Q&A: Davita Vance-Cooks, Director of the Government Publishing Office

First female and first African-American head discusses GPO’s history and mission

Davita Vance-Cooks is the first woman and first African-American to lead the Government Publishing Office. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Davita Vance-Cooks is the first woman and first African-American to lead the Government Publishing Office. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Dick
Posted April 3, 2017 at 5:01am

Davita Vance-Cooks is the 27th public printer of the United States, the first woman and the first African-American to hold the post. She spoke with Roll Call recently about the Government Publishing Office’s purpose and place in documenting the government’s wide range of activity and how it fits into a rapidly expanding digital-first world. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Roll Call: Director, what is the overall purpose of the Government Publishing Office?

Davita Vance-Cooks: The GPO was created on March 4, 1861 and the purpose of it is to be the official government printer. Now we are known as the official government publisher. We are responsible for publishing the authentic information products from all three branches of the government. We have printed just about every great American state paper since then, starting with the Emancipation Proclamation, which, of course, has great meaning for me. We print the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, all the committee reports, the bills, the hearings, all of that for Congress. We also print a lot of products for the agencies. If you go to the library to pick up one of those IRS tax forms, we published it. We publish so many things for the agencies and we also publish for the White House. We also print secure credentials. A lot of people don’t know that we have a long-standing relationship with the State Department and we have been publishing their passport books ever since then.

But as you know, we started off as the Government Printing Office, and we knew that we had to diversify our products. This is a digital world and we now produce mobile apps, e-books, secure credentials. We were the first legislative branch to transition our email to the cloud. And Congress recognized this and they redesignated our name in 2014 and now we are the Government Publishing Office because we moved and transformed ourselves from a print-centric manufacturing facility to a content-centric digital publishing operation.

RC: You worked as the chief of staff for the Government Printing Office … before you made acting public printer in 2012 under President Barack Obama. And then, with the name change, you became the permanent director publisher. You are also the first woman and first African-American to hold the title. What did that mean to you to be the first in both those categories, to lead this old and important agency?

DVC: I’m absolutely humbled by it, especially because I know the history of the women in this organization and the African-Americans in this organization. And it is an awesome responsibility that I have. Back when the GPO was created, there were about 350 people, half of them were women, and when you look at the fact that, back then, the only jobs that they were “allowed to have” — I’m going to put that in quotation marks — were those jobs that were specific to women, that they thought were women-type of functions. They could collate and they could sew. That’s what they were allowed to do. This went on for decades. And the women decided back in 1973, around the early ’70s, there was a court case. Three hundred women in the bindery decided to bring a class-action suit against the GPO because they wanted equal rights. They wanted equal pay for doing the same work. They wanted more promotional opportunities and the government — let’s put it this way — everything went in their favor. And they changed the way that this agency moved. They changed the whole culture. I’m aware of the pain that they went through. I am aware of the courage that it took. They demanded equal rights and because of that, I feel humbled by the fact that I have this awesome responsibility. I really do. And things have changed. They are now part of the union; they are now part of apprentice classes. They have just changed the way that this organization is run.

RC: There seems to also be an attention to archiving. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between the GPO’s mission to archive and some other entities like the historians’ offices in Congress and the Library of Congress?

DVC: I think it is important for me to first start off that the GPO is responsible for producing the authentic information products of Congress. We make sure that the information has not changed from the point in which it originates to when it comes to us, and we print it. If you look at our Congressional Record and all of these other documents online, you’ll see a seal of approval, which states, “This is authentic.” 

We have a digital repository called FDsys, and this is where we put all of that information online every day. … So we work very closely with our depository and library community. We have about 1,100 libraries across the United States to make sure that we know the current protocols for archiving what we capture. We have a web archiving initiative to make sure that we segment everything, to make sure we know where it came from, to make sure that it is authentic and we work closely with the libraries to do that.

A Woman’s History Month Talk With the First Female GPO Director

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RC: What would be your quick pitch on why the GPO is relevant today? 

DVC: The mission of the GPO is to keep America informed about the business of its government. And it does that by ensuring that the information that comes out is authentic … by making sure that the custody of the chain, from the time that the information is originated to the point in which it is published, whether it is a tangible document or online, that it is authentic. 

What’s important for everyone to understand, is that now that the world has turned digital, you want to be confident that the information that you are accessing about the Congressional Record and any other authentic government document is real. And that is why you need the GPO. We make it happen. I think the fact that we have been around since 1861 … we know how to do it. And when the world changed to digital, we changed right along with it. So, whatever else is going to happen in the future, you can be assured from our history that we will make sure to support all three branches of the government in keeping America informed.

Hannah Gardenswartz contributed.