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Our mission

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.

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.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 24

Happy Valentines Day! Happy Stimulus Day! Late last night, the U.S. Senate signed off on the stimulus deal. Far from an object of attraction between political partisans (only three republicans (all Senators) voted in favor of the legislation) — a significant victory for Obama and his plans to “reboot” our national political/social perspective nonetheless.

So, what will the various open government/civic information partisans do with this milestone? Perhaps it will give some hope that in spite of the lack of bipartisanship, it demonstrates a certain strength among democrats to hold their focus in face of strong republican push back. For the last fifty years, the democratic/liberal forces always seemed more receptive to the devices and desires of the free government information coalition. And the legislation itself represents a funding opportunity of a different kind, what with its millions of dollars slated for improvement in schools, universities, public libraries, and broadband infrastructure. Of course, who and when will get this federal bounty still remains to be seen.

But, again, it just one more indication that we live in a time beset by both dislocation and opportunity. And in the fog of economic turmoil it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. I go back to my call for some kind of professional unity among the library associations and groups on this important issue. At the risk of sounding like some old testament prophet wandering in from a desert to harangue a community — a time of reckoning is upon us. The principal institutional arrangement for national access to government information — the federal depository library system — is in a period of strategic planning and reconsideration of its core mission. Governments are either rushing blindly, or deliberately, into the next stages of digital government. Special interest groups and other organizations are well down the road towards the articulation of an evolved new civic information structure that does not necessarily assume the necessity of libraries in the same way these ancient institutions served in earlier epochs of technology.

Participate in person, or virtually, in the upcoming Federal Depository Library council meeting in April. Note, especially, that the Public Printer is specifically asking library directors of depository institutions to come to Florida and participate. With many of these directors contemplating their future involvement in the depository program, and many more reorganizing stand-alone government information departments into mergers with other units, or out of existence all together — you just have to know we are well past the tipping point. Change is going to come. It is just a question of how much we want to shape that change.

The Association of Research Libraries has launched a major study to consider the future structure of the federal depository library program. As the study’s prospectus points out —

There is a need and opportunity to identify a sustainable framework that will provide access to and preservation of government information in the years ahead. A new framework will address financial sustainability as well as the essential components of infrastructure for collaboration among federal depository libraries and with other stakeholders. Working with consultants, ARL will identify and explore such a framework that permits flexibility in the future while ensuring enduring access and providing for the efficient management of the legacy collections to insure the broadest public access to government information. Such access has been the hallmark of the FDLP. The framework approach is proposed as an opportunity to specify one or more models for configuring collection resources, access infrastructure, and expertise that would optimally support the the interests of an informed public and the capacity of our Nation’s libraries.

When nearly 66 percent of the depository libraries are house in academic institutions, such an examination will have no small influence on many of those library directors being invited to Florida by the Public Printer.

And at this summer’s annual ALA conference, the Council on Legislation will host a special session among all participating ALA chapters, divisions, and roundtables with a specific interest in the depository library program’s future.

Just as Congress and the President struggle to work together in very difficult circumstances that challenge their constitutional prerogatives, especially steeped in the partisan bitterness that lingers from the last several national elections, so to will librarians and their allies need to come to terms and work together to build next century’s civic information infrastructure. As a librarian with twenty-five years experience I really, really want my beloved institution to be part of that great project. As a student of our country’s long running political and social conflicts, I know that what I want and what will happen is often determined by how much I am willing to join the discussion and the struggle in an effort to make that crucial difference. These next five months offer any number of opportunities to contribute. As I said in yesterday’s blog — a vibrant civic exchange of public information depends more on the sustainability of critical relationships between citizens and their government, and less on the methods/technology of civic information distribution.

And just as St. Valentine represents both the romantic notion of love and faithfulness, there is a much more complicated side to this particular martyr’s faith — a defiance of authority to honor relationships. As one account puts it —

… Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

One doesn’t need to be a martyr. Just get involved.

See you on Day 25.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 23

Tapping back into the “raw power” theme, I just read the New York Times article on Carl Malamud mentioned here by Jim Jacobs. I found the article curious for the simple reason that it equates “free” access to massive amounts of court records with power, and a good form of power, or what he calls the “operating system for democracy.” Though this kind of rhetoric sparks the necessary energy to get people to leave their couches and join the open government brigade at the barricade, I think it also paints a too simplistic picture of the complex arrangement of constitutional and legal traditions that favor a highly evolved civic engagement.

Missing from the newspaper article’s description of what happened to the PACER pilot project and its sudden suspension is the more messy aspects of democracy that try to balance privacy with open access, free access with the necessary infrastructure (that requires money and personnel to function) to sustain long-term availability of “raw data.” This balancing act depends on a series of relationships between the courts, users, the GPO and its depository libraries. Simply downloading millions of pages, as one person did in California is not a relationship, it is simply a power surge that may or may not be made useful by people on the information grid.

However, as the article points out, Malamud does demand some level of privacy protection in these court documents, he puts that responsibility squarely back on the shoulders of the courts by pointing out that is the court’s duty, and heavy lifting, to make sure this private information is not made publicly available.

What I would expect to see, if indeed Malamud is interested in becoming a future Public Printer is less focus on the power aspects of the information grid, and more focus on the redistribution stations necessary to make government information understandable, accessible, and sustainable over long periods of time. Libraries have done this for several millennium, and they will continue to do so with the different technologies now being deployed. It isn’t a race to see who can make the most government information available. It should be a long engaged relationship between those in power and those the power serves to assure that the knowledge, information and necessary data are understood and usable by the citizen. Power without breakers or distribution centers only overwhelms, it does not inform.

Won’t get Fooled Again: Day 17

If we are to think in terms of sustainability when in comes to government information, especially in the context of our library organizations, then some attention will need to be paid to two critical areas — how government information services are organized in libraries and how we teach future librarians to deal with government information.

Both these points will be examined more carefully in subsequent posts.

See you on Day 18

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 2

Well, already there is an information gap — just two days into the new Administration. The first is constitutional, and stems from the stumbling exchange between Obama and Supreme Court Justice Roberts during the oath of office on Tuesday. Apparently the clumsy dialogue raised contstitutional questions of the legitmacy, and there was a do over Wednesday evening. Good to know the power of the mother of all goverenment information, the Constituion, still has its foundational mojo going — especially after eight years were the practice and philosophy seemed to consider constitutional advantages in such a limited fashion.

What I find more curious (but not surprised, considering other news stories of the technological and transitional state of affairs in the White House) is how few (if any) of Obama’s official words, statements, news releases, etc. actually appear on the White House web page. The other official sources, Weekly Compilation and the Federal Register are also behind.

I predict a robust life and purpose for government informationn librarians in the near future.

See you on Day 3