Thursday, May 18, 2006

Government Information to the People: Where We've Been and Where We Are Going (ALA, Dallas, 1979)

I was looking in my old files from pre-PC days and found my reports from the first American Library Association Annual Conference that I attended, which was in Dallas in 1979. This was my first report. I have corrected some grammar and spelling.

Sunday, June 24, 9:30-12:30

Government Documents Round Table:
Government Information to the People
Where We've Been and Where We Are Going

The first speaker was Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. His use of government documents has been archival, mostly using the U.S. Serial Set of the 1800's. From these documents he has taken speeches by the American Indians for his nonfiction works and gathered ideas for his novels.

He said that several fields of history use archival documents heavily: American Indians, Ku Klux Klan, railroads, trials, medicine, agriculture, inventions, foreign relations. He added that Margaret Mitchell used KKK trial documents for background information and speech patterns for Gone with the Wind.

He described how difficult research is because of poor indices and policies that keep documents from browsers. He said that librarians have often not bothered themselves with documents, including himself, once being a librarian.

He warned against strict belief that government information is accurate, or always true, especially modern documents, which he described as less honest and duller than older documents.

The second speaker was Larkin Warner of the Kerr Foundation, which makes economic predictions. His use of documents is mostly statistical. He uses Census information and state publications frequently in producing regional predictions. He recommended calling the person who compiled state information.

Warner distinguishes two library stances toward documents: (1) proactive, which anticipates need, and (2) reactive, which follows demand. Too many libraries take the later stance.

He advocated a three part program for government document service. (1) The librarian has to plan and gain some expertise; (2) the librarian must contact government and business officials and promote service; (3) the librarian must teach use of the documents.

Kay Morgan of Oregon State University spoke of the history of the Government Documents Roundtable. Its purposes are (1) to serve as a forum for document librarians, (2) to support research on document use, (3) to draw guidelines for cataloguing and other policies, and (4) to educate document librarians.

Robert Wedgworth, the executive director of the American Library Association, praised the roundtable's growth since conception in 1972. It is now the largest roundtable. He expressed concern that government publishing may be made cost effective by use of private printing firms that would sell documents at higher prices, thus increasing the cost to libraries and making documents less available to the public.

William Lancaster, dean of the School of Library Science of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, spoke on the inefficiency of print and the efficiency of computers in storing and accessing government information. He gave many examples of how print costs have increased and of how the information was out-of-date when distributed. He also discussed the declining costs of electronics. He predicted home communication centers, analytic magazines on magnetic tape, "on demand" news via cable television, and immediate on-line publishing.

Nancy Cline of Pennsylvania State University discussed how federal policies for information dissemination may bypass libraries. She advocated library activity in finding and training people to work with government information offices to keep libraries in the system.

Technology has changed greatly in the 27 years since I wrote my report on this program, which I typed on an old non-electric typewriter. William Lancaster seemed to forecast electronic "home communication centers," but he did not know about home PCs and the Internet as it is today. I do not think anyone ever got magazines on magnet tape. What has not changed is the belief that government documents are essential sources of public information and the concern that federal and state governments will fail to keep them free and available to the public. The fact that the new Historical Statistics of the United States is being sold by Cambridge University Press for $825, when the 1975 GPO version sold for $26, tells me that our government has failed us. My favorite part of the program was hearing Dee Brown. I heard him again in the late 1980s at the Midwest Library Association Conference in Indianapolis, when he talked about documents and the history of the Oregon Trail. I always enjoy hearing good authors at ALA.

No comments: