Government Information Librarianship and the Next Century of Depository Library Service

Over the last five years, building from the work of several research initiatives focused on the policy implications on digital access to Government information, the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies created the Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC). During the fall of 2009, faculty members involved with iPAC, along with other institutions, received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to fashion a two-year Master of Library Science graduate degree program that focused on e-government information, services, and resources. The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), through the offices and resources of the Superintendent of Documents, contributed letters of support and professional insights that were a part of the program’s ongoing success over the two years.

Designed for 20 scholarship students selected through a competitive process from around the United States, the program fashioned a curriculum of classes, research projects, professional opportunities, and internships that were delivered online. Classes began in the fall term 2010, and most of the students graduated successfully in either the spring or summer of 2012. Focused on four key areas, the cohort of students learned from the following core areas:

  • Intellectual and theoretical foundations of Government information services in libraries, with a strong grounding in historic forces that shaped current practice;
  • Virtual and personal internships to gain direct experience in how libraries, Government agencies, and other institutions develop services for their communities that draw upon digital Government information (As a capstone to their studies and research, students gained firsthand experience in the challenges of providing e-government information and resources through a wide variety of institutional arrangements as well the complexities of serving diverse user communities. Internships have been arranged with GPO and the Government Information Online digital reference service);
  • Participation in several regional and national conferences (such as the 2010 and 2011 Depository Library Council Meeting & Federal Depository Library Conference) to gain a better understanding of how the community of Government information librarians deals with access issues; and
  • Insights into the development of research and scholarship process through the contributions of the journal, Government Information Quarterly.

This successful model of graduate course work for future Government information librarians was further recognized in June 2012 when IMLS awarded iPAC another Laura Bush 21st Century grant to support 15 more scholarships for a cohort of students who will begin their online graduate work in fall of 2013. The students, through the course work and outside experience, grew to understand the contours of history and current practice that shape the Federal Depository Library Program’s (FDLP’s) future. The grant’s three principal investigators were no strangers to these challenges. John Carlo Bertot and Paul Jaeger from the University of Maryland and John A. Shuler from the University of Illinois at Chicago had all studied, supported research and policy initiatives, taught, and/or practiced as librarians and faculty members over the last 20 years on many aspects of the policies and programs that affect the FDLP’s future. They brought much of this research and practice to the table.

Over the two years together discussing the issues, students and teachers alike tried to grasp how e-government librarians would need to change, as well as when and why, in direct response to the Federal Government’s information resource policies embrace of digital technology. There was no question the essential values (and purposes) of providing freely available public access to Government information resources through libraries ought to remain a vital component within the civic culture of communities they served. But what was less clear (and a bit more contentious) is how depository libraries can continue this century old mission of access and transparency without somehow taking into account the technological revolution unleashed over the past nearly twenty years since GPO entered its current digital epoch with the passage of the GPO Access Act in 1993.

Many of the class discussions, as well as the focus of written assignments, addressed at least two issues of interest to the depository library community. First, who does a depository library serve and how much do those services cost? Though access to FDLP resources is nominally free to any community of users, it is very obvious that recent library budget and technological developments have drawn more attention to the inherent costs of the institution to provide those services. It is not cost-free to preserve physical collections, train staff, keep public programs up-to-date, and buildings open. Second, how does a Government information librarian balance the FDLP’s traditional focus on a particular format (paper and print) against the increasing expectation from the communities they serve that digital Government information resources will be the first choice when seeking knowledge about public programs and services? The growing ubiquity of smart phones, internet access, and other Web-enabled devices within many communities (as demonstrated by recent surveys of how individuals access digital government services) fosters another kind of information divide: Government information languishing in traditional formats and government information much more widely available through information networks.

Recognizing this new kind of information gap created by formats does not lessen a library’s ongoing obligations of meeting the needs of those who do not have access to these kinds personal devices (or choices) and must continue to rely on a library’s public tools to make this civic connection.

It was also clear from the two year experience that certain advantages can be gained if professional education, not just graduate education, can take advantage of teaching online. Our ability to connect with such a diverse and talented pool of students was enhanced by their ability to continue to enjoy their local lives through work and family. There were time constraints of course, just as with any student who must work full time and go to school. But the ability to set up common learning spaces, shared resources, and online course tools facilitated the teaching environment and made some aspects of teaching and learning that much easier. It also kept bringing the focus of the course, e-government services, grounded in some reality as students and teachers alike struggled to work against the limitations of their information tools and devices.

As members of the FDLP community discuss the Program’s future, the Maryland experience might offer some insights.

Depository librarians, through their institutional obligations, can be surprisingly nimble in their adaption of technological solutions to resolve difficult situations. They did so with paper and print publications, and through cooperative work with other public and private agencies. But, this will demand that the librarians and GPO add their own social/economic value to the raw public knowledge through organization, preservation, community outreach, and civic advocacy. They must involve the community in critical civic decision points. The engaged civic aspects of the Government’s information infrastructure is a wonderful thing. It is a collective and civic bargain to keep the democratic discussion open, free, and at least interesting. If the Government information remains in the public domain through this common civic purpose, libraries become the new information commons. Democracy’s “operating system” is not a civic technology, nor is it the information infrastructure that supports libraries. Rather it is a system of interrelated public and private civic relationships that use technology to support civic and democratic structures in their communities.

The added value came from organizational contextualization of the information sources (i.e. the “book” collections) and the librarians’ expertise to explain to members of any community (students, residents, workers, elected officials, and customers) how to save time searching for difficult information, make faster connections between known and unknown knowledge domains, and sustain, if not increase, a certain minimal level of literacy skills through advisory services and teaching.

In the case of Government information resources, the depository library’s added value grew from a careful examination (and explanation to the user) of how complex Government processes produce relevant print and paper information sources. Librarians, through these bibliographic artifacts, explained to their users how the Government worked. Along with this basic level of civic literacy, the Program’s trained librarians can explain when the exceptions to Government routines or processes might produce unexpected results (or none at all); why one source of information might be better than another (comparison and analysis); and/or how to place known information within other sources of public or civic knowledge in order to gain a greater understanding of complicated public issues.

This future professional expertise ought to be framed by graduate training and education to focus on establishing the critical expertise to build on the Program’s traditional infrastructure of civic access and sustainability. This could include formal training and education in cooperation with GPO.

As part of this vibrant web of civic information services, civic information libraries ought to sustain a culture of service and intervention that seeks to make direct connections between those individuals with particular economic, social, and health needs with the Government programs and services specifically designed to assist in those efforts. In other words, a world of digital Government expects a national system of library resources that allows individuals in a community to work, either alone or together, as active learners and deliberative participants in their shared civic and Government infrastructures. This addresses the ongoing inequities of the digital divide and continues the much older traditions of libraries in that they provide access to a community’s knowledge resources in an equitable fashion.

The civic operating system always thrived on technology, but it is not technology. The civic operating system is really a combination of deliberative engagement and informed public discussion. It is the electoral and civic conversation sustained by a community of involved individuals, the officials they elect to serve their individual and collective goals, and their civic institutions (public and private). This conversation is expressed through open meetings, robust exchange of all kinds of popular and unpopular information, and accessible official proceedings/decisions of public organizations that actively sustain the public’s knowledge of services, security, and justice.

This aspect is further sustained by the democratic values of a free press, freedom of assembly/petition, and the freedom of speech. What a robust depository library program operating in the digital age creates is “civic serendipity.” It is a primary institution blessed with the capability of people to engage their Government on their terms. Librarians must push back against the current sense that their institutions are displaced by changing technology, and they need to demonstrate how they can continue to keep people connected to their Government. Specifically, librarians must work to evolve their institutions into instruments that sharpen a community’s civic values.