University of South Alabama, University Libraries

It is an interesting time to be a Government Information specialist! Through the use of computers, a wealth of information is at our fingertips and it can be pulled together in a useful and meaningful way for our library users. Our spotlight library for this month has done just that. The University of South Alabama, University Libraries Paula L. Webb and Vicki Tate have pulled together a tremendous amount of information related to the Gulf Oil Spill.

Located in Mobile, Alabama, this University and its surrounding residents are facing the catastrophic consequences of the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill. To help researchers and residents alike find the information they need, a Web page of information resources related to the oil spill, including a detailed bibliography, has been compiled on the library’s Government Document’s Web page. The scope of the Web page continues to grow as the information being produced continues to expand. The site receives over 100 visitors a day and spikes occur when major news breaks.

The numerous Federal, State, local, agencies involved, not to mention grassroots groups, produce a flood of data, making it difficult for the public to extract information relevant to their needs. Oil spill information is disseminated in real time, on an ongoing basis. In fact, live-streaming of video feeds is available on the Library’s Web page thanks to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Also adding confusion to the volume of information are the various outlets the information providers have used to push their content. The Library’s bibliography includes links to agency Web pages, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, embedded widgets, and more. By compiling these access points, the University Libraries staff have made it possible for information seekers to obtain information using their format of choice. The Library’s USAGovDoc Twitter feed itself has over 100 followers and they average about one new follower a day.

Information needs in the Gulf oil spill area vary greatly. Some people are primarily concerned about their own local area; others are concerned about the wider Gulf states region. Some want complex or advanced data for their research needs; others want simple, factual information about particular topics. Library staff have crafted a resource that meets the needs of all.

Using online resources is a wonderful way to visually tie information to a geographic area. The staff were able to embed an interactive map called into their Web page. The map is jointly produced by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Coast Guard, and the Department of the Interior and is a good example of compiled agency information or jointly-operated information outlets. What better way to connect people with information than to combine data streams so the public does not need to know which agency produces the information they are looking for?

Also of note is the social bookmarking the library has used to identify topical documents and Web portals through their use of Delicious tagging. The library’s ID is USAGovDoc, and has used over 222 tags linked to OilSpill2010 to help users identify information related to topics they hear on the news and are likely to be accustomed to.

The initial creation of this Web page and bibliography with basic resources took about one day. However as the Gulf oil spill grew, library staff invested an hour a day to tracking down the more advanced information resources. Now, having already found the major resources, they update their content about every other week. A big challenge the library now faces is the archiving of this valuable, non-static information.

When I [Paula L. Webb] first created the Resource page, there was so much information floating around that it was hard for people to find the resources they needed. I wanted to create a Web site that could be a single source to find the government information needed, specifically for the Alabama Gulf Coast. We never foresaw the events that have since taken place. We did not realize that BP would have a command post in Mobile. For a while, many people did not think the oil slick would ever reach the Alabama beaches. We did not realize the impact this would have on Mobile Bay. As this oil spill grows and impacts more of the coastline, the scope of the bibliography keeps changing.

And how did the staff locate all these rich resources? Paula L. Webb used a combination of gleaning resources from the news and Google/Yahoo searches. She also has some unique strategies.

I usually add ".gov" to my search string. In addition, when I find a document that is three and four levels down from the homepage, I will modify the URL to see it will link me to other important resources. You would be surprised how much additional, supportive resources can be found this way.

Of course the University Libraries do more than just compile oil spill information. The library staff have long been known for their outstanding work on national and state Government information committees, compiling lists of important hot government documents, course bibliographies, and more. Their use of these Web tools is not new and their Gulf Oil Spill Web page and bibliography is a continuation of existing inroads into the Web 2.0 technology. For example, the library has over 321 social bookmarks to government information in Delicious.

Government information is no longer limited to print and microfiche information, taking months to be distributed; instead government information is literally available at one’s fingertips, if one knows where to go. For compiling and pushing information to their users to address the immediate information needs resulting from the Gulf Oil Spill and for all the other Federal depository activities and services, GPO thanks the University of South Alabama’s University Libraries and their staff.