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Librarians in government

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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).