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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.

Curtains for the Library? A Tale of Preservation

I’ve enjoyed my time as a guest blogger for FGI. To wrap up, I’d like to share a story.

This summer, my household ran smack in to a preservation problem. It all started with fresh paint. My husband started to paint the living room and dining room. A color even, moving us away from 15 years of sensible beige. We were embracing the future. It seems like a good opportunity to have the drapes cleaned. They were old, came with the house, and had a vintage floral theme. They were perfect. But not perfectly preserved, as it turned out. The cleaner called, after testing one panel, to say the lining shredded. Too much sun damage (yes, even here in Seattle). We fussed a bit – considered and abandoned a variety of salvage schemes (for example, cutting the linings out, until we learned the hems shredded as well) – and eventually retrieved the drapes from the cleaner. They have been in the trunk of the car ever since. The rooms are painted now – and look lovely – but the windows are bare.

Our technical services librarian has an interest and expertise in preservation. She’s also a sister crafter, so I consulted her about my dilemma. After telling her the story, she laughed and said “this is just like our library.” And she’s right. The UW Gallagher Law Library has a rich print historical collection of legal and government information. Much of it is falling apart. We are a public institution with a shrinking materials budget. We don’t have the funds to preserve all of the collection, and we can’t afford most of the available digital collections as a substitute for print. So how do we decide? What parts of the collection do we preserve and what do we digitize? Can we salvage anything? Should we buy acid free boxes or just tie volumes? Can some of the fabric become throw pillows? What can we afford to license? Are we headed for a big box store purchase when our heart longs for something we truly cannot afford? Should we go the DIY route, if we can’t afford commercial services? Do we keep our old volumes on the shelves or do we need to empty the trunk of the car to make room for the next thing?

And what do the users want, and how does that impact our decision-making? Our household users (the dogs) didn’t like the disruption of the painting, but they really like looking out the unobstructed window. It’s great for them, actually, since they no longer have to wait for an intermediary with opposable thumbs to open the drapes. They can investigate the world of our street whenever they choose. The intermediaries are fretful, however. We pay the heating bills and know something needs to be done before the damp chill sets in. We think about the future, and the budget. Plus we liked the old drapes. We own them, and we know how to operate them. We don’t like this change, forced upon us by the passage of time.

I’m still wrestling with the drapery dilemma. As for the library dilemma, there is the global picture, which includes digital preservation and consortial arrangements such as LIPA: Legal Information Preservation Alliance, and has been well articulated here on FGI. But I’m interested in the local picture of our library.

I do like the idea that if each individual library works to serve our patron base, and shares what we have, it will, in the end, all work out. My hope is that libraries like ours will ask the right questions. That we’ll thoughtfully consider the answers. That we’ll be good stewards of our resources and try to preserve what’s unique in our collections. That we’ll think about today’s users, and tomorrow’s users, and our role as the largest public law library in the Northwest. Easier said than done, just like a household project. But in the end, it could work.

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.

The Founder’s Constitution (In Honor of Constitution Day)

Much primary and historical material relating to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution is online. The Library of Congress Primary Documents in American History collection and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project’s The American Constitution – A Documentary Record are well-known and well-used.

But in honor of Constitution Day, I’d like to highlight The Founder’s Constitution, the freely available web edition of the five-volume anthology published in 1987 by the University of Chicago Press. Although the web edition is searchable, and has material organized by theme, a most useful feature is the organization by clause.

I’ve been thinking about redistricting, since Washington is gaining a Congressional seat, and the first set of maps drawn by the four voting members of the State Redistricting Commission were released this week. So I went to The Founder’s Constitution, clicked on Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, and found a collection of links directly to writings on point. I stopped there, but if I had the time and need, I could have explored the “see also” references.

The set is indexed by case name, author and document, and constitutional provision.

On a related note, although the University of Washington’s Constitution Day website is up, the big event, to me at least, is later in the fall when all the students are on back on campus: the “read aloud.” Sponsored by the UW Libraries and organized by US Documents Librarian Cass Hartnett, “UW Reads the US Constitution” is always moving and often surprising. It’s funny how each year I seem to hear new language, or hear it in a new way. I love that new readers sign up, and I love the core of old-timers. I love that people show up at all. It’s the best lunch hour of year.

PACER Fee (and Exemption) Increase

[Update: 9/15/11: One of my colleagues, who is preparing to teach a class on PACER, called the PACER Service Center to verify the date of the fee increase. She was told “April 2012.” I then called and was told “the spring billing cycle.” I suggested that information be posted on the web site, since the press release implies a much earlier date. -prj]

The Judicial Conference of the United States today

authorized an increase in the Judiciary’s electronic public access fee in response to increasing costs for maintaining and enhancing the electronic public access system. The increase in the electronic public access (EPA) fee, from $.08 to $.10 per, is needed to continue to support and improve the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, and to develop and implement the next generation of the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system.

but

The Conference was mindful of the impact such an increase could have on other public entities and on public users accessing the system to obtain information on a particular case. For this reason, local, state, and federal government agencies will be exempted from the increase for three years. Moreover, PACER users who do not accrue charges of more than $15 in a quarterly billing cycle would not be charged a fee. (The current exemption is $10 per quarter.) The expanded exemption means that 75 to 80 percent of all users will still pay no fees.

The fee increase is effective November 1, 2011.

FGI readers might also be interested in the first part of the press release – the approval of standards and procedures for sealing civil case files.

For more, see The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times, “Judicial Conference Urges Restraint in Sealing Civil Cases.”

Thanks to my colleague, Mary Whisner, for the tip.

Law Libraries & the Ithaka Report: The Law is of “General Interest”

As FGI readers know, Ithaka S + R’s final FDLP modeling report is available on the FDLP Desktop. GPO deemed the final report “unacceptable under the terms of the contract.” But since an entire day of the fall Federal Depository Library Conference will be devoted to the discussion, “Creating Our Shared Vision: Roles and Opportunities in the FDLP,” I thought I’d slog through the 245 page report, as best I could.

I’m not far along in my reading, and can’t yet comment on the whole, but I’m already disagreeing in part. In particular, I was disappointed that a section, on which I commented in the draft stage, still mischaracterizes legal materials.

On page 33, the report states:

Law libraries and the court system have a significant but concentrated interest in federal government documents. Their overall collections are often heavily focused in three key categories: current and historical statutes and the US Code; current and historical versions of the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations; and court decisions. Other materials – including contextual materials such as the Congressional Record, which supports the investigation of legislative histories – may also be of significant value to some users of these collections. Legal scholars and law students use these materials in a variety of ways, including for research projects, journal editing, and in the preparation of court submissions. For judicial purposes in particular, these materials are essential records of the operation of the federal government, in many ways more like archival documents than general-interest publications.

Just in this one paragraph, I have several concerns. First, administrative decisions are left out. Academic law libraries’ government documents collections are focused on statutes, regulations, court decisions (judicial branch), and administrative decisions (executive branch). Administrative decisions are among the most challenging documents to collect and manage, but there is not a law school in the country that doesn’t care about them.

Second, the public is left out. Self-represented litigants, historians, social science researchers, high school debaters, and citizen-advocates use legal materials. The focus on “legal scholars and law students” limits the mission of law libraries, when in fact, our mission – and patron base – is often quite broad.

Third, the word “archival” was left in. I objected to the use of “archival” during the drafting process and I object to it now. The law – the law that governs all of us – is a general-interest publication. The law is a growing and changing body, which does make it hard to characterize. Patrons need “current” law, but sometimes the “current” law is five, ten, or fifty years old. To say “archival” misses the point, and actually minimizes the importance of a collection of legal materials.

We don’t have every volume of the Code of Federal Regulations back to 1938 because the colors look lovely on the shelves. We keep them because patrons – all types of patrons – need and want a “snapshot in time.” For example, if you are suing a polluter, you would need to know if the polluter was actually in compliance with the environment regulations at the time it polluted. Or, if you were convicted of a crime in the past, and now are applying for a change in your immigration status, you would need to know if the crime was a felony at the time of the conviction.

We exhort our patrons to update their research, to make sure they aren’t relying on a law that has been amended or overturned. At the same time, we assist patrons in finding the law as it existed when a particular action or crime occurred.

Law libraries are special libraries, much like engineering or health sciences libraries. Legal research may require specialized collections, tools, and assistance, but the law itself isn’t special. It belongs to all of us. I can’t think of a better definition of a “general-interest publication” than that.

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