyouts of 330 laborers last year. I hope I was able to calm some
people down, she says. There is a role for everyone, but its changing.
Pressmen are being trained to operate digital presses designed for shorter
runs. When they retire, their jobs will move to a new generation schooled in
building e-book partnerships and designing iPhone apps.
Jon Quandt is a soft-spoken, cerebral program manager who came to the GPO
through a federal internship and now oversees mobile products. These consist so
far of a guide to House and Senate members, the daily compilation of
presidential documents and the federal budget.
Quandt, 29, is a former academic who, when he was contemplating a
dissertation on American antebellum history, found that many of his sources had
been printed by his employer. Thats what keeps him glued to the agencys fight
for survival. While Im all about the new, I have a strong respect for the
past, he says.
And the GPO is still a place that reveres the past, from the marble-and-brass
lobby of its Romanesque Revival building to its bookstore, which still stocks
hard copies of such titles as International Regulations for Preventing
Collisions at Sea. The public papers of the president, the twice-a-year
collection of the chief executives official speeches, addresses to Congress and
other communications, are still bound by hand, the endpapers marbled and cover
boards wrapped in gold-stamped leather.
For whose who fear the end of the printed word, there is good news. GPO
officials, working with librarians in the federal depository system, have come
up with a canon of about 160 titles that will continue be printed by the GPO
indefinitely, from the Economic Report of the President to the Internal Revenue
Bulletin. And the Library of Congress still only officially recognizes print and
microfiche formats as archival records.
There are people who may believe the government should not publish anymore,
says Mary Alice Baish, the GPOs superintendent of documents. But no matter
what, there are essential titles that should always be available to the
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