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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Exploring MetaLib

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

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Sugar Tariffs

One of the assignments in our government librarianship class is to write a term paper this semester. For me, this is a fantastic opportunity to finally figure out just what is happening in the world of corn growers’ lobbying, just how the Corn Refiners Association gained such a loud voice, and what defines the history of corn – the legislative history, that is.

As the hue and cry over the use and nutrition concerns of high fructose corn syrup led the Corn Refiners Association to apply to the FDA for a change in name to "corn sugar," the negative public opinion has pushed some food companies to switch formulas to include cane sugar or fruit juice sweeteners. But will that really impact the corn lobby or the government corn subsidies? Will the government lower the foreign sugar tariff? Political implications aside, just how the corn industry became such a power player will be a fascinating world to research.

My interest in such a topic stems from two things. First, when I was growing up during the 1980s, Coke changed their formula and the new version never tasted the same – and it was a marked difference to me. To this day, I have nostalgia for the original formula (which contained sugar). Second, I thoroughly enjoyed Twinkie, Deconstructed, a book about the common ingredients in food, and how these ingredients are grown, processed, and sometimes mined into becoming our food.  The lengths to which high fructose corn syrup has been processed, and then utilized in the high number of food industry sectors, is alarming. Perhaps it is psychological, but I believe that the foods which contain sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup just taste better, and when I travel to Europe, where HFCS is not available, I enjoy my sugar-laden Coke.

My research is about to begin this week. I will visit different depository libraries in New York City and while poring through the Congressional Records, CRS reports, and other government documents. I will read the Corn Refiners Association webpages, and I anticipate looking at the FDA and DHHS sites well.  I am curious just how corn has shaped our history, and how that is reflected in our government documents.

And yet…what is connection to the sugar import tariffs? According to a 2005 open letter from the Consumer Federation of America, the sugar import tariffs create an artificial demand. Naturally, the American Sugar Alliance disagrees. But have sugar import tariffs contributed to the search for alternative sweeteners? In preliminary research, it appears that the protection of the domestic sugar market artificially creates demand, such that the cost has increased dramatically. From what I understand, some confectioners, such as Brach’s, have moved their operations to Canada. If that is the case, then can it be argued that the sugar squeeze has essentially created a market for a product such as high fructose corn syrup? If so then maybe the Corn Refiners Association should bill the American Sugar Alliance for the cost of lobbying the FDA for a change in name for HFCS to “corn sugar.”

So my research begins…and regardless of what my research reveals through the journey from 1789 sugar tariffs to 2010 corn lobbies, I can write with confidence, that it would been wonderful to have been a fly on the wall for these historical Congressional hearings, with a cane sugar-infused Coke in one hand and HFCS-free cornbread in the other.

Johanna Blakely-Bourgeois, Pratt SILS

Information Access in Prisons

As the vast majority of government information goes digital, it becomes more accessible to many segments of the population that may otherwise not be willing or able to invest the time and energy to travel to a repository or track the documents down through other means. K-12 students working on projects for civics class or stay at home moms living in rural areas are now able to do research from exactly where they are on their computers. As physical documents and physical space become less restrictive we are seeing government information as it has always been intended, accessible, democratic and for the people. In the flurry of excitement surrounding this new level of transparency and access it is easy to forget what a large segment of the population has no access to the Internet whatsoever.

In a recent National Telecommunications and Information Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access 40% of Americans surveyed said they have no household high speed internet access, and 30% said they have none at all. While we can most likely assume they have some level of access via school, work or the public library. However, the vast majority of prison inmates have no access whatsoever. In a rapidly advancing and ever more digital world, inmates spending any length of time away from computers will certainly find themselves left in the dust upon re-entry into society. Some facilities recognize the value of increased access, as both an educational and community engagement, Matt Kelley wrote about the expansion of Internet in Kansas State prisons In most prisons around the country however, prison librarians serve as the main point of access to information for all inmates. For those seeking to better understand sentencing, that often means requests for copies of legislation and other government information. One of the most highly requested bills at a DC area prison of late has been the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789) which reduces the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine. The flurry of press coverage following its signing this past summer led to high requests of the legislation itself by prisoners looking to understand its impact.

While the argument can be made that those who have broken the law deserve punishment, not the privilege of surfing the web, I firmly believe that if prisoners are expected to productively rejoin society and improve themselves direct access is essential. Hopefully, eventually more states will go the way of Kansas, but in the meantime, prison librarians must continue the difficult and commendable work of disseminating information.

Sara Medlicott

Electronic Medical Records: Privacy, Accuracy, and the Digital Age

My brother is a surgical resident. A few weeks ago he was complaining about the difficult Electronic Medical Record (EMR) software his hospital is using, particularly the unintuitive user interface. Then I read an article in the New York Times about the business opportunities that are growing in the world of electronic health records. According to this article, two brothers, who have already developed a software EMR package for small-practice doctors’ offices, are waiting for the Obama stimulus package to essentially kick in, as the medical community will eventually have to migrate to digital patient records, or pay the penalties for failure to do so.

To me, there are two primary issues: privacy and accuracy. In extolling the benefits of the EMR (Saves lives! Lowers costs! No more pesky paper!), what will prevent the doctors’ offices, hospitals, and health insurers from abdicating responsibility over the care and quality control of those records? I realize that the e-document movement is permeating all levels of our lives, from the personal to the professional, but I cannot help but feel that an attorney’s e-discovery litigation case papers are better protected than patient information in a hospital.

Further, not everyone knows that HIPAA entitles you to your entire medical record, doctor’s notes and all (which is why, from what I understand in talking to several medical residents, doctors are usually instructed to take care in how they write about the patient in the medical record, for subpoena purposes and patient record requests; it probably is not a good idea to write “this patient is an idiot”). But in the same DHHS website, HIPAA privacy rules seem to have a series of caveats. A Washington, DC public interest research center has the same concern: Apparently, the DHHS proposed rules required that privacy breaches need not be reported to patients unless the provider or insurer felt that there was a “significant risk” of harm. So then the discretion for the standard of “significant risk” is left to a large impersonal corporation or a doctor who does not have the time to return phone calls? Not good. DHHS is currently reconsidering that medical breach notification rule, but this caveat that the covered entities determine whether “significant risk” exists, does not appear on the DHHS’s website summary pages.

Accuracy is another issue, and I believe it will be a growing concern as records are increasingly kept in digital format. With the health care companies pushing the doctors and hospitals to get patients in and out of the hospitals as quickly as possible, the quality of time spent with the patient will inevitably be reflected in the patient EMR. Case in point: I visited the ophthalmologist a couple years ago for a routine check-up. I advised the technician that I had scar tissue on my left cornea from an old boxing injury. The technician then inserted the eye pressure gauge into my left eye and the instrument tore into my cornea. The doctor treated me for this second injury but my medical record has no indication of this new injury from the doctor’s office. How do I know? When I mentioned the injury to my GP in a routine checkup, he had no idea what I was talking about. I obtained the medical record myself and added notes for my own records, indicating the date and type of this new injury; I may need this information for future eye care.

Another example: my GP’s EMR for me does not include the list of drugs to which I am allergic (it also does not include any reference to the eye injury from above). I have called his office, but I have yet to see that information added to the EMR. This information is in his paper record on me (I know because I filled out the “patient information form” upon my first visit years ago), but the problem with the EMR is that it can be replicated to any doctor in the country with one phone call, and the information will be inaccurate – even though (or because?) it is digital.

So the government will monitor the transition to EMRs, a “cost-saving” and “patient care” measure, but just who benefits here?

Johanna Blakely-Bourgeois, Pratt SILS

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

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