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Down a few rabbit holes in search for a historic pamphlet on Fascism

I went down a little rabbit hole today and thought I’d share since it’s a good representation of some of the issues we face in the library government information world.

It all started innocently enough with my daily substack missive from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” (May 29, 2023) — if you haven’t subscribed to her essay, you’re missing out. She’s amazing at putting current events into historical context! Go subscribe NOW!)

Beginning in 1943, the War Department published a series of pamphlets for U.S. Army personnel in the European theater of World War II. Titled Army Talks, the series was designed “to help [the personnel] become better-informed men and women and therefore better soldiers.”

On March 24, 1945, the topic for the week was “FASCISM!”

She had me from the first sentence! I thought, this is SO relevant to today’s political situation. So of course I went to her footnotes (she ALWAYS cites what she writes!!) and noticed that for “Army Talk Orientation Fact Sheet #64 – Fascism!” she had linked to the Internet Archive. No harm in that, but I wondered to myself why she hadn’t linked to a .gov repository. Here’s where things went a little sideways.

As any good government information librarian would, I first went to the Government Publishing Office’s (GPO) official Catalog of Government Publications. Since this was a serial, the specific issue was not cataloged, only the title “Army talk, orientation fact sheet;” And there was no link to a digitized version of the serial. To cover my bases, I also searched a keyword “fascism” but this particular piece didn’t come up in the search results. I also tried a brute google search for “army talk fascism site:*.gov” which brought back some interesting results but NOT the pamphlet I was looking for.

Next I went to my library’s catalog. Knowing that GPO had only cataloged the serial title, I searched only for “Army Talk” and found the title. This was a partial win. Since I knew there was an issue titled “Fascism”, I browsed our shelves to make sure we had a copy (YES!) and then checked the google books link in our record (Stanford is one of the original libraries in the Google Book Project, so they had digitized our copy). Yes it was there in Google books, but again, I’d first have to KNOW there was an issue titled “Fascism” and then scroll down to issue 64 to find the one I was looking for. Searching for “fascism” within the google books reader once I got to the serial wasn’t much help since the word was in this serial 69 times! And of course, Google deals with everything as if it’s a BOOK, even a serial that has 150+ issues — SIDE NOTE: US government serials are INFAMOUS for their serials in which each issue has a different title! My favorite example is the US Department of Agriculture Bulletin (serial title) which is chock full of titles like “The pink bollworm”. My library at least has analyzed this serial so that each of the 380 different titles also shows up in the catalog! But I digress.

Next stop, Hathitrust.org. Hathitrust is a digital repository that grew out of University of Michigan’s licensing agreement with Google Books project. Today it is much more than that, and the archive has tons of digitized government information content in the public domain — though with the caveat that in order to have full functionality in the archive (like downloading an entire document) one may have to belong to a Hathitrust member institution (many academic libraries are members) and log in with your institution’s credentials. A search for the serial title “Army Talk” only brought a result for “Armed Forces Talk” Close but not the correct title. A keyword search for Army Talk fascism did however bring back a title called “They still carry on! : native fascists : how to spot them and stop them” by the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties (NOT a government publisher) which had helpfully reproduced the text of “Army Talk: FASCISM!” in its entirety (publishers are free to do that since US government publications are in the public domain except for a few cases like certain technical reports written by private contractors). So in a roundabout way, the searcher would have found the specific issue of “Army Talk” in Hathitrust if they had searched hard enough and knew what they were looking for.

Long story short, I know why professor Cox Richardson used the Internet Archive link: it was the FIRST ONE in a google web search for “army talk fascism.” (another side note, this title was NOT part of any .gov collection of which the Internet Archive has many (see Democracy’s Library), it was scanned and uploaded in 2012 by user @aDimWit (LOL!) for the Folkscanomy Politics collection, a collection of collaboratively digitized material! No doubt, @aDimWit had lovingly enhanced the metadata to include the specific title of this issue, not just the serial title “Army Talk.” and that’s why Professor Cox Richardson was able to find it!!)

If Professor Cox Richardson had gone to her library’s catalog to look, she probably wouldn’t have found it, or would have been stymied because it was only on the shelf and not a digital version that she could easily link to in her online newsletter. Further, as a good historian, she already KNEW about this title and KNEW it was a sound treatise on fascism written in clear straightforward language. But a student looking for works on fascism on the web wouldn’t come across this title because it’d be buried under an avalanche of over 133,000,000 google search results. Neither would that student find it in any library catalog because it’s a serial and the specific issue wouldn’t come up in a catalog search for fascism.

The fact that an 8-page pamphlet from March, 1945 is even still around is a testament to the dedication of generations of government information librarians in 1100+ libraries across the country who participate in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) — look closely, there’s most likely an FDLP library in your town of city!! But as historic government publications get digitized and put online, we as librarians need to do MUCH MORE to assure that the historic access problems of library catalogs do not get ported to the internet. We owe it to every student looking for background information on fascism that s/he/they can find this 1945 pamphlet quickly and easily. As we digitize our historic government publications collections, we need to EXPAND and ENHANCE their metadata, build new online collections which bring together materials by discipline, topic, subject etc. And we need to make them freely accessible to all!

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


5 Comments

  1. This is such a great (and unfortunately all-too-common) example! When students or faculty come to me with a citation to an item like this, they often think of it as nothing short of “miraculous” when I’m able to find it. But as you point out, it often takes specialized knowledge of bibliographic complexities and tools (and a whole lot of persistence) to unearth them.

    • thanks for the comment Jeremy. It’s complete luck if a researcher has a citation to a government document! Most of the time, they come to me with a general need for information and I unearth the gems (or at least try to 🙂 )

  2. I liked this blog entry so much, I’m using it for an LIS class. Detailed summary of a lot of techniques we use, an also frustrations. A colleague recent recommended Stephen Bell’s “Inconvenient and Boring” reflection on library discovery systems: https://www.charleston-hub.com/2022/07/our-wicked-discovery-problem-part-one-inconvenient-and-boring/. Our cataloging and metadata staff do amazing work, but there’s so much that’s challenging about discovery.

    • Thanks Cass! I hope it fits well in your class and resonates w your students. Steven Bell’s piece is interesting. 2 things come to mind: 1) metadata is so important, and while catalogers do yeoman’s work to describe library materials, we need to expand what we describe and be more thorough about how we describe materials (govt documents are notorious for their lack of even full MARC records, with so many titles simply as “Report.” This was a legacy to all the years that libraries didn’t catalog their documents but relied on their docs librarian and her use of the Monthly Catalog 😐 ). and 2) Bell’s rhetorical question “Is library discovery a lost cause?” points to a larger issue. And his question kind of misses the point to me. The problem is that many libraries have shifted from a collection development model (which I would argue is even more important in our digital era) to a services model. While services are important, services go hand in hand with collections. If the library’s collections erode, why would patrons even think to go to the library (either in person or via the library web site)? Libraries MUST continue to build collections because that’s the only way that metadata will be created and the only way that born-digital materials will be curated and FOUND in any systematic way.

      in short, metadata and collections – and the librarians who do this work! – will be critical to the future of library discovery systems.

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