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A day in the life of a govinfo librarian: FOIA’ing an old report

I thought I’d just share this here as no doubt other govinfo librarians have had similar experiences. When I say “day” it should really be “several months” because what started out as a simple ILL request grew into a several month email trail.

A researcher asked the library to do an Interlibrary loan request for a 1966 USGS report: Navigation channel improvement of the Alto Parana River, Argentina and Paraguay: peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. (Who says govt documents are boring?! This one was about using nuclear explosives to excavate river channels. Crazy, yes, but not boring!! Govt documents have much fodder for works of fiction but don’t get me started about the US Life Saving Service :-)) However, our ILL staff (normally *amazing* at digging out old/obscure/out-of-print materials for our patrons!) couldn’t find this one and so asked me for help.

After perusing the Monthly Catalog and much trolling of government tech report sites like National Technical Reports Library (NTRL), Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), and the Technical Report Archive and Image Library (TRAIL), I finally came across a catalog record for it in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) Library.

Fingers crossed, I emailed the library and asked if by chance they could scan it and send me a copy which I would give to our researchers and save a digital copy in our digital repository. The ERDC librarian in Vicksburg, MS responded within a day and said no problem, she would scan and send it. Awesome, my work would soon be done, or so I thought.

The following week, the ERDC librarian emailed me and said there was a problem. A note on the USGS report said “For Official Use Only” and so ERDC would have to get permission from USGS to release the report. So I waited and waited and waited some more.

After a month of waiting and checking in with ERDC, the ERDC librarian said that she still hadn’t heard back from USGS and suggested that I contact them. She also suggested that I should preemptively submit a FOIA request to USGS and sent me helpful information on how to do that and who to contact.

So I moved my efforts over to USGS and emailed them (the ERDC librarian had helpfully given me several contacts at USGS-Flagstaff and the main office). The following week, the ERDC librarian contacted me, and said the head of USGS technical services (whom the ERDC librarian had sent the already-scanned report) had spoken with USGS security advisors and that a FOIA request would definitely be required.

I submitted a FOIA request to USGS and 3 days later received a reply acknowledging the request, but saying (I couldn’t help but laugh at this!) that because my request fell into the “Complex processing track” and would present “unusual circumstances: the need to search for or collect records from a field facility or establishment separate from the office processing the request”, they would complete a final response by October 9, 2018, fully 3 months from receipt of my FOIA request!

I quickly replied to the FOIA officer and gently reminded him that USGS already *had* the scanned document in hand and I hoped that it would not take them 3 months to send it to me. 3 days later, I got an email from USGS with the document attached!

So what started out as a simple ILL request in early May was finally completed almost 3 months later in the 3rd week of July! The researcher now has the document in hand, and we’ve got a copy of it stored and available in the Stanford Digital Repository:

Navigation channel improvement of the Alto Paraná River, Argentina and Paraguay : peaceful uses for nuclear explosives

I have to give a huge shout-out and thank you to our ILL staff and to the ERDC librarian (who I won’t name because I haven’t asked her permission). She was quick to respond, kept track of the request and kept me apprised of the process, and gave me helpful information on the FOIA process.

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