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Learning to Navigate Free vs. Fee

If I’ve learned anything in nearly two years of studying government and legal information, it’s that there are two sides to the same coin. The first side is found in federal depository libraries, in endless rows of Serial Sets and Statutes-at-Large. It’s found at GPO Access and more recently at FDsys, and that’s if you’re lucky and your research requires federal materials, since state government information gets even murkier.

The second side of government information is under lock and key through online databases like Westlaw and Lexis, or in costly shelf sets like United States Code Annotated from West or the looseleaf services provided by CCH (now part of Wolters Kluwer).

Through my excellent legal research and legal database classes at Pratt SILS, I predominantly worked the way a law librarian, or law school librarian, would work to access government information. I cut my teeth on these powerful, consumer-driven products that prided themselves on presenting the most authoritative, comprehensive, editorially superior resources for the modern law librarian. That is, the modern law librarian that can afford the astronomical price tag.

I don’t regret my time inside this lock-and-key world. These resources, particularly the online tools from Westlaw and Lexis, taught me how to construct powerful and effective searches and how to separate the primary source content from their editorial embellishments.

But now I am studying the same materials from the perspective of a very different librarian – someone who is likely not going to be doing legal research, but rather providing services and managing collections of free government documents either procured through the FDL program or through the online portals managed by GPO.

This transition sometimes feels as though I’ve got the language and missed the dialect. I know the structure of government publications like the back of my hand, but finding it on the shelves can be an exercise in futility when these well-constructed publications are increasingly (and understandably) given up in exchange for online access. And finding it online through GPO Access, THOMAS or FDsys sometimes feels like I’m being asked to type with my hands tied behind my back. I have date restrictions that stop me from going further back than the mid-nineties, typically, and when I do find the legislation or regulation I’m looking for, I often have to go elsewhere to learn more about its current status. And the courts are a hodge-podge of accessibility on the web, particularly compared to the for-cost resources for federal district and appellate courts. Simply put, the materials available for free from the government aren’t as immediately accessible digitally as those made available by commercial vendors. But perhaps that’s not as dire as it sounds – perhaps I just did myself a disservice by starting with the commercial products, when in fact they serve two very different patrons.

The issues of access and answers are important ones for government documents librarians, I sense from my course work. Their patrons aren’t the lawyers who pay for commercial content from vendors like West. Their patrons are resolving personal issues, perhaps agency regulations that affect their business, or they are students doing coursework that requires a familiarity with a particular piece of legislation, or they’re researchers who need the statistical data that the government publishes. Do they need it the day after it’s published, or replete with annotations that explain its legislative history or precedent value? Not necessarily. I’m learning that it’s more important that those patrons have a free, reliable resource for the government materials they crucially need, serviced by librarians who understand the value of collection preservation and long-term access. For these patrons, it seems less important that the information is attractively packaged with sophisticated search capacities.

I’m glad I’ve been able to do my coursework from both sides of the government information coin – the side for the few, and the side for the many. I am perhaps hindered from time to time in my research strategies as I adjust to the world of depository government information, but I’m balancing this with an appreciation of just how important that makes the guardians and disseminators in the FDLP.

– Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Pratt SILS

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

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