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Librarians in government

By Margaret Adolphus

A little-known fact about President Obama is that he is a great champion of libraries. In 2005, while a senator from Illinois, he described to attendees of the American Libraries Association Conference how, if he felt lost or adrift, just "walking into a library and seeing those books, seeing human knowledge collected in that fashion, accessible, ready for me, would always lift my spirits".

He was referring to public libraries, but many librarians work for the government. Here we explore what they do and what their priorities are.

Examples of librarians in government

Tom Rink works as an information specialist for Tulsa Police Department. A former policeman who made a career change into librarianship, he was delighted to be able to combine his professional areas of expertise in building a new library. In addition to the usual librarianship tasks of reference, collection development, circulation, and administration, he helps with policy work, curriculum development, and technical proposals.

Holly Cook works for The National Archives in London where she manages the Civil Pages Pilot project, which she describes as "a rich contact directory and collaboration space that helps capture the knowledge and experience of government employees".

Gloria Zamora is president of the Special Libraries Association (SLA). She has worked for Sandia for 28 years as a librarian, and latterly in government relations. She has also been on loan to senator Jeff Bingaman where she has used her librarianship expertise to provide legislative information to constituents.

A knowledge manager was recently appointed at HM Treasury to support a variety of knowledge management initiatives, such as the process around handovers and inductions, so that knowledge is not lost when people leave.

The above examples are very diverse, but they all depict librarians or information practitioners working for the government or public sector, helping politicians, policy makers and public sector employees do their jobs.

Government information practitioners in the UK work mainly for central government, although they can also be found in other parts of the public sector, such as the Metropolitan Police, museums, and local government.

The federal nature of US government means that its librarians occupy even more diverse roles, and are more likely to be spread all over the country, and even more overseas. They work in the civil service, for example the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the prestigious Congressional Research Service. However, many also work at the State level.

State-level librarians

Krystyna Cherry works as senior librarian in the New Mexico Department of Transportation, where she set up a library and catalogued its contents. She also produces and edits research reports, liaises with other transportation librarians, does public relations at conventions, designs posters and other marketing products, makes presentations, and redesigns the website.

The US State Department's Foreign Service has nearly 30 professional librarians who work in American embassies and consulates, assisting local staff in administering special libraries that serve local communities and diplomatic staff. There are 173 special libraries, called Information Resource Centres (IRCs), which can be large and operate similarly to public libraries, or small with just one staff member offering research assistance.

Called information resource officers, these government librarians help to hire, train, and manage the host country nationals who staff the IRCs, and have been credited with introducing certain kinds of information technology in developing countries, providing training in library science topics in countries where there is no library school, and promoting a reading and open information culture where literacy and access to information is still an unmet challenge.

In the UK, while different departments may organize differently according to their business priorities, the core roles are those of librarians, records managers or knowledge managers.

In the USA, the picture is similar, according to the SLA Government Information Division. Information practitioner careers include elements of research, records management, information technology (IT), information centre management, and knowledge organization.

Common concerns

Despite the diversity of roles, many practitioners have the same concerns, which they also share with librarians from other sectors.

There is, of course, the trend towards digitization – currently the use of Web 2.0 products, such as wikis – and the need to accommodate to different working patterns now that information is no longer kept in paper form.

But government librarians, like their colleagues in other special libraries (and indeed any library) are also facing threats from the twin problems of the disaggregation of information and budget cuts. Everywhere, budget holders are looking to make efficiency savings, and over the last few years a number of government libraries have been closed.

In Futureproofing the Profession: the Report of The Health Executive Advisory Group to the Executive Board of CILIP (Healthcare Executive Advisory Group, 2004), librarians are urged to seek out "new information territory".

Four years ago, commenting that most people were now far more confident to search out information themselves, Maewyn Cumming made the following prediction about government information professionals:

"We will appear in more places than we do now. At the moment, librarians are cropping up everywhere, in weird and wonderful little corners, running or helping organize websites and intranets, even document and records management systems. We will be in places that don't initially always appear to be information management places. I know librarians who are working in enterprise architecture systems.

"We are going to transform information systems so that people aren't facing a huge mess of different sources that they can't quite understand. The one stop shop which we have talked about for so long might actually come to happen, but it won't be a place, it won't be a shop, it will be on somebody's screen. With a bit of luck it will be on everybody's screen" (Cumming, 2004: p. 16).

The value of information and information professionals

The value of information

In 2008, while America was choosing its 44th President, many British Government faces were red as time and time again disks disappeared with sensitive personal data. This only gave added impetus to what people were already realizing: this thing called information was a valuable resource to harness.

The climate was thus receptive for Capgemini's The Information Opportunity Report, which talked about the potential for effective use of information to greatly enhance business performance (Capgemini, 2008).

It pointed to the huge lost revenue that resulted from poor information handling, calculated at UK£21 billion in the public sector.

The reason why information is not being used effectively is because of a failure to look at business processes and procedures, and train staff effectively. People are therefore the key as much as technology, and there is a need to put the "i" back in IT.

The message: place information at the heart of the organization, driving people, processes and technology. Information needs to be better shared and accepted as a strategic asset. The result: improved decision making and performance.

The value of information professionals

Information can be in any media, print or electronic, but it no longer needs to be published: the Capgemini report was equally concerned with documents and even what was in people's heads. Is this the new information territory that the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) urges its members to find? And are information professionals, who have traditionally been concerned with public information – be it books, journals, or websites – up for the grab?

David Thomas, chief information officer at The National Archives, believes that the answer lies in the essence of digital information, and underlines the message of the Capgemini report:

"We have more of a case to make now than ever before, there's always a tendency when a new system's rolled out to say it's an IT issue, but there are enough examples for us to articulate in very basic terms why it's about information, how that information is managed, organized and controlled and how it's used and re-used."

Gloria Zamora, president elect of the SLA, believes strongly in the traditional skills of the information professional, learnt at library school.

"We shouldn't have to be defending our territory. What we should be doing, whether it's within the confines of a library, or whether you are working directly with your organization, we should have been providing the kind of services that there would be no reason to have to defend, it would be so obvious that this is what you need to have, in order to do your job, you can't possibly do a job without having these information people."

She points out how, when she was working for the senator, she was able to use her refined search skills and knowledge of the available tools and resources to educate constituents on a wide range of political and legislative issues. This proved useful in, for example, getting reports and updates from the Congressional Research Service.

This is the sort of information that is down two or three levels below Google, which is easy to miss if you don't have an information background.

However, an information professional needs to go further than just providing searches which produce a list of references. They need to go to the next level of analysis.

"Although librarians have always analysed information, in many cases they are relegated to the role of providing all these references without putting any value to them. You need to go to the deeper level which is where you go through the references indicating the most valuable and providing brief summaries, so that there's some analysis of information rather than just a list of websites books or magazine articles that they might want to refer to."

Using the research skills of information professionals

Surveying the (sparse) literature on government librarians, Taylor and Corrall (2007: p. 301) describe how the literature calls for the former to develop the information skills of civil servants, so that the latter can become more independent, carry out research efficiently, and create new knowledge.

However, many government employees do not have the time to do their own research, even if they have the skill, so the expertise of information professionals is much valued.

A survey of staff at the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES, now Department for Children, Schools and Families) showed some interest in using librarians to carry out research on their behalf, for example conducting "horizon scanning" and keeping staff abreast with information from a wide range of sources, helping with parliamentary questions, and evidence-based policy development and literature reviews (Taylor and Corrall, 2007).


David E. McBee is a reference librarian with the Comptroller of the Currency, the bureau of the US Treasury that charters and regulates the national banks. He provides reference and research mostly for agency staff, but also for other libraries and the general public on occasion. The bulk of his customers are attorneys, economists and bank examiners, and he helps with legislative history questions, literature searches, and extracting current economic and financial data, using mainly electronic databases but also the library's collection of books and periodicals.

He feels that it is more cost-effective for customers to use librarians because they are the experts at searching and retrieving information from databases. The same is true for Internet searches because they know of more resources and better search strategies. Finally, they also have connections with libraries in other agencies and we can leverage that to get resources they may not own.

Many librarians in government carry out literature searches and write research reports. At the Congressional Research Service, which provides in-depth policy analysis and research for Congress, information research professionals work alongside policy analysts and attorneys.

They advise on finding solutions to information needs, make recommendations for new research strategies, create customized web pages and help with collection building. They are assigned to certain topic areas and do basic research and put together reports, using their information background.

Providing a specialized service

One way that government librarians add value is by providing a highly personalized service, working strategically with colleagues. In the UK much of the work of government is done by small teams, working on projects. So, just as academic librarians tend to liaise with particular groups of faculty according to subject, in government practitioners often liaise with particular teams, although on a less permanent basis.

Taylor and Corrall (2007) look at attempts in 2005 by the DfES to create a "personalized model" of librarianship, where librarians worked as "business librarians" offering tailored services to project groups and teams.

Questionnaires containing open and closed questions were sent out both to government librarians and DfES employees, with a view to finding out what services should be offered and how they should be marketed, resourced, and evaluated.

The results showed that four out of 11 of the government librarians surveyed carried out a personalized service, offering workshops, literature searches, current awareness, in-depth research, construction of a thesaurus and a database. Reasons for not offering a service included lack of resources, and departments spread across many sites.

The survey of DfES employees showed that there was a high level of interest in tailored training solutions, much higher than would be suggested by usage of the existing service.

Three key areas were identified on which people felt they needed advice:

  1. information management (for example using search and metadata to improve web design, information overload);
  2. information literacy (keeping up to date with key authors, search and evaluation strategies);
  3. help with research (see above).

The study confirmed the feasibility of the model and made several recommendations as to its implementation. Three years on, according to David Thomas, people with information skills tend to be "embedded in different parts of the business", rather than just in library teams, proactive rather than responsive.

The strategic value of knowledge and information

A theme in the literature (Taylor and Corrall, 2007: p. 301) is that the librarian should support knowledge management across government, providing advice to teams and helping develop a strategy for organization-wide knowledge and information management.

This advice has certainly been heeded by the British civil service, which is attempting to place knowledge and information management at the heart of government, on the agenda of the most senior decision makers.

Some departments have appointed knowledge and information managers at senior civil service level. This is to ensure that information management is "owned" at board level, and is the responsibility of all in government. Indicative, believes David Thomas, of a "transformation in the way information and knowledge is managed" – it's treated more holistically, and more seriously, than ever before.

The Knowledge Council has been established as a cross-departmental body, with The National Archives as secretariat. Its role is to champion, raise the profile, and give encouragement and direction to initiatives of information, management and risk mitigation. Council members include people with responsibility for knowledge and information management within government departments.

In November 2008, it published a key strategy document, Information Matters: Building Government's Capability in Managing Knowledge and Information (HM Government, 2008).

This document declared six key priorities and actions:

  1. Improve the value of knowledge and information held – for example, supporting evidence-based policy development, and ensuring that information is available to the right people at the right time.
  2. Build a knowledge management and knowledge-sharing culture. There are a number of ways of doing this, both virtual and physical. For example the new Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) building is based on two overlapping concentric circles, with a corridor in between, plenty of meeting rooms, and opportunities for chance encounters.
  3. Use common standards and secure processes. This means common metadata, formats, language, and procedures across departments, as well as good record keeping and procedures for security.
  4. Build capability. This is about strengthening professionalism.
  5. Strengthen leadership across government and within departments. Knowledge and information management must be owned at board level, and it's recommended that departments have a lead practitioner in the form of a senior information and knowledge manager.
  6. Improve technology. Working practices need to change from those appropriate to the paper age of clerks; digital information needs to be managed effectively, search technology and archive keeping needs to be improved, and collaborative working supported.

The document has now been endorsed and an implementation plan is currently being put together.

Interestingly, history provided part of the impetus for this forward-looking agenda. The National Archives were looking at the way information is changing and "quickly realized that if we don't tackle some of these information management challenges in government we're never actually going to end up with an archive in the future".

From that it was a short step to considering the generation of information and "how government departments can go about managing that information for their own business purposes, as well as the ultimate destination when it becomes an archival piece of material".

Britain is not alone in developing a public sector knowledge management strategy: Denmark first produced guidelines on intellectual capital statements (designed to document and encapsulate a company's knowledge management strategy) in 2000 which were revised in 2003 (Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, 2003).

Inside US government agencies, there is a recognition of the importance of knowledge sharing and management – see for example the US Office of Personnel Management's Human Capital Framework. The initiatives remain, however, at the level of the individual organization and there is as yet no overarching strategy as in the UK, probably because government is a much bigger operation.

Information on the policy agenda

There are a whole range of issues on the policy agenda – for example, sharing information and its security.

When Maewyn Cumming made her prediction about the future roles of libraries (Cumming, 2004), she cited portals as a possible over-arching structure for the multiplicity of different sources.

Thomas, however, believes that things have now moved on:

"A portal's a kind of 1990's thing so what we're interested in is building Web 2 social networking sites to allow directories and shared working spaces."

GovLoop is an example of such a site, and has been developed for the government community in the USA. It aims to bring together, in a collaborative working environment, government employees, students of government policy, and government contractors. There is some generally accessible information, but most of it is accessible only to the community, and offers the opportunity to meet other people, air views, share resources, etc.

Photo: Figure 1. Screenshot of GovLoop website.

Figure 1. Screenshot of GovLoop website

The National Archives is now piloting the Civil Pages Project, which isn't unlike GovLoop but "less flashy" according to Thomas. It's currently a directory and collaborative working tool and the aim is to help civil servants find each other and share what they know.

A vital aspect of effective use of information is its security. Last year the UK Government was bedevilled by stories of disappearing disks/memory sticks carrying sensitive personal data, such as Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs' embarrassing loss of the personal details of 25 million child benefit claimants.

The data handling review looked at new strategies for protecting data and ensuring its integrity and continuity. These included encryption of information, penetration testing of systems, risk monitoring and assessment, and training of staff handling personal data. There is also concern about the the integrity and continuing availability of data.

The data handling review was set up in response to the data handling crises, although much had already been done to raise the profile of information.

A new professionalism

In 2007, the SLA's Government Information Division reported on how one librarian took on new, unconventional projects such as editing technical reports and acting as temporary press secretary as a way of raising her library's profile.

However, increasing professionalism is also seen as key, and David Thomas believes that information practitioners as a whole have a considerable range of skills.

One of the objectives of the UK's Government Knowledge and Information Management Network is to help practitioners think of themselves as part of a single profession, rather than staying within the discipline in which they joined the service.

It wants to build a multi-skilled community, able to apply its skills within a variety of roles.

"If you look at corporate functions like IT, human resources (HR) and finance", claims Thomas, "they've pretty much been acknowledged as professions in their own right, whereas with knowledge and information management we're seen as a number of small disciplines and professions, some very mature like librarians, with a defined structure and framework, and others less so.

"And what the government knowledge and information management function aims to do is bring those disciplines together to form a kind of cohesive corporate function that can stand alongside it like IT, HR and finance as a core business service."

However, the professionalism agenda can benefit not just individual careers, it can also build influence. And a joined up profession will help promote a joined up approach to managing knowledge and information.

"It's kind of a two pronged approach, the first is looking at ensuring that there are better opportunities for knowledge and information management practitioners and that there's greater ownership of knowledge and information management issues at a senior level within the civil service, whilst knowledge and information management has now been recognized as an essential corporate function of government."

The fact that there are head of knowledge and information management roles within such departments as the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the Home Office means not only jobs to aspire to, but also ensures that there are people at senior level:

"with key influencing skills who can then communicate effectively to the board the business risks of getting it wrong, and the business benefits of getting it right and generally manage upwards and ensure our agenda is heard at board level ... certainly we're in an environment where that is pretty easy to do now".

Towards the future

The newly elected President Obama is a great enthusiast for libraries. At a speech to the American Library Association congress in Chicago in 2005, he praised librarians as guardians of truth and knowledge, and champions of privacy, literacy, independent thinking, and most of all, reading (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, 2009).

With a typical flourish of oratory, he claimed that librarians remind us that "truth isn't about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information". Making sure that the right information is available is what a good government librarian should do, and it is to be hoped that Obama will have plenty of these to hand.


Capgemini (2008), The Information Opportunity Report: Harnessing Information to Enhance Business Performance, Capgemini, UK [accessed January 20 2009].

Healthcare Executive Advisory Group (2004), Futureproofing the Profession: the Report of The Health Executive Advisory Group to the Executive Board of CILIP, CILIP, London [accessed January 20 2009].

Cummings, M. (2004), "A vision of the future", Network Journal, Autumn Issue, available at [accessed January 19 2009].

Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (2003), Intellectual Capital Statements: The New Guideline, Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Copenhagen [accessed January 21 2009].

HM Government (2008), Information Matters: Building Government's Capability in Managing Knowledge and Information, The National Archives, UK [accessed January 19 2009].

Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (2009), "A powerful library champion" [accessed January 22 2009] (see also "obama05" from the American Library Association website [accessed January 22 2009]).

Taylor, K. and Corrall, S. (2007), "Personalized service? Changing the role of the government librarian", Journal of Information Science, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 298-314.

Editor's note

The author would like to thank The National Archives, UK, Gloria Zamora of the SLA, and the SLA-DGI for their help with this article.