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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Government information in a world of change

STEVEN D. ZINK, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada, USA



The entire globe is undergoing an historic period of change, and by now there must be general agreement in the library world that the information age has arrived. With this arrival, one can certai nly sympathize with French writer and poet Paul Valery, when in the aftermath of World War I's shattering of his predictable universe he maintained that "the future is not what it used to be."

From all appearances the future will present an ongoing information revolution, or in the words of E.J. Zemke (President and CEO of Amdahl computers) an "information tsunami"--information proliferat ion and use are . . . creating shockwaves of unpredictable magnitude in unknown directions (societal, economic, etc.)"(1). In this climate of uncertainty and change it is essential to remember that l ibraries and official publications collections do not exist in isolation. They are a part (perhaps even a minute one) of a much greater whole that consists of a rapidly ever-expanding information uni verse.

One of the major impacts in the age in which we live has been diversity, in every sense of the word. A "market of the individual" has arisen. The broadband approach to information is dying. Informat ion users are making increasingly specific and narrowly targeted information requests. Information providers, whether it be the private sector or individual government publications collections can no longer take the attitude of United States pioneering automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, when he refused to offer different color automobiles and told the public that they could purchase any automob ile they wanted as long as it was black. The very nature of information technologies supports and encourages diversity, decentralization, autonomy, and individualism to an unprecedented degree. Users will not only pick and choose their information more carefully, but will also choose the medium in which that information is to be received.

These changes and a predicted installed base of microcomputers that will penetrate over 70 percent of the developed world's homes by the year 2,000(1) will alter the nature of instruction, learning, research, and information resources. All of these forces, including ongoing, unprecedented changes in computing and telecommunications, have resulted in many new, aggressive players in the informati on arena.

While information has always played a part in government and societal affairs, today information provides a major underpinning of the world economy--what once was a medium of transmission has now be come, itself, a commodity. Business and government now clearly view information as both a valuable commodity and a strategic resource. Government information professionals must acknowledge these chan ging circumstances.

Information Technology and Official Publications Collections

Technology promises a fundamental shift in the basic nature of libraries. Libraries were created in an era of scarcity of information resources and librarians exuberantly gathered information to pre serve it for future use. This role still exists, is an important one, and will continue to be a valuable one in the future. Paper publications will not soon disappear.

Today, information is no longer scarce. Most of the world is experiencing a period of unparalled information availability. Almost certainly hundreds of thousands of government documents are created on a daily basis. While most of this documentation may never be disseminated, libraries today would find it impossible to store this information in one place, even if they physically received it. Inf ormation cannot be held within the walls of a building; information long ago ceased to be that easily contained.

Given that central physical depositories of documentation from the world's governments are increasingly unrealistic, individual libraries will come to provide a gateway service to most government in formation. This requires the realization that an increasing volume of information must be acquired through reliable and swift information providers. Such access will include networks with other insti tutions or even purchase of value-added government information from private sector vendors. In short, new paradigms of acquisition for government information are emerging.

Official depositories will increasingly acquire government information at the time of need rather than in anticipation of future use. This trend is already quite clear in the case of scholarly journ al articles in most networked libraries in the more developed countries of the world, and it is gradually beginning to appear as a certainty for collections of official publications as well. To date, however, the physical depository and the illusion of comprehensive coverage have left this concept less clearly articulated for government information.

Over the balance of this decade, most official publications collections worldwide will shift emphases to collect on-site, general and frequently used works together with official publications on top ics of local concern and/or traditional strengths. Technology in the more developed countries already provides the potential to deliver needed government information in minutes rather than weeks or m onths because information in digital form can be transmitted via high-speed and high-capacity networks. In some subject areas, collections can offer information on demand. Document specialists should play a very important role in bringing this potential to fruition.

In the past few years the rapid advances in and convergence of optical disc technology, telecommunications, and computing have either already brought or are poised to bring about outstanding opportu nities for collections of government information of all sizes and in almost all world locales. In some instances, today's smaller and less historic collections may even have an advantage in that they have more flexibility in focussing their energies on acquiring information on demand rather than being concerned about storing and preserving hundreds of years of paper publications. In some senses, technology and its ubiquitousness promise to level the playing field. Newer and smaller collections may have far greater flexibility than larger collections that will be burdened with an expanse of what once was highly coveted, scarce information.

Current opportunities for most of the world's official publications collections must be measured and well thought-out. When facing these new realities, one might profitably think about the following quote from noted physicist Freeman Dyson, who wrote in his book Infinite in All Directions: "Never sacrifice economies of time for economy of size"(1).


The expensive traditional governmental information practices of gathering information, publishing, and providing for dissemination are coming under fire on many fronts for their expense and possible ineffectiveness . Some of the reasons for these criticisms are strictly financial. There is a worldwide shortage of paper and a consequent dramatic rise in its cost over the past several years(2). T he impacts of these cutbacks are also worldwide. Ogunbameru has detailed eloquently the failure of traditional modes of acquiring government publications in Nigeria(2) . At the same time, the price o f information technology continues to plummet. As a result, governments in more developed countries and an increasing number of developing countries and international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are turning to technological alternatives to information dissemination and storage.

In today's world much of governments' activities involve handling information. As an information-based entity, most governmental agencies have not handled their information well(3) . This, together with opportunities offered by the promise of enhanced customer service, increased productivity, and the relatively low cost of information technology, are compelling reasons that governments and inte rgovernmental organizations around the world are developing comprehensive information policies and investing time and money into information resource management(4) .

As governments come under closer scrutiny, government agencies themselves are paring back traditional information dissemination practices. Government information professionals are well aware of this trend, but what may not be immediately evident is that government information collections and their utility as effective disseminators of information may also be scrutinized more closely by governme nts and intergovernmental organizations that provide materials to depositories.

There has been a plethora of published literature about the underutilization of government publications(5) . This underutilization may, in part, be due to the rawness of the data in primary source m aterials governments collect. Another reason is that worldwide, government publications are still largely out of the bibliographic mainstream. Both of these reasons are probably less accurate in th e United States. The U.S. federal government publishes numerous analyses and finished reports and studies, and since 1976 depository materials have received traditional, mainstream bibliographic cont rol under Anglo American Cataloging Rules. Many U.S. government publications are even included in online catalogs. Still, the results of use are not exactly promising and it has not shielded the U.S. depository library program from charges of inefficiencies in information dissemination(6) .

Recently, the U.S. Government Printing Office boasted that on an average week approximately 167,000 individuals use depository libraries(7) . While on the surface this may sound impressive, in reali ty the results are far from spectacular. With a national population of more than 260,000,000, this would mean that if the weekly visitors represented 167,000 different individuals (quite unlikely), o nly slightly more than three percent of the U.S. population utilize depository library collections each year. Clearly, the current depository library structure is open to charges of inadequate dissem ination of information given such low use.

The consequences of such scrutiny may be many. Some government agencies may wish to explore alternative means to disseminate their information through direct publishing on the Internet. Such electro nic publishing is economical and can be extraordinarily timely. The French cultural ministry's color reproduction of the Palaeolithic cave paintings in the south of France on the Internet within days of discovery is only one such compelling example(8) .

Alternatively, some government agencies may seek to assist depositories to do a better job of carrying out their dissemination function. For many years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pr ovided equipment and cash support payments so that libraries in local communities can better provide information about the agency's activities. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has also supported its depositories by offering state-of-the-art technology to assist them in their public service mission.

While closer government scrutiny of expenditures may pose some challenges, there may also be some benefits. Often national governments are the leaders in information technology and have the resource s available to assist their information repositories. In the future, government information professionals may have opportunities to assist agencies in improving their accountability. Government infor mation professionals must be ready to provide this type of assistance and must become more knowledgeable about information and systems technologies and how they can be used to assist users of governm ent information.

Changing Role of the Government Information Specialist

As a result of the information age and the hyperabundance of information in many countries of the world, the role of the government information specialist is changing. This role will increasingly mo ve away from that of an acquirer to place emphasis on user facilitation to locate, filter, assess, and analyze relevant information for the increasingly individualized needs of users.

The most important part of any organization is its people. People solve problems and make an organization work. The ongoing information tsunami demands that government information collections hire t he very best people available and then provide them with the necessary tools, training, and opportunities for development to allow them to do their job in the most optimal way.

Chief administrators of government information collections must develop with their staffs a vision of the overall strategic value placed on information in the new information world and the role to b e played by the official documents collection. This vision should include evaluating all practices and policies regarding acquisition, organization, and dissemination of information with the end-user in mind. The vision may not be a universal one due to local circumstances. It may also mean that no existing paradigm is viable and that a thorough, zero-based approach be utilized to examine the ex isting operations of the library. Clearly this vision should be oriented toward, and anticipatory of, change.

Regardless of the size of a government information collection or its isolated nature, the changes of the present are only the inklings of greater changes to come. These changes require aggressive ac tion on the part of government information specialists and have consequences; in times such as the present, even inaction has consequences.

One of the greatest challenges facing all official documents specialists is the transition from paper to digital formats that is currently taking place. Government information professionals must dev elopment and encourage a culture of learning and keep themselves informed about new technologies, have an appreciation of information systems and systems analysis, develop a comfort level in navigat ing digital space, and explore emerging ways to utilize information to solve real world problems.

It cannot be overemphasized that libraries are only one player on today's information world stage. Many different academic disciplines and professions are already tackling the challenges being broug ht about by the emergence of the information society. Information systems experts, information resource managers, human/machine interface specialists, and computer scientists are, on a daily basis, m aking decisions and engaging in research that will fundamentally alter the professional lives of government documents specialists and their users(9) .

Government information specialists cannot be reticent about acquiring some of the skills being applied by these other professionals. If information access is the common bond that defines the library profession, then librarians must gain knowledge and practice in some of these other professions' techniques and understandings(10) . Librarians have the opportunity to take a leadership role in the access to and dissemination of government information, but the window of opportunity will not remain open forever.

To remain passive in the face of these technological changes threatens the very future of librarianship and government information specialists, in particular. A vacuum currently exists that is bein g filled from a myriad of fields, and the documents specialist must become more information technology savvy. Given current trends, those who control the acquisition of technology and are most conver sant about it will ultimately be the keepers or managers of information.

Government information specialists must also understand the tenets of information literacy and serve as educators in its principles to government information users. Libraries have the opportunity to play a more fundamental role in integrating, educating, and utilizing information literacy skills in servicing information needs of users. One of the foremost management experts of this century, Pet er Drucker, recently wrote that information literacy, not computer literacy, will have the greatest impact on business and society in the next century. This means that successful individuals in the 2 1st century will have learned early how to use information as a tool(11) . Specifically, these skills include:

a. the need to be able to recognize when an information need is present;

b. the need to identify needed information; and

c. the abilities to locate, evaluate, and organize information to address a specific issue.

Government information specialists, due to the intensive nature of the reference assistance required to service their collections have always been involved to some degree in instruction. This will b ecome even more critical in the future. Documents specialists will need to focus less on technical output and much more on measuring outcome-based performance. Librarians in government information ce nters located in university settings will have an even greater opportunity and perhaps even a formal instructional role in injecting information literacy skills into the curriculum(12) .


Just as government information specialists should expect a blurring of their traditional functions, they should also anticipate being involved in numerous partnerships with other information resourc e dissemination entities. Governments themselves are increasingly involved in public sector/private sector partnerships for the purpose of disseminating official information. These relationships will quite likely spill over into the development and implementation of technology that will provide access to official publications. Because private sector involvement results in fees, this is a particu larly contentious issue in the United States, Canada, and other countries' library communities where there has been a long-standing argument that government information should be available without an y charges(13) .

Governments are the largest producers of information and constitute an extraordinary information industry. The United States government spent more than $200 billion on information management in syst ems since 1982(14) . Governments also remain the only real source of comprehensive statistics and related data because they uniquely have the legal power to extract such information.

Many local, regional, and national governments are realizing the uniqueness and possible value of the information that they possess. Given the current commodification of information and the stringen t budgets with which government agency managers must deal, it is unrealistic to expect that an agency manager will view information and its dissemination as only a matter of informing the citizenry.

Many governments are disseminating their information, particularly raw data, through intermediaries to an unprecedented degree. Agencies are often doing this to offset some of the costs of collectin g the information(15) . Sales to a private sector publisher may also relieve the agency of any obligatory dissemination with its attendant costs. The ultimate impact of such practices is that governm ent information professionals in many countries are finding strange new allies in their calls for broader distribution of government information(16) . Private sector companies in turn are producing c ustomized information products to users willing and able to pay to have specificity brought to bear on their information needs.

Information partnerships on campuses or with other institutions will also become apparent. The functions of instructional design, information dissemination, storage, and communication will become in creasingly seamless. In fact, government information collections and their libraries are in an evolving state and have the opportunity to play an even more important role. Government information spec ialists who articulate and act upon this vision of information management and dissemination may have a very bright future, indeed.

One of many partnerships at the University of Nevada, Reno is the combination of the former Government Publications Department and business information resources. The merger of these two areas resul ted in the Business and Government Information Center (BGIC)(17) . The Center embraces a University mandate of providing enhanced services to a larger user community. The BGIC has emerged as one of t he lead agencies in a major economic development initiative (the Manufacturing Assistance Partnership) of the University and two community colleges in northwestern Nevada. This endeavor provides spec ialized economic development and diversification information to clients. In addition to the synergistic relationship of merging two similar information resources and staffs, the BGIC also initiated a fee-for-service program. The fee-based service was a result of a recognition that information-age clientele required detailed, intense, customer-specific services that are not normally provided by l ibraries. In essence, the BGIC allows the university libraries and the university itself to never say no to a potential information seeker's request. One can make an argument that such a fee-for-serv ice function is a logical extension of the diversity and individualism of the information age. In such an atmosphere, there is no longer a legitimate fee-versus-free question. Most libraries will eve ntually face this fact of life as the only means to serve as an effective information disseminator. Libraries and government information specialists need to begin thinking about fees. They should exa mine the situation in light of current user demands and do so with a long-term strategy in mind(18) .

Information Service, Use, Quality, and Authority

Professionals in government information collections must acquire some new characteristics or at least refurbish existing ones in light of the changes in the nature of information resources and heigh tened service expectations . They must be client-driven, even more service-oriented, and proactive. Service in the information age is not value-added; it is part of the information product. Informati on centers should have as their goal seamless, intermediary-free end-user access to information. Until this is accomplished, user facilitation in all its possible forms will be the most important tas k for librarians. Library staff must be able to serve as facilitator, instructor, and consultant for those individuals who need to acquire information, regardless of format, source, or location.

The government information professional will also have a greater role in filtering information as information overload becomes an increasingly important factor. The Internet has gained attention due to its emphasis on the quantity of information it makes accessible. This quantity is impressive in the short term. However, the Internet is also the world's largest source of unauthoritative informa tion. In the longer term, the quality of content will be the most important issue and one with which information professionals will need to be concerned. As Alvin Toffler has suggested, power in the information economy is derived from the access and use of information(20) . The potency of that information "power," however, is heavily dependent on its accuracy and timeliness.

Government information enablers must have a better grasp of how their clientele use information. For example, although it varies by discipline, studies have consistently shown that libraries are not a scholar's first stop on an information search. Scholars use personal libraries, personal communications among colleagues, citations and bibliographies in major works, and then perhaps the library. There is considerable serendipity in users' approaches to utilizing information. Librarians must become more accepting of user browsing as a legitimate means to locate relevant information and they must make sure that automated access allows for this manner of information retrieval.

Technology: The Information Liberator

Information technology is serving to enhance dramatically the delivery of many government information sources. The United Nations (UN) and related agencies are prime examples. Information technology via CD-ROMs and particularly the Internet have provided unprecedented availability of timely UN information. The UN serves as a poignant example of how information technology can offer the promise t o drive down the cost and enhance dissemination(21) . In the past, it could take years to receive some UN agency materials that are now disseminated in a matter of days, if not hours.

The UN example is not unusual. The dramatic global spread of the Internet and its rapid growth in number of users and volume of information available via its connectivity have brought government inf ormation closer to universal access than would have been possible in any other manner. Increasingly, physical location is inconsequential.

Another issue that is frequently discussed is international compatibility of information standards. As a part of its National Information Infrastructure, the United States federal government is esta blishing a Government Information Locator Service (GILS). GILS identifies and describes public information resources throughout the federal government and provides assistance in obtaining the informa tion. GILS is designed to be decentralized and will supplement other agency and commercial information dissemination mechanisms (partnerships). Access may be direct or facilitated through government or private sector intermediaries. Intermediary access will probably include all of the following and even more that are not even imaginable today--kiosks, 800 (toll-free numbers), electronic mail, bu lletin boards, fax, and office media such as floppy disks, CD-ROM, and even printed works. GILS uses open network protocols and conforms to the ANSI Z39.50 standard for information retrieval and sear ching. The system is be backwardly compatible to states and localities and upwardly compatible for international applications(22) .

GILS and similar systems suggest that ready acquisition of raw data and government analysis via the Internet are not only changing the nature of government information acquisition, they are bringing into question traditional library surrogate descriptions of informational items. Traditional bibliographic access via MARC cataloging is challenged in a revolutionary way when a search leads to the full-text of a document rather than to a surrogate description in a card catalog or online library system. The result is more concentration on the specific contents of the document itself. Standard G eneralized Markup Language (SGML) and its popular subset Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) are providing direct and immediate access to relevant information.

Information Technology and its Global Dispersal

Access to the technology necessary to unlock the riches of machine-readable government information resources remains a concern. Inequities have long existed and will continue to exist into the fores eeable future. Despite early anxiety that new information technology might widen the gap between the information haves and have-nots, there is some evidence to the contrary, due to the robustness and open nature of the technological architectures of the Internet, microcomputers, and CD-ROMs, and their relatively low cost.

The ubiquitous nature of the microcomputer, and to a lesser degree the Internet, has made more advances in disseminating information into the daily life of developing countries than any previous sin gle technological effort. International intergovernmental organizations such as UNESCO are continuing to explore means to enhance distribution of information to poorer nations(23) . Clearly, CD-ROM technology is the leader of the various information technologies now available that are capable of providing massive amounts of government information to developing countries. CD-ROM is truly a stand-alone technology and is not dependent on either a national or local infrastructure. In 1990, the American Association for the Advancement of Science surveyed 106 sub-Saharan African university and research libraries, 48 had microcomputers and 16 had CD-ROM units(24) . This penetration of CD-ROM technology is rather extraordinary since extensive use of CD-ROMs in privately-owned microcomputers in the west has only become commonplace in the last two-to-three years.

The dramatic drop in the cost of CD-ROM reader technology has been followed by a precipitous drop in the prices of Compact Disc Recordable (CD-R) technology. The knowledge required to master and rec ord local information is not great and this low-cost, high density storage technology has dramatic implications for the internal use of CD-ROM technology in poorer countries to provide distribution o f national government information internally as well as to the rest of the world.

While the resources required for Internet connectivity are greater, they also are not out of the reach of the countries of the developing world. Several developed countries are helping to broaden ac cess to the Internet. The United States Information Agency, for example, is planning to set up 50 Internet nodes around the world(25) . Internal endeavors are also notable. For example, there have be en numerous reports about the reinvigoration of the Pan African News Agency (PANA) and its use of the Internet to receive and file news stories dealing with African affairs(26) . PANA has an Internet address along with approximately 50 other agencies in Senegal(27). PANA plans to establish an online information network in Africa built upon the use of Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite technology(28). The chief architect of PANA's renaissance, Babacar Fall, has pointed out that Africa can leapfrog technology directly to the Internet(29). Moreover, Fall has pointed out how key such technology is to Africa by maintaining that the downfall of many modern-day development efforts on the African continent have been undermined by a lack of communication and information(30). The distributed nature of Internet technology leaves much of the cost of information dissemination and production in the more technologically advanced countries. Less developed countries only need t he means to receive such information. It is clearly less expensive for governments to get a computer connected to the Internet than to try to print, stock, and distribute official government publicat ions in paper.

Traditional Roles

Over the next several years government information professionals have an outstanding opportunity to blend the best of traditional, non-threatening service excellence with increased access through ne w information technology tools. Traditional duties will remain. Paper is not going away; demand for paper has never been greater(30). Moreover, governments of the world have never collected more info rmation than today. While dissemination in traditional formats may be declining, that is yet another reason for official publications specialists to craft an expanded vision of their role.

Change and Uncertainty, in Perspective

It is a little bewildering to be in a central information profession as the world sustains the growing pains of the dawning information age. The duality of an extended electronic library together wi th the physical library will be the norm for the foreseeable future. Considerable options, all valid, will exist--local versus worldwide information resources, personal interaction versus surrogate i mpersonal and perhaps even synchronous interaction through online systems, owned versus shared versus acquisition of information at the time of need. Change will be the only constant.

Noted 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "we wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended, there are stairs above us...w hich go out of sight." It seems that the stairs above us right now are a little less visible than they were 15 years ago, or even last year. Due to the accelerating pace of technological change, it s eems now that running, rather than walking, up the stairs is required. Perhaps the current climate requires, as Margaret Wheatley stated in her recent highly acclaimed book on leadership in the infor mation age, that "...we are required to stay comfortable with uncertainty, and confident of confusion's role"(32).