Everyone who has worked closely with government information knows that fascinating details hide behind such dry titles as the "Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology" and "U.S. Congressional Serial Set." To uncover the valuable information in materials published by the U.S. government, including congressional reports and hearings, most users require orientation and even some civic education. The importance of understanding the purpose and significance of most government documents is equally true for information buried on CD-ROMs or in online databases.
Many government information specialists turn their knowledge into a passion for outreach, promoting the treasures in their realm to library users who may not know that government information is exactly what they seek. In academic libraries, instruction is one way to promote government information to students and researchers who need it. However, in an organizationally complex university setting, it can be particularly difficult to identify which classrooms or groups to speak to. While responding to instruction requests from individual instructors benefits a specific group of students, relying exclusively on this approach assumes that everyone who needs instruction knows that you are available and willing to help. A proactive approach to instruction can dramatically increase the number of students and faculty who use and value government information.
A good first step toward developing an effective instruction program is to become familiar with the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. 1 These standards not only provide a common vocabulary with other instruction librarians, but also help clarify what students can learn from government information about being better researchers.
If your library has an information literacy program, sit down with its manager and find out how government information can help the program meet its goals. Perhaps there is a department doing policy tracking assignments or a research center that needs to find and work with demographic microdata. Several recent articles in our professional literature discuss the synergy between government information and information literacy standards, and these can help you develop suggestions about how government information fits into your library's program. 2
If your library has no information literacy program, you have an opportunity to develop your own program without having to fit into existing activities. Look around your campus's website or course catalog for an audience that would benefit from government information instruction. Examples might include a specific academic department or program, a policy research center or a single course that all majors in a particular department must take.
Once you have an audience for your program and possibly a collaborator or two, think carefully about teaching objectives. What do you want students to be able to do or understand after you work with them? The ACRL information literacy standards and associated learning outcomes can be helpful here. Of course, if you are working with a particular member of the teaching faculty, also seek his or her opinion about what students should be learning.
When you have agreement on goals, try to uncover what students already understand—before the session. For example, if you are talking to a beginning political science class about tracking a policy through Congress, they may know the process that a bill goes through but are unlikely to understand—or know how to find—the various documents that describe the process. Social work students may conduct a similar policy tracking assignment, but are less likely to already understand the legislative process. They may also be more interested in tracking a policy topic than in tracking a particular piece of legislation.
Now you are ready to think about the content of your information literacy program. What tools can you give students to help them reach the desired outcome? This will vary widely depending on your learning objectives. You may also find that the allotted time is too short to accomplish your objectives, which could lead you to revise your goals or to develop an online tutorial or pathfinder to supplement an in-person session.
Build an assessment tool into your program. How can students demonstrate that they have met the learning objectives? This isn't necessarily a test: it may just be a note from each student about what they learned from the program or what they are still unclear about.
Finally, evaluate the program. Is it reaching everyone it was designed to reach? Are students meeting the learning objectives? Use each iteration of the program to better meet the learning objectives you identified or to adjust them based on your discussions with partners inside or outside of the library.
Much has been written about obstacles to instruction: course syllabi are crowded, librarians are often invited to teach either too early or too late in the research process, instructors are unaware of the services their library offers, etc. However, with careful planning and help from other librarians and teaching faculty, many of these challenges can be overcome.
1 Association of College and Research Libraries (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Accessed September 28, 2007.
2 For example, Downie, J. (2004a). The Current Information Literacy Instruction Environment for Government Documents (pt 1). DttP 32 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 36-39; Downie. J. (2004b). Integrating Government Documents into Information Literacy Instruction, Part II. DttP 32 no. 4 (Winter 2004): 17, 20-2; Downie, J. (2007). Instruction design collaborations with government information specialists: Opening the conversation. Reference Services Review 35: 123-36; Hogenboom, K (2005). Going Beyond .gov: Using Government Information to Teach Evaluation of Sources. portal: Libraries and the Academy 5: 455-466.