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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.

Government information: the elephant in the academic library

I find it interesting that John recently referred back to his January blog post about what future generations of government documents librarians should know, as something he discussed in that entry has been on my mind for the last few weeks:

I am going to try to teach them how to be the best librarians who can find government information, not the best government information librarians…I am convinced the next generation of government information librarians will come to professional maturity in library organizations that do not give government information services or collections any special consideration.

In my experience, librarians who don’t work in government documents often seem to regard government documents as an inscrutable and mysterious body of information. I will admit that, prior to working with government information, I was a member of that group.

Upon reflection, this attitude doesn’t make much sense. Government information seems to me to be a format of information – a publication type, like a book or a newspaper article.

As an academic librarian, my responsibilities also include liaising with several of the science departments at my university. Among other duties, I am expected to purchase books and evaluate related databases to ensure that those we subscribe to best support the research of students and faculty in those areas.

Why shouldn’t it also be my responsibility – and that of all academic librarians in similar positions – to be aware of relevant government publications in those areas? The American Library Association (more specifically, the Association of College and Research Libraries) defines information literacy as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.'” Surely government information is often the type of information needed. How can academic librarians effectively teach students about when to use government information when we seem to fear using it ourselves?

Academic librarian involvement can go beyond reference and instruction, however – the collections would be far more robust if subject librarians worked with the depository librarian to both weed, select, and deselect items to ensure that the depository collection is best meeting the needs of the university and the community.

I have not experienced any difficulties in my own work while trying to form these collaborative relationships. I frequently share relevant government resources with our subject librarians, and I’ve worked with our education and health sciences librarians to weed those areas of our depository collection.

This kind of collaboration isn’t enough, however; to confront the belief that “government documents are mysterious”, we must start earlier in the librarian life cycle. We must dash the misconceptions people have about government documents in library school. As John said, the trick is not necessarily to create the best government documents or government information librarians, but to create the best librarians who can locate government information.

Digital Government Summits

This morning, I checked my friends’ Twitter updates, as I often do. I was intrigued by the discovery that my friend and colleague Michael Sauers would be attending (and Twittering about) the Nebraska Digital Government Summit today. The description of the event makes me think this summit might be of interest to government documents librarians:

As citizens increasingly use technology in the workplace and in their personal lives, they expect government information and services to be readily accessible through technology. The Nebraska Digital Government Summit will provide an opportunity to learn how new and emerging technologies can be used to expand access to services, reduce costs, increase efficiency, and improve public safety.

A quick look at the site reveals that there are similar events in most states. Have any FGI readers ever attended one of these summits? What did you think?

Online discussion sponsored by ALA’s Washington Office: “Political Connections: The Long Road Ahead”

A colleague of mine just alerted me to a press release issued by the American Library Association. Here’s the excerpt that I thought would be of special interest to FGI readers:

The next installment in the series of ALA President Jim Rettig’s ALA Connections Salons will be an online discussion with Emily Sheketoff, associate executive director of ALA’s Washington Office, and Vic Klatt, ALA’s political consultant and former staff director of the House Education and Labor Committee. The discussion entitled “Political Connections: The Long Road Ahead” will take place from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. EST Friday, Nov. 21, 2008.

Online Programming for All Libraries (OPAL) Coordinator Tom Peters will begin the hour with an interview with Sheketoff and Klatt. Both professionals will talk about President-Elect Obama’s Administration, the new Congress and what these changes in Washington portend for libraries during a period-a year, a term and beyond-marked by extraordinary challenges.

As the time of this posting, I cannot locate the press release on ALA’s website, but I’ll edit this entry as soon as I have a reliable link. It appears you can participate in this salon by going to OPAL’s master schedule.

[Edited to add: The press release can be found here.]

In honor of Veterans’ Day

Because today is Veterans’ Day, I thought it would be interesting to investigate some recent government publications from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Here are a few things I learned by searching for “veterans” in the Catalog of Government Publications:

  • Merchant Mariners who served during World War II were not granted full veterans’ status until January 17, 1988. Legislation has been proposed to offer additional compensation to this group of veterans. (See here for the Congressional hearing where I first learned of this. For more information, you can also see the House bill, the related Senate bill, and an additional House bill that specifically addresses Merchant Mariners that were awarded the Purple Heart.)
  • Roughly 30% of people who have served in the military and have signed up to receive educational benefits as accorded by the GI Bill never take advantage of these benefits. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is working to expand these educational benefits to include a wider variety of programs – including “short-term, high-cost” educational programs. I gather that, in the recent past, these short-term, high-cost programs have focused on high tech. One of the points brought up in a hearing held last May is that there should be support for educational programs in other high-demand fields – for example, health care .

From what I’ve read, it seems that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is chronically underfunded. One of the issues brought up in the Merchant Mariners hearing is the question of where the funding will come from in order to compensate this group of veterans (as well as other groups who contributed in World War II, but have not yet been recognized). Since our discussion over the last several days has oft turned to the discussion of civic engagement, I’d like to encourage Free Government Information readers to advocate for or become involved with veterans’ affairs. Let’s honor our veterans with action, and not just words.

Using government information to encourage civic engagement

On Tuesday, I received several exhortations to vote – via e-mail, Facebook, and other social networking sites. I found it somewhat amusing – since I received most of these exhortations after I voted. I also found it somewhat frustrating, because while voting is arguably the most powerful tool citizens have to engage with their governments, I think people are often ignorant of other ways to be civically engaged.

I should clarify that by “civic engagement,” I’m referring to active dialogue with one’s government. Political blogs such as DailyKos and Instapundit have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. I’m willing to bet that far more people read political news and blogs than read government publications like the Federal Register – and actually respond to its requests for comments.

I’ve been thinking about U.S. government publications people can read and respond to in order to be more actively involved. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The Congressional Record. A daily record of the debates, committee meetings, and other goings-on of Congress, the Congressional Record seems the best way to stay aware of both current legislative issues, and the actions of one’s duly elected representatives. Although the Congressional Record itself does not solicit feedback, communicating with one’s Senators and Representatives (or their offices) seems to be a popular way for people to participate in their government. This document can help citizens identify what they should be talking to their Senators and Representatives about.
  • Congressional Calendars & Schedules. Like the Congressional Record, these calendars may be of use to people in helping citizens identify topics they may want to discuss with their Senators and Congresspersons.
  • The Federal Register. I became intrigued with the Federal Register after listening to a presentation about it at this year’s Interagency Depository Seminar. While many people might find this daily record of proposed regulations and policy dull, I think FGI’s own James R. Jacobs put it best a few months ago – “Regulations and regulatory law are the implementation of legislated law and make all the difference in how laws are enforced and how activities of all citizens are, well…, regulated.” I think the National Archives & Records Administration has also done a lot to make the Register more accessible to the average user – they’ve set up a separate site where a user can search the regulations and contribute comments on them, and they’ve also set up an RSS feed so people can receive updates to the Federal Register from the comfort of their own RSS readers.
  • Government blogs. While many of the blogs on this list seem very specific and may not be of interest to the citizenry-at-large (sorry, Future Digital System, I’m looking at you), others seem to capture an active conversation between government agencies and citizens. For example, take a look at Evolution of Security, a blog written by several employees at the Transportation Security Administration. A recent entry about carrying liquids through security checkpoints received over 150 comments – some from the bloggers, some from citizens, and even some from Transportation Security Officers.
  • Contact Your Government (By Topic). Another web page compiled by USA.gov, this page can help citizens locate contact information for government officials on the federal and state levels.

I’ve also been considering what kind of state and local government publications can encourage civic engagement. I found this wonderful page from the State of Maine, which includes schedules of public meetings and hearings and online discussion forums. The site also includes several sets of instructions and tips, on topics ranging from running for office to initiating petitions and referendums to communicating effectively with one’s legislators.

What are some other federal, state, and local government publications that solicit citizen engagement?