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What to teach to future government information librarians: Escape from the Blackboard Jungle


Aimee, Daniel, Kathy, Jim, Anne, Debbie:

Thank you much for each of your thoughtful remarks (and I hope others contribute their own bricks and mortar to this curricular barn raising!)

It has been a week since I posted — after about 15 hours with the Govt. Information studnets, and another six with my other class, I can say with some confidence they grasp all of our collective point — goverrnment information and libraries rapidly change with each successive generation of technology, political and economic upheavals, as well as the dynamics of how our global society defines both traditional and civic literacies.

The take away from the first weekend, I hope the students got anyway, is the following:

— you must understand how government works before you can understand the information products that these civic processes create. (I suppose this is why completing an extended legislative history on a particular law at the federal level remains a cornerstone of my teaching; even though it feels so "old school" to me.)

— the formats or forums where these govenment information objects might appear (or distributed) has become less important to me. As I told the students — I am going to try to teach them how to be the best librarians who can find government information, not the best government information librarians. Seems to me with the consolidations, reorganizations, and reconsiderations many libraries (academic, public, special) now put their traditional documents departments through — I am convinced the next generation of government information librarians will come to professional maturity in library organizations that do not give government information services or collections any special consideration.

— that this is essentially hard and difficult work. The traditional bibliographic tools (if not perspectives) no longer work in a variegated world of digital, tangible, and print formats. Government information is where you find it (another way of expressing the ideas of the previous point). I think the relevance of government information for our users will evolve through how we structure our public interactions with them, and how we build a sustainable knowledgebase of this interactions over time and among communities. In other words we are moving from a form of librarianship based on formats (with all its attendant organizational schemes and theoritical controls) to a much more rough and ready form of librarianship focused on singular and collective service to our communities.

One other takeaway I got from this conversation so far is the reminder of how much of our storehouse of government information "best practices" remains scatterred across our professional and digital landscapes.  In the eight comments over the past week there was mention of

GODORT Handout Exchange at http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/Exchange
Webjunction. The Government Information section at http://webjunction.org/do/Navigation?category=14562
Individuals in particular areas who contribute to our students’ learning by bringing their experience with "best practices" into the classroom

Perhaps through the library associations, the association of Library and Information schools, and other integrating collaborative entities can begin to work bring these strands together into a stronger fabric. I am on the GODORT Education Committee (www.ala.org/ala/godort/godortcommittees/godorteducation/index.htm) and know we are discussing aspects of this issue — focusing in particular on the compentencies for government information professionals.

That’s enough from here for the moment — got to get some notes prepared for the next class.

I appreciate the discussion so far — and am anxious to hear more people join!


From the 1-18-08 post:

I am about to spend my first weekend teaching Government Information Resources for the Spring semester at Dominican University. I have been teaching such a course here in Illinois and other places for the last 17 years. What I wonder is – for those of you who use government information resources out there – what would be your take-away for library students interested in the future of the government information resources and our bibliographic institutions. In other words, given the number of weeks and hours we will spend together over the next three months, what words of wisdom would you like to see them walk away with?

Is it the technologies of egovernment and how they shape the paths of public information distribution?

Is it the shifting fortunes of civil liberties that threaten aspects of a open and transparent government?

Is it the changing nature of our library institutions, and by the same token, their shifting responsibility of libraries to keep and preserve government information?


Or is it all the above?

Obviously I am not looking for yes or no answers here. Just trying to get a sense of how my colleagues are dealing with these problems in the communities of practice.

Looking forward to your responses.


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  1. John,

    I’d like to add one more comment on the same topic that Daniel identified earlier.

    …the formats or forums where these govenment information objects might appear (or distributed) has become less important to me. As I told the students — I am going to try to teach them how to be the best librarians who can find government information, not the best government information librarians.

    As James pointed out, it is possible to say "formats don’t matter." But it is also possible to say, as Daniel did that formats do matter! My guess is that you (and most folks who read these comments) agree with most of what Daniel and James said. But how can formats both matter and not matter?

    1. Formats do not matter. We have to help people find and get and use information and, to the extent that we are not in control of the format of the information "format does not matter" to us. We have to be able to deal with print and many digital formats.
    2. Formats do matter. Formats affect how (or whether) we find information. The retrieval mechanisms and their functionality differ greatly for an html page, a pdf document, a scanned print document, a dynamic web page, a database, an entry in a database, a book, a pamphlet, etc. etc. We must be able to deal with those differences and not treat them all as if they were the same.
    3. Formats do not matter. As James said, we should be building digital collections. The fact that a particular piece of government information is in a digital format should not automatically exclude our considering it for our collection. We should be building digital collections for many of the same reasons we built paper collections. These include, but are not limited to: preservation and redundancy (Lots Of Copies do Keep more Stuff Safe than one copy does); authenticity (every copy of a document that exists increases the difficulty of intentionally or unintentionally altering the content of that document without the alteration being identifiable); and that fact that subject-specific collections that include government and non-government information can make it easier to find appropriate information than collections built around provenance.
    4. Formats do matter. Like it or not, different formats have strengths and weaknesses and we have to be able to pick the format of information content that best suits a particular need. For one person, the retrieval of a single fact (a phone number, a name, a date, a statistic) will suffice, while another person will require a database of phone numbers, a census data file, a GIS file, etc.

    We can all come up with lists of how formats do/do-not matter. The point is larger than this, though.

    One take-away I’d suggest for your class, given the above, is to be active and not passive. Librarians are in a unique position to understand the needs of users and the requirements of information dissemination that will ensure its find-ability, preservability, and usability. We should demand what is necessary of our government information creation and distribution channels, not just accept whatever is given us and try to deal with it after the fact. We should demand open formats (e.g., ODF), appropriate formats (including in some cases print and digital), distribution of digital government information to FDLP libraries, the ability to use and reuse information (e.g., no DRM or licensing restrictions); and more.

    I believe that we should be training librarians to do a lot more than just be able to "find government information." We have to be able to select, acquire, organize, and preserve it and provide services for it and make it usable and re-usable. Anyone can help someone find information; only a library can ensure that it will be findable and usable for the long-term.

  2. Please note: The comment below comes from Amy West, Data Services Librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries.


    I would think it’s key to structure classes to account for the fact that most people in them will not be government documents librarians. That doesn’t mean that we can’t make the very same lessons relevant in broader contexts.

    There’s not a single non-docs collection issue that has come up in the last two years that I’ve been going to collections meetings here that hasn’t already been dealt with in our docs collection. When it comes to managing, preserving, cataloging and providing access to multi-format collections, we’ve been there, cataloged, marked, shelved and circulated that.

    Librarians looking for data to test new technologies on would particularly benefit from a docs class because government data (used broadly here to include any structured content, whether text or numeric, e.g. Congressional Record or Census data) equals data without copyright or fee restrictions. Much of it also lends itself to spatial representation and much of it contains enough anomalies to really test a new interface.

    Librarians teaching information literacy can also use government information as content for lesson plans for the same reasons as above and because of additional fun complications like “Is it official?” and “How do you know it wasn’t hacked today? and “How am I going to cite this table from American FactFinder”?

    There are loads of additional examples (of course), but these areas are ones receiving a lot of scrutiny at the UMN these days, so I think I’ll stop there so I get to my general(!) reference desk shift.

    Thanks for starting the discussion!

  3. Thanks John for facilitating this interesting topic. I’m sure many of our readers are thinking back to their documents classes to analyze how their class(es) prepared them (or didn’t 🙂 ) for their work lives. I was *mostly* well-prepared for life as a documents librarian (many thanks Mary Mallory!!), learning the primary reference tools and common reference questions at the various levels of govt. The gaps in my class had nothing to do with my instructor, but were things that I had to learn on the job, to apply my research skills and conscience, learn and apply technical skills etc to solving problems that have only arisen in the last 10 years. I would describe the gap as philosophical-technical in nature and say that it rests between pedagogy and practice.

    So I would say that gap would be a good place to start in getting librarians ready for work in a reality where fewer and fewer will be pure documents librarians. Documents librarians are the canaries in the coalmine in terms of the issues we’ve been dealing with that are only now beginning to be seen by librarians in other areas. Therefore, your instruction and the topics you bring up can go a long way in informing students about the field in general and helping to better prepare students for the work ahead in whatever aspect they choose to pursue.

    With that said, here are a few ideas, both philosophical and practical:

    1. format doesn’t matter; libraries still need to build collections. Many libraries are in the process of building digital repositories and digital documents are a particularly robust field of content due to their interdisciplinary coverage and relatively straightforward copyright issues. By collecting digitally, we help to inform the wider library field about issues, tecnologies and best practices.
    2. engage in the philosophical debate about our field’s future. Assign “Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program” as a class reading. whether or not you agree with its theses and conclusions, it clearly maps out the current state of documents and at least one possible future.
    3. Help to build new bibliographic tools and collaborate with already occurring digital projects. There are a plethora of collaborative Web services and technologies that can help in the collection, access, preservation of government information —delicious, Google custom search engine, LOCKSS, Archive-it to name just a few.
    4. Introduce your students to work that documents librarians are doing. GODORT and the GODORT wiki is a great place to start! There are at least 2 projects (state agency databases project and IGO publishing policies and practices) currently happening on the wiki that could be used in the classroom. The wiki has the added benefit of actually getting students involved with a new way of community collaboration, at least a virtual connection to practitioners from around the country, and first hand experience with GODORT and the documents community.
    5. The field of government information is fertile space for so many other classes. Encourage students to use this field for classes and projects on collection development, technology, research methods, library management, archives etc. Students are students after all, and are therefore always looking for topics to kill 2 birds with one stone!

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