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Government information: the elephant in the academic library

I find it interesting that John recently referred back to his January blog post about what future generations of government documents librarians should know, as something he discussed in that entry has been on my mind for the last few weeks:

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…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.

In my experience, librarians who don’t work in government documents often seem to regard government documents as an inscrutable and mysterious body of information. I will admit that, prior to working with government information, I was a member of that group.

Upon reflection, this attitude doesn’t make much sense. Government information seems to me to be a format of information – a publication type, like a book or a newspaper article.

As an academic librarian, my responsibilities also include liaising with several of the science departments at my university. Among other duties, I am expected to purchase books and evaluate related databases to ensure that those we subscribe to best support the research of students and faculty in those areas.

Why shouldn’t it also be my responsibility – and that of all academic librarians in similar positions – to be aware of relevant government publications in those areas? The American Library Association (more specifically, the Association of College and Research Libraries) defines information literacy as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.'” Surely government information is often the type of information needed. How can academic librarians effectively teach students about when to use government information when we seem to fear using it ourselves?

Academic librarian involvement can go beyond reference and instruction, however – the collections would be far more robust if subject librarians worked with the depository librarian to both weed, select, and deselect items to ensure that the depository collection is best meeting the needs of the university and the community.

I have not experienced any difficulties in my own work while trying to form these collaborative relationships. I frequently share relevant government resources with our subject librarians, and I’ve worked with our education and health sciences librarians to weed those areas of our depository collection.

This kind of collaboration isn’t enough, however; to confront the belief that “government documents are mysterious”, we must start earlier in the librarian life cycle. We must dash the misconceptions people have about government documents in library school. As John said, the trick is not necessarily to create the best government documents or government information librarians, but to create the best librarians who can locate government information.

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