Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Government Documents - what would you teach?

Imagine if you would -- that you have the opportunity to teach a library school class on Government Publications. (I know hold back your excitement) The main focus is Federal information but State and Local will also be covered. What would you teach?

Would you focus on the branches of government and the type of publications they produce? Start from the top down and explain the "types" of information produced? Or perhaps -- instead you would look at the history behind the need for a government office dedicated to printing and disseminating information to the masses -- and how the online environment has changed the scope of material produced? Would it be better to do a practical hands on course or one that looks at the ethics and democratic obligations behind such a system? Can you teach both in the same course? Would you look at how the government uses said publications to push particular foreign policy agendas? Or how change in administrations change the structure of the system over time?

I remember when I took the class in grad school it all kind of blurred together. But I really liked the instructor. None of it was real though until I got my first job as a documents librarian. I felt completely lost. Nothing I had learned in class prepared me for the actualities of government documents and the FDLP. Yeah sure I could whip up a mean bibliography on a given topic at the drop of the hat -- and even find the really freaky morbidity and mortality items out for you -- but I didn't really understand the importance of government documents for the masses.

The library school class I took prepared me for the day to day reference duties of working in government documents -- but didn't really create a passion for free access to government information. Touching the documents and my history degree brought the other aspect alive and made me look at the democratic principles involved in the depository system.

But not all librarians get that opportunity in the workplace and so they are always a stranger to the real need for government documents (beyond tax forms). Truth be told -- many times documents librarianship is viewed as some strange sub genre for the ultra odd -- those too weird to even be catalogers go into the field (and don't even mention those who catalog documents). Which is a shame that image exists -- IMHO documents librarians are perhaps the most patriotic individuals in the field and care deeply for the user's right to know -- and the need to preserve such information for future generations. Simply put - they are a wonderful group of people.

So seriously -- if you had the opportunity to teach a library school government documents class what would you do?

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