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Passing It On

What would you tell a new class of law librarianship students about government information?

Fourteen students enrolled in the UW Information School Law Librarianship Program arrived yesterday for orientation. As is tradition, they gathered with the Gallagher librarians for lunch. We introduced ourselves by describing our varied and often circuitous routes to the profession. And the librarians told what we like most about what we do every day.

My first library job was in a suburban public library. I shelved, checked out books, and made displays. I was in high school, and needed a job so I could put money toward my first car. It turned out that I liked checking out books more than shelving them. But that wasn’t the great life lesson – that was the smart, funny, talented, and interesting librarians. Of the three student workers that year, two of us went right to library school after college. I know for a fact it was because of those role models.

Mentoring matters. I appreciate my mentors, past and present, and am lucky to be a mentor in a unique program.

The year-long Law MLIS program includes an internship here at Gallagher. The interns all have law degrees, and because of this, most will end up in law school libraries, and most in reference, at least to start. Since most law schools are also Federal Depository libraries – and since “the law” is a government document – our students will, more or less, be accidental government information librarians. A lucky few may even end up as depository coordinators.

Unfortunately, due to the compact, year-long program, there is not space for an elective – which means unless they overload, they don’t take the Government Publications class. We try to make up for this in a variety of ways: a guest lecture in their legal research class on finding gov pubs, one or two “reference talks” on gov pubs sources and strategies, a couple of sessions on the FDLP and beyond in their collection development class, and a tour of the UW Libraries Government Publications unit.

It helps that gov docs are completely integrated into our collections and services, so the interns are exposed on day one, as soon as they show up to work a reference shift. In technical services, they learn how to check-in a depository box, and in circulation, they shelve the CFR. They experience hands-on behind-the scenes work, some theory, some class assignments, and a lot of patron interaction. By the end of the year, they are well versed in codes, regulations, administrative decisions, and legislative histories. They know about the FDLP, and if we’ve done our job, they know that permanent public access to government information is important.

But when I have them to myself, what should I tell them about the world of gov docs? This is hard time for GPO and the FDLP, budget-wise. At least we’ve had some good news (a new depository library!) But it does make me wonder. How can I encourage them to be interested in what I – what we – do, on a practical, not just theoretical level, when the future seems more than a tad discouraging? What’s the right balance between teaching about the use and preservation of legacy collections and of digital collections? Do they need to know how we “used to do things?” Do they need to know why? At the core, what should every newly-minted law librarian know about government information?

Another orientation tradition is for the librarians to tell the students what they like best about the profession. I like putting people and information together – through both services and collections. But what I like best about my particular job is the interns. A new class every fall.

What should I tell them? What would you tell them? I’d like to know.

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