Incorporating Government Documents into Information Literacy Instruction
Information literacy instruction courses are becoming commonplace in university
libraries as a means to educate undergraduate students on using and evaluating information
sources. As more information becomes available electronically, fewer students are using
resources available in the library and rely on search engines like Yahoo! and Google. Though
many government documents are available online, students are unlikely to find them in the
current information climate without librarian or instructor assistance. In addition, depository
libraries are finding that physical government documents are being used less frequently as there
is more demand for electronic information. As a result, government documents departments are
being merged into the regular reference departments of academic libraries. 82% of government
depository libraries have merged the reference desk for their government documents with that of
their regular collection. (Mack & Prescod, 2009) The merge of government information into the
general reference department of the library can be good if efforts are made to incorporate
government documents into information literacy instruction.
ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher
Education defines information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed,
and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” (ACRL,
1999) These skills apply to government documents in the same way they do other library
resources. In order to be fully information literate, students must know that government
documents exist, and that they can be appropriate sources for their research. Students must also
be able to evaluate sources for bias, accuracy and reliability. Recognizing the difference between
scholarly and popular sources, as well as, primary and secondary sources is another goal of
information literacy instruction. Government documents make excellent tools for teaching
students how to evaluate sources critically. (Downie, 2004). Many government documents are
considered primary sources, and they have wide, interdisciplinary coverage. Librarians can show
students how to use government information effectively, and they can teach them that
government information is more reliable than some of the information that is available from
The FDLP Handbook outlines the requirements that Depository libraries must
follow in providing reference services in relation to government documents. In order to provide
excellent service to those requiring assistance with government information, staff must be
properly trained in the use of government information in all formats. (FDLP, 2009) Staff must be
trained to use online government information portals and web search engines. They must be able
to meet a patron’s immediate information needs. It is important that staff know how to find not
only what is available electronically, that they are trained to find the hidden print and microfiche
collections. The electronic sources only provide a fraction of the government information that is
currently available for public use. (Mack & Prescod, 2009). Proper staff training will ensure that
the community is served effectively.
FDLP strongly encourages librarians to offer research assistance to depository users, as
well as providing them with instruction on how to use various government tools. Handouts and
tutorials for using online government sources can be found at GODORT’s wiki. (FDLP, 2009)
Government documents librarians and instruction librarians can also use this information to teach
students how to access government sources, further adding to their understanding of available
library resources. The handouts and tutorials found on GODORT’s wiki can also provide
examples to librarians who wish to create their own information literacy tools.
In addition to the responsibilities listed in the FDLP handbook government documents
librarians are expected to build a sustainable infrastructure for information literacy for both
digital and tangible formats of government documents. The goal is to promote life-long
information literacy skills. (Mack & Prescod, 2009) More emphasis should be placed on the
importance of government information in everyday life as well as its educational applications. In
order to participate in the electoral process and perform other duties expected in a political
society, one must be well-informed on the government and its functions. It is important to have
the skills necessary to find accurate, unbiased information. Instruction librarians in collaboration
with government documents coordinators have the power to arm students with this knowledge.
(Downie, 2007) They are not just helping them with a research assignment. They are helping
them to be become informed citizens.
To ensure that government documents are properly promoted, it is necessary to properly
train library staff on available resources. The University of Tennessee requires that its staff
receives basic training in government search engines, portals, and meeting a patron’s immediate
information needs. (Mack & Prescod, 2009). Even if government documents are not a librarian’s
particular expertise, it is necessary for all reference desk staff to know how to find them. Most
libraries can no longer support separate access points for their government documents
collections. Internet search engines may lead patrons to inferior sources, therefore, a trained
reference staff will be more likely to lead them to quality sources.
Most university libraries provide remote access to their online content. Students often
access library resources from their homes or dorms. This creates a need to provide reference
assistance, and in some cases on-the-fly instruction, by means of phone, e-mail, or instant
messaging. The library is now equipped to provide instant reference assistance during all
working hours even if the patron never enters the building. This makes it even less feasible for
government documents librarians to have separate reference assistance areas. (Mack & Prescod,
2009) Patrons have grown to expect that all of their questions can be answered in one place, 24
hours a day.
Use of social media is another way that librarians are promoting available government
resources to patrons. It is important if patrons are seeking information outside the library to go
where the patrons are seeking information. The internet has become a valuable resource for
libraries as they showcase available resources on websites and blogs. These sites promote both
electronic and print resources to researchers. (Burroughs & Clark, 2007). Libraries are using
RSS feeds and email newsletters to alert patrons to new resources and updates to the library
webpage. Blogs also provide up to the minute coverage that can be easily updated by library
staff. These resources are only effective, however, if staff takes the time to keep them current
and accessible. (Burroughs & Clark, 2007)
Two examples of sites that promote government documents are Government News for
Montana and New Mexico News Plus. New Mexico News Plus began in 2004 at New Mexico
State University. Their government documents librarian began linking news stories from two
newspapers, Las Cruces Sun News and the El Paso Times, to the library’s government
documents page. (Burroughs & Clark, 2007) The library hoped to show patrons how the worlds
of government documents and current events intersect. Projects like these can be used in
information literacy instruction as librarians link government documents to hot topics such as
immigration. Students learn how to find two types of credible sources, government documents,
and newspaper articles on their topics. Websites like these also serve to educate library staff to
the breadth of government documents available to them. (Burroughs & Clark, 2007)
Another new technology that is being incorporated into library instruction is podcasting.
The University of Mississippi has started a weekly podcast at their library, and many of their
broadcasts have included government documents in their lesson plans. This came about because
the librarians realized that users had to know about the availability of government information in
order to use it. The government documents coordinator chose someone from the government
documents department to write several scripts after consulting the podcasting committee.
Resources to be included in podcasts were U. S. Tax Forms, topographic maps from the U. S.
Geological Survey, government databases, and the library’s government documents microfiche
collection. The podcasts also highlighted the research guides located on the government
documents page of the library’s homepage. (Barnes, 2007) By including government documents
in these podcasts, the library is able to connect students, faculty, and staff to information that is
useful both for their research and their daily lives.
Students like podcasts because it is a convenient way for them to learn information. They
simply download the lesson onto their mp3 player, and they are able to listen at their own
convenience. There are no worksheets to keep up with, no long books to read. It also allows
them to go back over material they missed. These podcasts became so popular that the library
hosted an information literacy instruction workshop entitled Talking about the Government. The
content of these classes was developed into a podcast. Those who attended the workshop were
granted access to the podcasts and an online tutorial that would reinforce the skills they’d learned
in the class. (Barnes, 2007) Technology is making the sharing of government information
literacy skills easier for librarians to teach.
. Collaborative effort between faculty and library staff is key to increasing student
information literacy. Library instruction session attendance at the University of Alabama was
sparse until the reference and instruction department collaborated with the English department
and made an agreement that freshman composition students must attend a basic library
instruction course before their first major research assignment. Their program began in the Fall
of 2000, and students reported that the classes gave them the skills for finding sources for their
assignments. (Deforest, May, & Spencer, 2004). If students are to learn how to use library
resources effectively a cooperative working relationship should exist between instructors and
In order for government documents to be properly integrated into information literacy
instruction, collaboration between government documents librarians, instruction librarians, and
faculty must take place. Government documents instruction provides opportunities for sharing
subject knowledge in an efficient manner. (Mack & Prescod, 2009) The university of Oregon
offers a for credit course in government information resources. Also, in 2003, their history
department began offering a course on the European Union as history. Oregon’s document center
has an extensive collection of European Union documents, so the professor of the course
approached librarians and asked them to identify helpful materials for the course. (Nicholson,
Stave, & Zhang, 2006) Faculty participation in library instruction strengthens the library’s
mission, and it creates more opportunities for students to learn about resources that can add
richness to their courses.
In the changing information climate, as more information is available on the web, users
are beginning to seek information in places other than the library. Information literacy instruction
is one way to show users that the library still has a valid place in today’s information world. As
more government documents departments are merged into general reference departments, there
is a danger that those resources will no longer be promoted to the library’s users. Collaboration,
staff training and using technology to promote government documents and integrate them into
information literacy instruction will ensure that they stay a vital part of the information structure.
Barnes, N. (2007). Using Podcasts to Promote Government Documents Collections. Library Hi-
Tech. 25(2), 220-230.
Burroughs, J. & Clark, K. (2007). News you can use: Contemporary SDI and anticipatory
reference for Government information. Reference Librarian. 47 (98), 17-28.
DeForest, J., May, R.F. and Spencer, B. (2004), “Getting our foot (back) in the door:
reestablishing a freshman instruction program”, Reference Librarian, Vol. 85, 151-67
Downie, J. A. (2004). The Current Information Literacy Instruction Environment for
Government Documents, Part I. Dttp: A Quarterly Journal of Government Information
Practice and Perspective. 32(2), 36-39.
Downie, J. A. (2004). Integrating Government Documents into Information Literacy Instruction,
Part II. Dttp: A Quarterly Journal of Government Information Practice and Perspective.
Downie, J. A. (2007). Instruction design collaborations with government information specialists:
Opening the conversation. Reference Services Review. 35(1), 123-136.
Mack, T. & Prescod, J. (2009). Where have all the government documents librarians gone:
Moving beyond the Collection to information literacy. Reference Services Review. 37(1),
Nicholson, A., Stave, T., & Zhang, K. (2006). Mapping New Horizons in Government
Documents Reference Service: A Unique Collaboration. Reference Librarian. 45(94),