Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Government Information Reference Questions, by Shari Laster

Almost as soon as I decided to go to library school, I knew that I wanted to focus on government documents and government information. To me, government documents research exemplifies the "thrill of the hunt" that attracts people like me to librarianship, while adding healthy doses of both civic engagement learning and outreach opportunities. This one-two punch makes every day on the job worthwhile (if not always as exciting as I make it sound).

While I was in graduate school, I worked with my university's documents librarian in the collection and at the reference desk, and I took classes on government information resources, business and statistical resources, and legal information. Still, when I started my job as a government documents librarian, I felt like I was on shaky ground when it came to responding to reference questions. I didn't know every resource in the library, let alone on the internet, and I felt like everyone who asked me a question knew more than I did.

It turns out that this nervousness was misplaced. Students and researchers know more about their disciplines than I do, but they tend to know surprisingly little about the structure of the government and how information, particularly federal government information, is created and made available. By becoming familiar with a few basic tools, I was already in a good position to approach reference questions in a knowledgeable manner. I still needed time, careful thought, and research to respond to questions, but I quickly found that I knew more than I thought I did.

So that you can start your new job with that same feeling, here are the three fundamental types of government information reference questions:

1. Questions about the government:
Although these questions often relate to current events or e-government needs, they can be historical or current, federal or state/local/international, broad or narrowly focused. Resources to answer questions about the government are often found by digging around in agency web sites, searching subscription databases and freely-accessible indexes, and sometimes picking up the phone and calling an agency directly. Occasionally these questions are better answered by a non-governmental entity; for example, government watchdog groups, academic policy publications, and newspapers can be good resources.

2. Questions about government publications:
These questions or requests focus on access to a specific publication or resource. I use tools like my library's catalog, the Catalog of Government Publications and its print predecessor (the GPO Monthly Catalog), WorldCat, digital collections like HathiTrust, and subscription databases like ProQuest Congressional. As with any citation request, it is helpful to verify that the citation is correct before attempting to locate the document. Because most U.S. government publications are not protected by copyright, many are available as full-text access versions around the web, or your friendly neighborhood government documents librarian may be willing to scan and email publications to you.

3. Questions answered with government resources:
These are the "happy accident" questions where the user may not be aware of government resources that answer the question. For example, Congressional hearings and Congressional Research Service reports provide overviews and research regarding virtually any topic for which Congress has considered legislation. Government agencies also create and publish materials related to their mandate. Some produce educational toolkits on specific topics. These government resources appear with other results in places such as the library catalog of a Federal Depository Library, a traditional search engine or a specialized search engine like, and even in subscription databases.

The moral of my story, I suppose, is this: fear not! Government information is all around us, and its bark is often much worse than its bite. For more information, check out the FDLP Desktop, attend meetings of the ALA Government Documents Round Table (it's an open secret that we have the best happy hour at ALA conferences and meetings), scroll through the govdoc-l archives, or visit your local Federal Depository Library.

Shari Laster is the Government Documents/Reference Librarian at the University of Akron. She is an active member of GODORT and Ohio GODORT, and is currently serving a three-year term on the Depository Library Council. She tweets at @rhonabwy.

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