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13 Questions With: Amanda Wakaruk

13 Questions With: Amanda Wakaruk

October 16, 2014

Government Information Librarian, University of Alberta Libraries

A hero who has inspired you in your career?

She’d laugh at me for calling her a hero but Vivienne Monty has provided me with mentorship and inspiration multiple times over the course of my career. Her own career choices, service to the profession, and scholarship have reinforced the importance of government information practitioners and the pursuit of the profession and its values as a noble cause in its own right.

The first job you ever held and at what age?

Information Dissemination Agent (aka newspaper route delivery girl), age 10. Had to leave my part-time volunteer gig at the school library to take the job.

Your first position in the library and/or information services field?

Page (shelver) in a public library (not counting the volunteer gig in grade 4/5).

Coolest thing in your cubicle or office?

Framed copy of The Canadian Bill of Rights (with a University of Alberta Govt Docs acquisition stamp in the top right corner: August 2, 1961).

What is your guilty pleasure?

Roller coasters — the more kinetic energy they produce, the better.

Career advice – what’s your top tip?

Don’t be afraid to change employers if you are not achieving your goals in your current position. Life is too short and Canadian living standards are too high to spin your wheels for 35 hours or more a week. Take a risk!

What useless skill(s) do you possess?

I can dance the tandem Charleston without injuring myself or others.

Proudest moment in your professional life?

Receiving off-the-record gratitude from front line information professionals in government agencies and IGOs for my contributions to collaborative services like the CGI DPN, conference presentations, and writing about the current state of access to government information.

Academic government information librarians in tenured positions have a responsibility to use their academic freedom in ways that benefit the profession as a whole and, by extension, those who use government information in their work, personal lives, and scholarship. The nature of this work does not lend itself to typically sanctioned awards or accolades; recognition that this work is useful from those closest to the issues is a source of pride.

If you had 24 hours all to yourself, how would you best like to spend it?

I wouldn’t spend it alone. Most of the day would be playing strategy-intensive board games with my partner and friends (new and old) in a board game cafe in one of the many cities around the globe that host these fabulous places. Evening hours would have to include short films and exceptionally good wine.

If you didn’t work in the information industry, what would you be doing?

Something that brings together planning, design, and creative output… architecture, urban planning, barista?

Finish this sentence: “In high school, I would have been voted the person most likely to … “

…See places. I was a Travel Club member and spent more hours driving my car than I did in class.

How do you stay current in your field?

Twitter, conferences, colleagues. Sadly, it’s a struggle to make time for all three.

What opportunities does the shift to digital-only government information present to the library community and to users?

It takes less financial capital investment to act as stewards for web-based government information and it is easier for curation to happen at arms’ length from the publishing agencies. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s free or simple. Acting on opportunities for collaboration is very important.

What should every information professional know about gov docs?

Four Government Information Precepts for Non-Government Information Librarians

1. Access to government information is the foundation of a functioning democracy and underpins informed citizen engagement.

Government information allows us to assess our governing bodies — a necessary requirement for a properly functioning democracy. Government records accessed through Freedom of Information legislation, Public Accounts, the Debates of the House of Commons and Senate, and court records, are just a few examples of government information, also called ‘government documents.’

Government agencies collect data during the provision of programs and services and produce publications providing citizens with an authoritative source of information about the society they live in. These are often referred to as ‘government publications.’

2. Government information has enduring value. Don’t waste precious time re-questioning this fact and do your librarianly duties.

Don’t confuse low present-value price tags with low value overall. This is a commerce-based construct of value that you should have learned to identify and interrogate in library school. It’s true that many government publications cost less than other containers of knowledge. This is, in part, because your tax dollars have funded, or at least subsidized, their production. It is not a reflection of their current or enduring value.

Consider the following:

  • the work of countless academics and other experts is disseminated via government information
  • government publications and documents are used by most academics and social commentators in all areas of intellectual output, resulting in the production of  books, reports, speeches, etc., which have shaped our society and understanding of the world
    • scientists use government information to make assertions about nearly every subject  (environment, energy, meteorology, etc., e.g., Silent Spring was full of references to government information)
    • social scientists use government information to make informed observations and help shape policy discussions (including statistics compiled using methodology standardized by international governmental organizations like the United Nations)
    • legal scholars, lawyers, and judges need access to legislative and court documents to interpret and apply the law
    • journalists use government documents to inform the electorate about their governing bodies (insert most political scandals here)
  • government employees need long-term access to government information to develop, implement, and monitor policies, programs, and services (and it is not uncommon for them to contact academic libraries to obtain copies that are no longer available to them via other channels)

3. Government information is precarious and requires stewardship.

Two separate but related issues are at work here.

The first is that governments do not necessarily make collecting and preserving access to their own work a priority. The strongest system of stewardship for government information is one that operates in partnership with, and at arms-length of, author agencies. This kind of structure is equally important in both print and online environments. For generations, this task was the responsibility of depository libraries.

Secondly, please don’t be fooled by the call of the “it’s all online” brigade. Most government publishing moved online earlier than other types of publishing and has suffered from not having an a priori comprehensive digital preservation plan. “Born digital” content is also at a high risk for (intentional and unintentional) removal from open access environments. There are groups in both Canada (CGI DPN) and the United States (GODORT) that are starting to document these losses.

Not only is everything NOT available online, not everything born digital is made accessible and/or indexed by search engines like Google. Policies and procedures developed by the government in power determine what is distributed in an online environment and how it is preserved (or removed) for public access.

4. Government publications and documents are different than most books, journals, and content born on the Internet.

Get over any illusions of control that served you while working with other types of content. Government publications and documents are more challenging to acquire, organize, and provide access to.

The biggest differences between government information and other types of information products can be explained by why and how they were published. The agencies that produce government information are motivated by different factors than traditional publishers like Elsevier, HarcourtBrace, and the American Chemical Society. While many politicians appear to be obsessed with finances, they do not rely on publishing revenue to fund our military, repair our roads, or support re-election campaigns. Not only do few politicians or bureaucrats care if government documents or publications are read or cited, we often learn that efforts are made to obfuscate their purpose, delay their release, and even prevent their dissemination. This makes it more challenging to find, obtain, catalogue, and care for government documents and publications.

Government information is a lot like librarianship. It doesn’t fit into neat and tidy dissemination channels improved and simplified by years of customer feedback and the pursuit of higher profits. The very act of acquisition can feel like activism and inspire pugnacious outbursts from your government information librarians and implicated support staff. Government agencies and their priorities can change with the political winds and it is common for serial titles to start and stop, disappearing only to reappear under ever so slightly different titles or agency names.

Biggest surprise working in this subject area?

That even with recent changes in our global society some people still don’t understand the role and importance of access to government information in a democracy.

What would you like your headstone to read?

ATIP Request Number: A-20??-00009

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