During the fall semester, while working as a Reference Associate at Northwestern Law School, I encountered several challenging reference questions related to government documents and statistics. Based on those questions, I decided to take a class called “Government Information” this semester through the University of Illinois GSLIS LEEP program. The course is designed to provide an overview of government information, and to examine the historical and current publication patterns.
I quickly realized that access to government information has changed significantly in recent years as many government documents have become available electronically, which raises new issues, such as those related to preservation. Additionally, the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) is undergoing many changes as a result of the transition to a digital environment.
Given the recent changes, I started thinking about the future of government documents librarianship. I thought it would be interesting to interview an experienced government information librarian to gain some perspective on recent changes, and the perceived future of government information librarianship.
Sally Holterhoff is the Government Information/Reference Librarian & Associate Professor of Law Librarianship at Valparaiso University Law School. Sally brings over 30 years of experience to law librarianship, with a focus on government information. We were fortunate to interview Sally before she retires at the end of this academic year.
Sally shared the following information:
LeighAnne Thompson: Currently, what are the biggest challenges you face as a Government Information librarian?
Sally Holterhoff: For more than 30 years, all aspects of my role as a law librarian–answering reference questions, teaching legal research to law students, and assisting law faculty with their research–have focused on government information. New technology changes the landscape on an ongoing basis, so those changes are probably the biggest challenge– adapting to the latest formats, platforms, and devices, and learning to use them effectively. Plus now there is the concern that, as technology evolves, content in digital format will need to be moved to new platforms in order to be accessible on future devices. We can still read print volumes from hundreds of years ago but floppy disks from the 1990s are useless relics when the machines to access them are obsolete.
LT: How does this compare to a decade ago, or earlier in your career?
SH: In the 1980s, converting to microfiche distribution for many publications in the federal depository program was a controversial matter. By the late 1980s, we were using a fax machine to exchange information and documents. In the 1990s, email came onto the scene–also CD-ROMs, which started being used for depository distribution of federal publications and information. The Internet and websites were new and exciting by the mid to late 1990s. Many more changes are sure to be coming in the future. New ways to communicate, to do research, and to disseminate government and legal information to the public will be an ongoing challenge, but also a wonderful opportunity–to do research faster and more efficiently.
LT: Please discuss the advantages/disadvantages of continuing to include print items as a FDLP depository library in an academic institution.
SH: Law librarians are well aware of the need to keep print versions of primary legal sources as long as print is the still the official version–of things such as the U.S. Code, Statutes at Large, and the Code of Federal Regulations. We also need print format publications to serve community needs for government information, since not all the public users of our libraries and depository collections are comfortable using online sources. Print does take up space, but keeping a small core of print titles is important. A number of government information sources are now available in multiple formats. This is good for teaching our students about how the sources are organized and how to use the contents. A mixture of print and online/digital sources is the best of all possible worlds for library users and researchers.
LT: As you conclude your career, what do you see for the future of government documents librarians?
SH: The FDLP is continuing to undergo many changes, just as the libraries within the program are doing. Regardless of how the FDLP is configured in the future, I hope the network of government information librarians that make up the depository community will continue. Law librarians need expertise in such government information topics as legislative history and regulatory research, so having one librarian on staff who focuses on government information makes perfect sense. Those of us wrapping up long careers in this field need to make sure that future government information specialists are getting the education and training they need to continue this valuable work. Also, the future will need to include more partnerships among libraries–to serve the needs of public users and to catalog and digitize legacy print collections (for use and for preservation purposes).
LT: Many non-specialist librarians are frequently asked to retrieve government information. Do you have any special advice or favorite sources you would refer those librarians to?
SH: Among my favorite online government sources are Congress.gov and FederalRegister.gov. Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports are wonderful and I’m hoping that before long all of them will be available directly to all users, free of charge. I’m very impressed with some of the federal agency websites. ProQuest Congressional is a great subscription-based online source. Librarians without special expertise in government information would do well to know and keep in touch with the depository coordinator at the closest depository library–or with a state or regional organization of government information librarians, if there is one. People are often the best source for starting to research an unfamiliar topic, especially in the government information area.