Public Service, Democracy, and the Internet

Grace Ann York

The University of Michigan Library

May 15, 2000


Was this winter colder than last winter? How do you apply for a foreign visa? Where should your city build a new school or hospital? What foods should your children be eating?

Americans ask these questions every day, and they go to their closest federal depository library to find the answers. The depository program gives citizens the information they need to choose their elected representatives, to obey the laws, to cha nge the law, and to conduct scientific research. It also helps them improve their personal lives: their health, environment, economics, education, security, and transportation.

Americans used their federal depository libraries approximately 167,000 times per week in 1988.1 That was an era when government documents were issued in paper format, and one needed to visit a library in-person.

The internet has increased accessibility. By 1999 just one of our federal government web sites, the Government Printing Office (GPO), registered 4.7 million uses per week.2

Given the success of the internet in the United States, you might wonder if there is even a need for librarians. The answer is a resounding "Yes!"

The role of librarians has always been to:

* Collect and preserve information,

* Provide bibliographic access to the materials,

* Provide physical access to the materials,

* Assist library users in finding the information they need, and

* Publicize their collections and services to their immediate communities.

These principles are true regardless of technology, but technology has altered how we approach them. I would like to outline the life of a United States depository library in a print environment and then its adaptations to technology in order to bette r serve the public.


Each of the 1330 federal depository libraries is unique. Approximately half are academic institutions, and 20% are public libraries. The remaining 30% are law, military, business, federal government, and state government libraries.

Most libraries are selective depositories. That means they have the option of choosing the types of materials they would like to receive from the federal government and must keep them for five years. Fifty-three are considered regional depositor ies. They receive all publications made available by the Government Printing Office, keep them permanently, and have additional administrative functions.




Collection Development

The first responsibility of a depository library is collection development. Each depository writes a collection policy that reflects the needs of its own Congressional election district and immediate users.4

My institution, The University of Michigan, has an enrollment of 36,000 students. One-third are graduate students. The library is an archival research collection of over seven million volumes. We have been a selective federal depository since 188 4.

According to our collection development policy, we select 85-90% of all federal government publications in most subject areas. However, the University does not have programs in veterinary medicine or farming. We exclude those subjects from our d epository profile and depend upon the collection of a neighboring university.

The University of Michigan seldom weeds its collection because it is archival. If an older volume is brittle, we send it to our library's conservation unit for repair, replace it with a paper reprint, or purchase a copy on microfilm.

By contrast, a small public library might only select the 21 basic titles that GPO requires all depositories to own.5 A larger library might choose from GPO's list of recommended titles for libraries its size.6

Most selective depositories request permission from their regional depositories to weed their collections after five years. They frequently offer unwanted publications to another library via e-mail or a listserv.

Collection Organization

Federal depositories organize their collections several different ways. At least half of the libraries shelve their government documents in a separate room arranged by the Superintendent of Documents Classification System, a call number ba sed on agency and provided on the shipping list.7 The same staff will order, receive, catalog, and provide reference service to the collection.

Other libraries integrate their federal documents into the general collection with a head documents librarian reporting to either Technical Services or Public Services. There are advantages and disadvantages to every system, but the two crucial fac tors for success are the enthusiasm of the head documents librarian and sufficient time to specialize in collection and reference issues.


Bibliographic Records

Bibliographic records are essential to track the 40,000 documents received each year. Libraries with separate government documents collections often buy commercial cataloging tapes from MARCIVE8 and integrate those records into their on-line catalogs. Some libraries use a data base management program, such as Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro, to list their documents but do not enter the records into their on-line catalogs. Other libraries catalog major documents individually but use a data base management program for microfiche.


Physical Access

All libraries are required to provide free public access to their federal depository materials. Public libraries, state government libraries, and academic libraries at public universities traditionally open their entire collections to everyone. La w libraries and academic libraries at private universities may limit access to their collections, but they must open their depository documents to residents of their own Congressional District. Sometimes they do this by establishing a check-in procedure, special hours, or even a separate exterior door to their depository materials.



Reference service is my favorite job because of its diversity and challenge. One student may need proposed legislation on national forests. Another student may want every amendment to a civil rights law. Someone else may need an obscure tax form, the population profile of his hometown, the monetary inflation rate, or the e-mail address of a Congressional representative.

My library unit has its own public service desk, much like 25% of all federal depositories. Three full-time librarians and several student assistants staff the desk most of the hours the building is open. When I am not scheduled to work at our reference desk, I am usually available for co nsultation in my office. We encourage our student assistants to write a referral form for difficult questions they cannot answer on evenings and weekends.



Publicity and Outreach

Libraries publicize their collections through brochures, newspaper articles, and maintaining a supply of income tax forms. Academic librarians conduct research seminars for individual classes based on the professor's course outline. Some universi ties require that all freshmen take a library-sponsored research course, and many of those courses include government documents. Some libraries conduct training sessions for their communities on finding patents or Census data.



CD-ROM technology and the internet have changed how American librarians approach their jobs but the purpose is still the same: providing public access to government information.

University of Michigan Web Experiment

My own department at the University of Michigan began experimenting with the internet in 1986. We established the Documents Center web site <http://www.lib. umich.edu/govdocs/> in April 1995 in order to integra te the internet into routine reference and instructional responsibilities.9 When we started the project. there was very little information on the internet. Internet information has increased dramatically in both quantity and quality, and use has skyrocketed in the past five years.

Despite the success of the internet, all libraries face two challenges: preserving the electronic formats and keeping pace with rapid technological change.


Electronic Collection Development

In terms of collection development, seventeen of the mandatory twenty-one titles for all depository libraries are available on the Internet10. Each internet user in the world can read our laws, regulations, Congressional debates, Presi dential statements, and Statistical Abstract of the United States.

Forty-percent of all federal government publications have internet editions. This means that even a small public library with limited shelf space can access census data for a city 3000 miles away or a sophisticated mortality data base for a co unty 3000 miles away.

Worldwide availability of government information via the internet helps a percentage of the population but it raises new issues:

* The need for translation services

* A system for handling the reference questions that web pages generate

* Service to people without internet connections, and

* Training programs for librarians

Altavista's Babelfish <http://babelfish.altavista.com/> translates web pages in Western European languages free-of-charge, but it is just venturing into Russian. Reference questions are usually sent to a webmaster. Sometimes government webm asters receive too many questions to answer. I doubt whether most know that those questions could be referred to a depository library. Libraries are the chief resource for people without internet connections, but government information is complicated. Librarians, especially those who have never worked with government documents before, need training.


Equipment Needs

Libraries also pay a price for increased internet access. They need the latest equipment and high-speed internet connections. Most libraries cannot afford to replace their computers every two years. High-speed internet connections can be expensi ve, and they are sometimes impossible in old buildings. There may not be enough people living a rural area to justify new telecommunications equipment. Current experiments with wireless telecommunications may provide solutions for rural areas throughout the world.

Internet Usability

Another concern is usability. Government web sites often distribute reports in 3 megabyte pdf files. They may use frames, animation or browser plug-ins. These formats can be too sophisticated for the equipment that people are using. One soluti on in the United States is a new regulation that requires federal government sites to provide a text alternative for graphics in order to assist handicapped computer users.


A third concern is preservation. Some agencies have stopped publishing paper documents and are issuing them only on the internet. GPO is copying these internet publications and providing permanent public access.12 Librarians still wo nder whether those publications will be available in 20 years or 100 years.

Preservation is also a concern with CD-ROMS. I hear rumors that the shelf life is 10-20 years. We already know that government CD-ROMS produced in 1990 in an MS-DOS format are difficult to run on a WINDOWS workstation. We may not have the equipm ent to use CD-ROMS in 20 years.

New Collection Development Roles

These changes suggest two new roles for librarians. The first: librarians need to contact a government agency when there are problems in its products, and agencies should establish advisory groups of users, including librarians. The second role is organizing our own libraries and profession to preserve government information. We may have to make and bind our own printouts of electronic files. We may have to preserve electronic publications on our own servers. Both solutions are expensive.

Bibliographic Access to Electronic Publications

Bibliographic records may be the least of our problems in the United States. GPO is cataloging some federal internet publications, and many libraries are beginning to add records to their own on-line catalogs.

Internet search engines, such as Excite <http://www.excite.com> and AltaVista <http://altavista.digitalcom/>, use robots to index web sites around the world. Smaller search engines, like Google's Uncle Sam <http://www.google.com/unclesam>, limit searches to federal government publications. Advanced searches in HotBot <http://www. hotbot.com> can be limited to a domain, such as .gov and .uk. There are two cautio ns: some government web sites do not permit search engine robots the access they need, and pdf format is often excluded.


Physical Access

Not everyone owns a home computer so they still depend on libraries for information. Most libraries in the United States have purchased computer workstations in the past five years. Public libraries provide internet access to everyone, but univer sities may limit computer use to their own faculty and students. The Depository Library Council requires that each depository have one workstation available to the general public without submitting personal identification.13 The library can use a charge card with its printers to recover the cost of toner and paper. It can sell floppy disks for downloading.


Reference and the Internet

Reference work has changed at the University of Michigan since the Documents Center created its web site five years ago. During Fiscal Year 1996, my unit received 10,300 in-person reference questions. In Fiscal Year 1999, our in-person reference questions dropped by half, to 5400. Over the same period, the number of internet downloads increased from 2.3 million to 31 million. There is no commonly-accepted measure for equating internet "hits" with ref erence service. However, if only 1.5% of our web visits answered a reference question, we answered 470,000 questions in Fiscal Year 1999 rather than 5,400. The conclusion: we have dramatically increased our effectiveness by creating a web site.


Even though my unit answers half of the in-person questions it received five years ago, the questions are more difficult and take much longer to answer. The majority of questions I answer requires 30-60 minutes rather than five minutes. The conc lusion: people are conducting their initial research on the internet and then coming to a library when they need more sophisticated help.

My unit has answered e-mail reference questions for eight years. The numbers are not overwhelming: only about 25 questions per week. However, they require 15 minutes apiece to answer , or six hours per week, and most come from outside the Univers ity. This past fall we started using the Internet Public Library's e-mail software and a webform that clearly states our response time: University of Michigan questions within one day; people living in Michigan, three days; and possibly two weeks for th e world. We usually answer our questions within a shorter period but sometimes we need that longer option.


Outreach and the Internet

The internet has made library outreach programs much easier. Many public libraries conduct internet training sessions. These are especially popular with senior citizens who use the internet to contact their grandchildren living in another part of the country.

Most depository libraries also have web pages. The Government Documents Round Table of the American Library Association has created a web page template <http://www.library.unt.edu/gpo/template/index.html> that libraries can download a nd alter for their own communities.

The Documents Center creates web pages and slides for specific graduate and undergraduate classes <http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/doc-guides.html#class>. They cover the research process, from finding books and journ al articles to specific pieces of information to bibliographic citations. We have research guides to United States foreign policy, chemical and biological disarmament, the environment, United States and Michigan legislation, higher education, epidemiolog y, and urban planning. Most web guides require 20 hours to prepare and several hours per semester to maintain.

There are several ways to teach a class using the web. If a class is small, we may conduct a hands-on training session in a computer laboratory. Each student has his own workstation. I use a library classroom with a computer and projector for cl asses of about 40. Lecture halls may not have internet connections. Sometimes we break the students into smaller sessions. Sometimes we can only train the professor's assistants and create a class web page.


Professional Support

The internet is a challenge for all libraries. The Government Documents Round Table <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/GODORT/> of the American Library Association is supportive of its members. Its committee s consider legislation, training, and computer issues. It has created the GODORT Handout Exchange <http://www.lib.umich.edu/ govdocs/godort.html> as a web product so we can share one another's bibliographies.

Librarians communicate with each other on a daily basis using a listserv entitled GOVDOC-L <http://docs.lib.duke.edu/govdocs/federal/govdoc-l/index.html>. While GOVDOC-L primarily covers U.S. documents, we also use INTLDOC-L < /SUP><http://webhome.idirect.com/ ~mmccaff/intl-doc/> for discussions about international agencies and DOCWORLD-L <http://www.indiana.edu/~libgpd/idtf/docworld.html> for discussions about government publications throughout the world. We would love to have you join us on a listserv. The information for joining is available on your handout.

Thank you so much for inviting me here today. I am anxious to meet many of you in the days ahead and to learn what you are doing in your own libraries. On behalf of United States government documents librarians, I would like to return the invitat ion, an invitation to join us in meeting the challenges of providing public access to government information.



1 U.S. Government Printing Office. Users of Academic and Public GPO Depository Libraries, by Charles R. McClure and Peter Hernon (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1989. GP 3.2:Us 2), p. ix.

2 Evans, T.C. (15 November 1999) GPO Access Update. Administrative Notes [Online]
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/ad111599.html

3 U.S. Government Printing Office. (1995 revised) Keeping America Informed: Federal Depository Library Program [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/keepam.html

4 Samples of federal depository collection policies are available at the American Library Association Government Documents Round Table (2000). GODORT Handout Exchange [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.lib.umich.edu/libh ome/Documents.center/godort/collec.htm

5 U.S. Government Printing Office (1993 revised) Federal Depository Library Manual, Basic Collection [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/basic.html

6 U.S. Government Printing Office (1993). Federal Depository Library Manual, Appendix A: Suggested Core Collection [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/corelist.html

7 U.S. Government Printing Office (2000, February 15). Depository Services Update, January 2000, Administrative Notes [Online]
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/ad021500.html#12

8 A description of MARCIVE bibliographic services for government documents is available at its web site: http://www.marcive.com/web12.htm.

9 A history of the Documents Center web site and its affects on public service appear in York, Grace (1998). Out of the Basement: The Internet and Document Public Services, Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Federal Depository Library Con ference [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/98pro45.html

10 GPO. Federal Depository Library Manual: Basic Collection.

11 GPO. Depository Services Update.

12 U.S. Government Printing Office (1998). Managing the FDLP Electronic Collection: A Policy and Planning Document [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/ecplan.html.
Titles currently being arch ived appear under GPO's Browse Electronic Titles [Online]. Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/

13 U.S. Government Printing Office (1999). FDLP Internet Use Policy Guidelines [Online].
Available Internet: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/dpos/iupolicy.html

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