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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.

Farewell, Evergreen Repository

Any student worth their salt at the Evergreen State College knows that it is a government documents repository. This is not just because of the orientation campus tour or the repository student employment postings, but because the head of the gov docs collection is an active, vocal advocate. If you happened to approach the reference desk while Carlos Diaz was on duty, it was likely he had a government publication to recommend to you, whatever the topic of your question may be. As I’ve begun to delve into the world of government information, I quickly discovered he is just as active with the larger gov docs community as he is at Evergreen. Carlos was a guest blogger here in November, 2007 (http://freegovinfo.info/library/diaz_bio) When my professor told me they were no longer a repository my first thought was, “What will happen to Carlos?!”

Carlos got into library work almost by accident. While completing his American History dregree at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Carlos took a work study job in the library. Upon completion of his degree, he was recruited for a position as a library assistant. It was while working the reference desk there that he began to learn about the government documents, as LSU is a repository. From there, he went on to the University of Mississippi’s government documents collection and finally Evergreen, where he took the position of head of collection.

Throughout his time at Evergreen, Carlos Diaz and his staff have created many “Hot Topic” pages to meet the needs of patrons. When he noticed students bringing their children to the library while they tried to study, he created a Coloring Books webpage as so many federal agencies offer great resources for kids. To fulfill the needs of the English as a Second Language Program, he created the Symbols of the United States page. As there is a large spirit of activism on the Evergreen campus and in Olympia in general, Carlos gets many questions on how to address government officials, for these inquiries he created a page dedicated to the Forms of Address and Salutations to Federal and State Officials. Carlos himself digitized the 1909 Checklist, he wrote me that it was a labor of love and a worthwhile effort. My personal favorites would have to be Geoducks! and Hot Dam! Dams of the Pacific Northwest.

So, why is Evergreen giving up repository status, with such a dedicated captain at the helm? Ultimately, it was up to the librarians. The decision was made, like so many in our field are, as a cost cutting measure. And really, isn’t everything online anyway? Carlos, a huge Star Trek fan, is the first to agree that eventually all government information will be digital, “There are some advantages and disadvantages to that. Of course, one of the advantages is the accessibility of government information, but the drawback is finding this information. A lot of it is buried deep down and only someone with knowledge of government structure might be able to find it.” For now, we are in what he calls the adolescence of the information superhighway. As for the physical collection at Evergreen, some materials will remain in the Daniel J. Evans Library. Much of the extensive map collection will be retained, as well as those items requested by faculty. Carlos is now dedicated to the challenge of deaccessioning the collection. Though he no longer works the reference desk, Carlos says, “I will continue to help people with their government information needs now more than ever.”

Many thanks to Carlos Diaz, an inspiration to me from early in my library career. Thanks also to my investigative reporters on the scene, Holly Maxim and Ian Ruotsala.

– Sara Medlicott

E-Government and “plain English” forms?

Several years ago, I wrote a legal brief with a retired Navy officer who was a private attorney in a small law firm in Pennsylvania. As an active retired officer, this particular attorney frequently accepted pro bono U.S. Navy cases representing veterans in Federal District Court against the Bureau of Veteran’s Affairs (BVA).

One summer day, the attorney admitted that he was frustrated with a new case in which a Korean War veteran had been denied retroactive health benefits by the BVA. The veteran had evidently failed to understand the legal forms that the BVA had provided him and so his request for an appeal of the BVA’s decision denying those retroactive benefits had been deemed untimely; the appeal period had passed. I was deeply interested in this case, and I offered to help him with the research and writing the brief to be submitted in federal court.

In researching the law, I realized that the legal administrative tests, cases, and terminology all took a back seat to one particularly glaring issue which I noticed on the forms. Just how was a veteran, who at this point was over 65 years of age, supposed to understand the legal difference between “shall” and “may?” In other words, how was he expected to understand that “shall” was not a word signifying that something was optional, but was actually one which signified something mandatory?

In this instance, if he did not read, understand, or respond to the “notice of right to appeal” section of the benefits form (which, by the way, was at the very bottom of the form), then his rights to appeal the BVA’s decision “shall” expire, which meant that his non-response ultimately closed out his case. But in other portions of the form, the permissive word “may” had been used in various paragraphs. So, he had interpreted the notice section to also mean the optional “may” and his request to appeal was therefore untimely, according to the BVA. Thus began my entry into the world of obscure government forms with conflicting language and even more obscure government personnel.

Times have changed since then, and I am now a library student learning about the current changes in government documents as I prepare to enter the world of document librarianship. Government agencies are moving towards the “e-government” trend, whereby, among other things, the online accessibility to forms and assistance are, ostensibly, much greater. But I am left to wonder whether the agencies’ forms, in these times of “googling” and “tweeting” and “friending” and mobile, on-the-go information access, have changed in substance.

Even if the delivery method has changed, will the user, many of whom are also library patrons, be able to navigate these forms and their implications? Or will the “plain English” movement, which permeated some aspects of the real estate (including various state broker contract forms), bankruptcy (see here and here), and securities industries, finally cause changes in more and more of the various government agencies’ forms as well?

Incidentally, we won the BVA case, whereby the BVA opted to settle in lieu of changing their forms, and our client received his retroactive benefits – in full.

Johanna Blakely-Bourgeois, Pratt SILS

Lost Information: What Happened to the Port Authority Library

Tony Robins, a New York City author and architecture tour guide, recently posed an interesting question on the SLA-NY listserv: could anyone help him ascertain what had happened to the Port Authority Library’s contents, once housed on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, but which had certainly been closed before the buildings were destroyed in September 2001?

A few weeks later, Robins got back to the listserv with his fascinating results. A few dozen librarians had replied to him, either with their own anecdotal evidence, or links to articles that mention the loss of the archives (like this one from Archeology online, in 2002), or with information on who might answer the question more thoroughly. The library, according to his aggregated research, contained over 75,000 volumes and was staffed by three full-time reference librarians. Someone who had worked at the Port Authority Library before it closed described the collection as having “held most of the original blueprints and other materials related to the building of the New York-New Jersey bridges and tunnels, and the [T]rade [C]enter itself.” The Port Authority was formed in 1921 by compact between the two states, and the library’s existence dates back to at least 1928, as evidenced by an article in the November 1928 SLA newsletter (PDF). Robins also heard from another librarian who shared that the Port Authority had been in discussion with a number of area universities and libraries to find homes for the contents of the library, at one point, going so far as to supply a CD with metadata on the library’s holdings. The talks were ongoing during 2001, however, and nothing concrete had been transferred. Robins even got an answer from the Port Authority’s press department, confirming that the library was closed in 1995 due to budgetary restraints and although some of the more valuable material was removed, most of the archives were being stored in a sub-basement of the towers, and thus lost during the 9/11 attacks.

It’s a telling, and slightly chilling, story. On the one hand, the obvious tragedy is that original archives across seventy years were destroyed. But perhaps more subtle is the fact that the library had been out of use for six years and had not been relocated. Of course, the collection most likely contained a vast array of print reference materials for various departments within the Port Authority that, although useful for their patrons, could hardly be called unique. However, I was struck, in reading Robin’s results, that there was acknowledgment from various sources that some of the material was unique and irreplaceable. Their permanent loss was, of course, unforeseeable – but what’s also interesting is the six years they were simply out of use, in a basement. Was this a question of importance or relevance? Who would be served by these documents? Was it a matter of bureaucracy, of space, or of budget, that the unique elements of the collection weren’t transferred somewhere where they could be used?

So often in our coursework at SILS, we hear about LOCKSS – “lots of copies, keep stuff safe”. We hear about the importance of conservation and preservation, and how libraries can and should build consortia so that their patrons can access the breadth of resources from not just one, but many libraries. And in our Government Information Sources class, we learn about the challenges in making government information available and accessible to the people. We are learning that government document librarianship isn’t just about providing service to online materials, because it’s not all online – it’s about recognizing and advocating for the value of your collection, whether print or digital. This story reminded me that not all libraries survive budget cuts (much less catastrophic events), and not all information is infinitely replicated or repeated in digital formats.

– Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Pratt SILS

Government Information in Guatemala

First I’d like to express my gratitude to James Jacobs and Debbie Rabina for providing us with this opportunity. I’m looking forward to guest blogging this month.

This past summer, I lived and worked at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I didn’t work closely with government info sources during my time there, so for this post, I spent some time with the presidential website looking at the availability of digital publications and what kinds of e-gov tools are on offer. I also checked in with coordinator of access to collections, circulation and technical processes at Biblioteca Ludwig Von Mises, Regina De La Vega, to get her perspective on government resources in Guatemala.

The presidential site of Guatemala, The Government of Alvaro Colom, serves, in some ways as a publicity site for the first family. There is a slide show of news items relevant to presidential goals, photo albums of the first lady and presidential activities, videos describing various initiatives and biographies of the president and first lady. While top navigation features a tab entitled “press room” in some ways, the whole site feels like a press site. Almost at the very bottom of the page are links to presidential programs many of which are entirely accessible online and provide useful tools and services for Guatemalans. Sites such as “Governing with the People” (a compilation of governmental decisions from all departments and states) and the Public Information Office (a mix of everything from contact information to leases to audits) provide a high level of access to government information.

So how do actual librarians make use of these tools and resources? I was fascinated to hear my opinions about the publicity elements of the site echoed in Mrs. De La Vegas assessment “In Guatemala I think (a very personal opinion) the government publications are more oriented to advertise the work of the current government” She finds the most useful items to be those published by the ministry of education. They produce materials primarily in print but some are available online and are indispensable for distance education particularly in rural areas of the country. Mrs. De La Vega tells me that, at the reference desk students do not often request information the government releases and that typically they approach the institutions that publish them directly. Biblioteca Ludwig Von Mises does collect and catalogue some governmental publications, however. Mrs. De La Vega said the most commonly requested governmental materials are various statistical resources, as Economics is a huge department at UFM.

So, however free the government information may be, perhaps the real trick for librarians is getting students to actually use them!

Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for a post from one of my classmates on Thursday.

Sara Medlicott