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Government Documents Librarianship and Professional Self-Conception

October 31, 2022

I recently read a thought-provoking article by Richard M. Mikulski entitled “Language, Professional Culture, and Self-Depiction in Government Documents Librarianship” (portal: Libraries and the Academy, v.22, no.4, Oct.22, pp.1035-1061). In this article, Mikulski analyzes 61 scholarly publications written by government documents librarians to determine how they describe their profession and working with government information. In Mikulski’s telling, documents librarians most succinctly describe their field as “austere, intimidating, and arcane” (1036). Following this, the article notes that documents librarians: are optimistic and encouraging; have their own unique professional community marked by shared expertise, sense of purpose, and culture; feel underappreciated and misunderstood by library administration, members of the general public, and library patrons; and feel they must actively promote use of government information to ensure it gets fully utilized.

Much of what Mikulski writes meshes with my own experience as a government documents librarian, which is the primary professional role I’ve had throughout the years. Government documents can certainly be arcane: Mikulski states that “As with the use of the term arcane, this language of heresy, orthodoxy and mythology contributes to a sense that the documents community is a mysterious, almost religious order as much as a profession” (1044). I initially balked at that sentence, viewing it as an overstatement, but as I thought further I came around. For one thing, the unique cataloging systems require specialized knowledge to use. A particularly confounding example in SuDoc (the cataloging system for U.S. government documents) is that a monographic or periodical series can all of a sudden change call numbers because the publishing department gets reorganized. To further reinforce Mikulski’s point, Andriot’s Guide to U.S. Government Publications is the Bible of cataloging and finding government documents. Finally, I often encourage my Pitt library associates to send any government information-related reference inquiries to me, lest they get lost in the gov docs maze!

The descriptor intimidating resonates a bit less with me. Dealing with print government documents is certainly intimidating on first exposure. Rows and rows of documents of various sizes and shapes are certainly overwhelming. However, finding government information in PittCat is relatively easy and therefore somewhat less intimidating. When I do searches, I’ll often come across a link to at least one government document. (Admittedly, that may be selection bias given what I search for!) That said, I often worry undergrads will get confused when they see a document item type in a PittCat search and therefore not click on it.

Austere is likewise not the first thing I’d use to describe government documents. Print documents can be austere in appearance-very often they have no eye-popping covers and items of the same type look numbingly similar after a while. However, their subject matter is often anything but austere. An example is the title of Congressional hearings, which in my (unscientific) experience increasingly telegraph their content. I’m surprised when the titles of modern House hearings aren’t of the format “This Bill is the Greatest Thing Ever”/”This Bill is a Disaster.” Biased, yes, but not austere!

The article theme I most resonate with is that of an optimistic and welcoming community. I benefitted earlier in my career from the generosity of government documents librarians and I’m happy to talk about the discipline to any new librarians or library school enrollees. Additionally, a reference question asked to the GOVDOC-L listserv will often recieve 4 or 5 knowledgeable answers within a few hours. We understand that we might not be able to get a document or find the right answer, but we’ll certainly exhaust all possibilities before giving up!

While reading the article I reflected on how helping people find government information is something I very rarely do. At Pitt, both our international and U.S. government documents are held at Thomas Library (our high-density storage facility), so I very rarely interact with print documents. We have access to many thousands of electronic government documents through the Government Publishing Office, ProQuest Congressional and HathiTrust, all of which are indexed in our PittCat discovery layer. When I do help with government information, it’s most often helping patrons find Census information or assisting political science professors acquire Congressional text (bills, hearings, etc.) as data to do quantitative analysis. Neither of those tasks require the type of arcane knowledge I use when, for example, I help a patron find a particular item in print or electronic format. Despite this, I don’t foresee a time when government documents librarian is not a core part of my professional identity!

I encourage everyone to read Language, Professional Culture, and Self-Depiction in Government Documents Librarianship” and let me know what you think!

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