Aimee Piscitelli Quinn
Head of Government Publications
University of Nevada at Las Vegas
" Our whole American way of life is a great war of ideas, and librarians are the arms dealers selling weapons to both sides." -- James W. Quinn
If you haven’t already done so, please open your packets of handouts and find the one with a quote from James Quinn. I would like each of you to reflect for a few seconds on this quote. (allow time to pass) For those of you who do not know, James Quinn is my husband and was a Reference Librarian at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Back in the fall of 1989 James was in the audience of a WESTPAC (Western Pacific Conference of American Association of Law Librarians also known as AALL) and NOCALL (Northern California chapter of AALL) panel discussion on librarian ethics. He made this comment during the discussion and answer period after the panel completed their presentation because he wanted to see what the reaction would be. Of course, it started a huge debate! I was sent this quote in 1995 from a colleague at Spokane Public Library who was amused that it came from James and thought I could use it in a presentation on electronic government information. I was astounded to learn that it came from James because he never mentioned it. I also was struck by the truth of this statement and the mind-boggling questions it raised especially when viewed in the setting of electronic government information. If knowledge is power, then information can be seen as a weapon; and librarians as the weapons dealers.
I would like to thank everyone here for attending on a Friday morning before 10:00am as well as to say that the more I researched the issues surrounding global government and business information, the humbler I became and my respect for business librarians increased dramatically. If each of you think about how often you access government information in your daily job, you could interpolate that the similarities and differences between business and documents parallels the similarities and differences in foreign versus domestic information policy. Today I am here to present an overview of the issues and challenges in the field of international documents especially those of interest to business librarians.
Partnering between librarians and government is not new. In the United States, it has been effective since 1895 when Congress created the Federal Depository Library Program as a mechanism to keep the citizenry informed while keeping the cost of printing down. These two goals continue to drive the Federal Depository Library Program and it’s parent body, the Government Printing Office. As many of you know, the United States federal government is the largest publisher of information in the world. A unique outgrowth of this publishing is the level of research available to the common citizen. Most people who utilize libraries take it for granted that whatever information they need, the library has it and the librarian knows it off the top of their head. We, as Americans, take it for granted that materials referred to in newspaper articles and on the evening news will be available in the library. However, that is not necessarily true in the United States and is definitely not true in other areas of the country. From what I gleaned from colleagues who are living outside the United States or have worked as librarians in foreign countries, those countries whose society is similar to the US (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, France, Greece and Italy) allow some kind of access to government information, but it may not be free or easily accessible. Many other nations generate government information, but not to the extent as the United States nor is it available to the people. In Mexico, for example, librarians at the Bibliotéque Nacíonale enjoy a good general working relationship with their government. The Mexican Constitution and Organic Law of Mexico provides for the people to be informed about public issues. However, reality shows that very few people know they have access to their government’s information. Part of that is due to ignorance , but part is due to the government preferring to keep a hold on its power by not letting too much information be placed in the hands of the common people. (Doesn’t this sound familiar? Actually, this is one challenge for documents librarians in finding fugitive documents).
Economics is possibly the biggest factor to the people’s right to know what is going on in their government. One popular theory is that if you have enough money, you can buy anything, including information; the real question is whether the citizens realize the information is available. The dissemination of foreign government information parallels the United States in more ways than it differs including the migration of government information from traditional print to electronic, the privatization of government information, the cost of printing and distribution, preservation issues, copyright and the dilemma of the year 2000. Significant challenges to international librarians are the timeliness of the data, the content of the information, patron accessibility, and censorship. Do any of these challenges sound familiar????
The internet revolutionized information collection and dissemination around the world. Communication has never been more available, thus meaning the entire global economy shifted as more and more businesses and governments adopted this technology. In the United States, a citizen can obtain the latest copy of marked-up bill that is under debate in Congress, a recipe for chili to feed the masses, make travel arrangements, purchase books, and a host of other activities. We can also bank via the internet! We, as Americans, assume all other areas of the earth will be as readily accessible to us as everything else but that is not true. In other parts of the world, economic, social, and religious concerns frequently override the government’s ability to print, publish and distribute its own information. Choices are made every day as to what data can be viewed to the public. For example, Russia, as part of the Soviet Union, did not have a public information policy. It does now as a result of the political upheaval over the past decade. In fact, their current public information policy is less restrictive than that in the United States. Last year, a Russian scholar in Nuclear Waste Management came to the University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries to research Nevada Test Site documents related to the transportation of nuclear waste. He was appalled that many of the government documents he wished to use in his research were (and still are) classified. Furthermore, he objected to the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) process so strongly that he went to see both Senator Harry Reid and Senator Richard Bryan to voice his complaint. I never heard back from him regarding his quest, but I was struck by the kind of information he had available from Russia. I bring up this anecdote to point out that while our government information policy is open, it is not perfect (for those of you who thought that government documents librarianship was perfect).
In my mind, the biggest dilemma facing the information world today is the year 2000 problem fondly known to government types as Y2K. Again, economics is a large factor in this area. Nations who have the money to devote to reprogramming the computers in use across the land, will be able to stop the problem before it occurs. Those poorer nations must rely on the generosity of other countries to assist them. To my knowledge, the technology to globally correct this problem does not exist at this time. A good overview of the problem is in the United States General Accounting Office report Year 2000 Computing Crisis: An Assessment Guide (GAO/AIMD-10.1.14) which happens to be available on the internet with this address: http://www.gao.gov/special.pubs/y2kguide.pdf. Although this publication targets what could happen in the United States, I understand that many other countries are taking the same precautions. As I understand it, if this problem isn’t solved, life as we know it could change because automatic checks from government will not be sent out, taxes will not be collected, people will not be counted, etc. The second threat to the information world, in mind, is the rise in privatization of government information.
Privatization of government information goes hand in hand with the rising cost of publishing and dissemination. Few governments have the luxury of having every contractor deal fairly with them, raising costs of publications. Many governments look to the private sector to ease their burden in shouldering all the responsibilities of printing and distribution of government information. Or, they ignore the burden by not publishing the information in the first place. Most "developed" governments collect data related to the census, health, labor force, education, agriculture, trade, industry, foreign relations and domestic issues. They do not necessarily have to make it available for the public. Many under-developed countries cannot afford to collect this data, so therefore it is not there. The same thing an be said of state and local information in the United States. Most states that have a sound economy produce more state, city and local documents for their citizen’s use. Those states that are economically poor, do not.
A good overview of this subject is in Peter Hajinal’s new book International information : documents, publications, and electronic information of international governmental organizations. 2nd ed. (Englewood, Colo. : Libraries Unlimited, 1997).
One large effect of the privatization of government information is censorship. Some of the data collected by governments, especially in the areas of military intelligence and foreign affairs, is classified. However, when commercial vendors acquires this kind of material, it frequently censors it in order to make it into a more salable product. It is rare to find major portions of government documents censored in the United States. It is not so rare in many other countries. From what I gleaned from my readings, where a country has basic human rights preserved and respected, then access to government information is usually available. Where human rights are restricted or compromised, so too is access to government information. So where is this diatribe leading? I hope I have given you something to consider when researching international data regardless of the format. Do not be too surprised to find out that China does not have anything equal to the Freedom of Information Act. Use your common sense. Throughout the rest of the day, the other speakers will focus on specific topics including demographics, economics, trade, and labor. My portion was simply to give each of you a flavor of what may be encountered when looking for international documents. Thank you very much for your time.BRIEF BIBLIOGRAPHY
Hajinal, Peter J., ed. International Information : Documents, Publications, And Electronic Information Of International Governmental Organizations. 2nd ed. Englewood, Colo. : Libraries Unlimited, 1997.
Johnson, Mary Elizabeth. The International Monetary Fund, 1944-1992: A Research Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.
Pagell, Ruth A. and Michael Halperin. International Business Information: How to Find It, How to Use It. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1994.
United States. General Accounting Office. Year 2000 Computing Crisis: An Assessment Guide (GAO/AIMD-10.1.14). Washington, D.C.; U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.
Going Global: Business and Government Information Partnering
BRASS Preconference, ALA Annual Conference, June 26, 1998
Disclaimer : This publication has been placed on the web for the convenience of BRASS members. Information and links will not be updated. Posted 18 April 2003.