For Dr. Rabina’s Government Information Sources term paper that Johanna mentioned in her last post, I’ll be researching the Navy’s establishment on Vieques, an island part of Puerto Rico, for naval training and munitions testing, from 1941 until 2003. The purpose of the assignment is to use government information to thoroughly research a topic, so when I saw in the DLC Fall Meeting Conference Proceedings that Marianne Ryan from Northwestern University and Catherine Jervey Johnson from LexisNexis Academic presented “1960 at Fifty: An Historic Year in Hindsight – Using Government Information to Discover the Past”, it caught my eye. Through some whimsical and some serious comparisons, the slideshow demonstrates how some issues are ongoing throughout the lifecycle of government, and how drastically some change. (Of course, a lot of the resources in the slide show were understandably taken from LexisNexis collections, which makes it easy to view and use historical government documents!)
Since we’ll be doing all our research in materials freely available to the public, and since I know a lot of online material currently available from FDsys will only take me back so far in time, I thought I’d start with the Catalog of Government Publications, and use my term paper as a chance to critically review MetaLib, their new federated search tool. My training thus far at SILS has taught me to always click the “Advanced Search” screen, and I quickly found one small complaint. The interface gave me options to choose a “quick set”, resources bundled by subject area, but how great would it be to select two areas in the “quick sets”? For my search, I knew there would be material on Vieques in both Environment and Defense & Military, at least, but I had to search one at a time. But by starting with Defense & Military, I found a CRS Report from 2001, with background and information on the Vieques training operation (and CRS reports, we have learned, are like gold.) I also found a hearing from the Committee on Armed Services from 1980, which I bookmarked as interesting. So far, so good.
With 66 records in MoCAT for just this area, Defense & Military, my search results were also sortable by topic, date, and author. I found myself wishing there was a way to search by type of resource, and when I backed up a little, I noticed an “Expert” search setting. Expert allowed me select which resources within each “quick set” but also to switch to Agencies, where I could select and deselect which resources might be most relevant to a targeted search, which I think is pretty useful. For each resource, I could click the info icon for more details about the collection. Even more intriguingly, I had the option to add an individual collection to the clipboard, and then create my own research set, which I could name. Then (somewhat unintuitively) I could return to Advanced Search, and use my own research set as a basis for my search.
All these initial fumblings in MetaLib did feel like they were going to pay off – I was slowly building a familiarity with the resources I needed, and MoCAT, which had previously seemed like a catalog siloed by department or agency, was starting to feel more like a database. If nothing else, I have some titles that I know I can walk into my local Depository Library and someone can help me locate them on a shelf.
Even with MetaLib making MoCAT easier for me to navigate, and even with FDsys taking full rein online over GPO Access, researching a topic across many government agencies and years is bound to mean wading through a lot of unhelpful material before finding what I need, and what will help me speak authoritatively about the Navy presence in Vieques over a span of sixty years. I can only construct an incomplete picture from in front of my computer; FDsys and MoCAT are only the beginning. Which means I’ll be coming to a Federal Depository Library soon, research question in hand, hoping for some perspective and some guidance. And maybe if I’m lucky, a CRS report or two.
– Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Pratt SILS