US printing office reinvents itself to keep presses rolling

 

Washington

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.

The Department of Homeland Security's 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 Washington's 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 government's 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 agency's budget by more than 20 percent.

Evidence of its obsolescence is mounting. The Federal Register and Congressional Record, GPO's 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 last blue-collar strongholds in a white-collar bureaucracy is at its lowest point.

The printing office's 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 can't just come into the situation we're in and say, 'Status quo.' " Then she smiles. "We're 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 it's in the process of becoming a digital library holding the government's 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 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." There's 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 Thursday's run. He's 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.

"It's not dying. It's growing," Crawford says. "But in a different way than before."

Indeed, Vance-Cooks calls "GPO" a misnomer. "I personally believe we should be called Government Publications Office," she says.

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 it's 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. That's what keeps him glued to the agency's fight for survival. "While I'm 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 executive's 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 GPO's superintendent of documents. "But no matter what, there are essential titles that should always be available to the public.

"In print."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor