Why the world needs Government Documents Librarians

Since the Government of Canada’s vague announcement in Spring 2012 that it will no longer publish documents in print form after 2014, many people inside and outside of our profession have asked me if I think there will still be a place for government documents librarians in academic libraries in, say, five to ten years.  Their suspicion is based presumably on the idea that since the government documents print collection will atrophy, so will the Government Documents Librarian. I’m not buying it, and neither should you.

For years now, academic librarians have been stressing that we must improve our research services and also show our colleagues outside the library that librarians are not analogous to the collection; we do far more work than collecting itself. This fact alone should be enough to remind ourselves that government documents librarianship is not situated merely in the government documents collection. If academic librarianship is focused today on the use of a library’s resources instead of the mere collecting of resources, then our government documents librarian’s work must necessarily be focused as much on our patrons’ discovery, access, and use of government publications just as our history librarian’s work is focused on our patron’s discovery, access, and use of history resources. On a purely argumentative level, if X Subject Librarianship is focused on use, then so must Government Documents Librarianship be focused on use.

But let’s move beyond arguments and consider what the government documents librarian brings to the library. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge the government documents librarian at your library has developed after years working in this niche. On the one hand, the subject areas in which a government documents librarian works, e.g., health, economics, culture, etc., could be parceled out to a university library’s subject librarians since they often understand the general scope and breadth of government publications related to their field. What is often missing, however, is an understanding of the mechanics of government and law, of the relationships between departments and Parliament, of the role of the judiciary, of the history of administrations, and of the history of government publishing. Knowledge and work in these areas is what develops an understanding of the organization of government information, and this is what a government documents librarian can offer his or her peers and patrons. When you have a librarian tasked to work in government information, you have a librarian who knows how to navigate the mountains of pamphlets, papers, reports, and publications that governments produce annually.

Let’s use a real-world example to show how the government documents librarian’s knowledge benefits the library and library patrons. For the past week, I’ve been helping a graduate student track the course of multiculturalism policy, budgets, and actual spending since the early 1970s. In that time, “multiculturalism” grew from a statement made in Parliament into a policy, and then a programme. Multiculturalism policy and programming lived in many different places, starting in the Department of State (yes, Canada did once have a Department of State), moving to its own Department, then to Heritage, and then finally into Citizenship and Immigration. The volume of materials also changes throughout the years:

  • some Parliaments had standing committees on multiculturalism, and some didn’t
  • some of the Departments I mentioned offered substantial annuals reports, and some didn’t.
  • after the passage of the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, annual reports were submitted to Parliament, but many are only executive summaries
  • for a time in the late 2000s, CIC worked real hard to not use the term “Multiculturalism” in its documents

What’s more, through the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Government’s annual Estimates (i.e., documents that forecast departmental expenditures for the pending fiscal year) changed drastically. They expanded in size by offering more detail, but were also separated into dozens of issues and volumes per year (sometimes based on department and sometimes based on departmental programme), and the name of their issuing agency changed several times, as well. Library patrons unfamiliar with what RPPs, DPRs, and the other parts in the annual Estimates are good for, let alone who the issuing agency is, may not know what document to use or even where to look for them online or in the catalogue.

Budget Estimates: the key to your search

All of this meant that the graduate student had a devil of a time tracking the information she required through this time period. On more than once occasion did the student say to me that it feels like the government was deliberately making it difficult for people to access this public information. While the government may rightly be accused of such a thing from time to time, on this issue it is actually a matter of knowing where to look, and this is where the Government Documents Librarian comes into play. Having a librarian focused on the organization and access to government information means that your patrons will have a better chance of understanding how to access and use that information. What the Government Documents Librarian brings to the library is an understanding of governance and of the entire government publishing apparatus.  The question, “Whither Print Gov Docs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the Gov Docs Librarian?”  Regardless of publication format, your government documents librarian has a specialized knowledge and skill set that increases your organization’s value to its users.

The question, “Whither Print GovDocs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the GovDocs Librarian?”

Searching for government documents needn’t be like a visit to the Office of Circumlocution

But let’s get back to those government announcements I was talking about at the beginning of this post. You may disagree with me and I could be wrong, and maybe the world doesn’t need government documents librarians anymore. But I still don’t see it that way. I have one more point that supports my argument that government documents librarians will remain a vital part of the academic library: open data and open government.  If ever anyone has complained to you (and they have) that a government documents collection is difficult to browse, imagine how bothered that person will be when there is no print collection, when everything exists in the cloud with no organizing principles, and when more and more publications are being uploaded everyday because a ministry has committed itself to promoting open government initiatives but not to funding the management of these collections. The torrent of government publications that has caused many libraries to question the value of cataloguing electronic records is only going to become stronger, and this makes the government documents librarian’s job even more essential to the library’s mission to improve resource discovery, access, and use.

What it comes down to is this: we are venturing into new territory with government documents, people. When you don’t have a map that gives the lie of the land, you turn to a guide.  And that’s your government documents librarian.

18 thoughts on “Why the world needs Government Documents Librarians”

  1. […] I love my job. It has met – and exceeded – my expectations. As the Government Information Librarian, I help the university community access and use government-produced materials in their research. All of last spring’s cuts to the federal government, and especially to Statistics Canada, LAC, and to libraries within federal ministries definitely dampened the spirits of Canadian GovDoc librarians in 2012, but I’m still happy that I’ve been able to help my library’s patrons understand what the cuts mean for them and their research – today and in the future. If anything, these cutbacks have increased the need for local government publications expertise at Canadian universities, and I think the government information librarian’s role on campus is now more important than ever. […]

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