Modernization of federal libraries

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When most people are asked about libraries run by the US government, the Library of Congress most readily comes to mind. However, in addition to Cabinet- and agency-level institutions, many more federal libraries exist outside of Washington, DC, in field offices, military bases and even national parks. Back in 2011, the Federal Research Division (FRD) of the Library of Congress sent surveys to known US federal libraries and information resource centers. As a result, we know that the Federal Library and Information Network encompasses over 1000 entries, which has helped to raise awareness and set the stage to find ways to use these valuable resources most effectively.

Although funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) was recommended for elimination in the current administration’s budget for the second straight year, library advocates rallied to ensure lawmakers recognized the important contributions of libraries. As a result, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for passage of appropriation bills providing for a $2 million increase (to $242 million) for IMLS while LSTA would be level funded at $189.3 million for the 2019 fiscal year (FY 2019).

The House won’t vote until after the 2018 mid-term elections, giving library directors and advocates an important window in which to influence representatives as to the long-term value and potential of federal libraries. Specifically, libraries need to demonstrate how they provide value in several key areas over the next five to ten years in order to avoid disruption in funding and to continue fulfilling their core mission, which might include service goals, access to unbiased information and knowledge-sharing initiatives.

FEDLINK and process improvement

While we often think of innovation as involving new technology, it can take many forms. As budgets remain constrained, federal librarians should look to innovation in the ways they serve patrons and how they leverage existing resources. Examples of this kind of creative thinking abound in the federal library system and are recognized annually with awards from FEDLINK, the Federal Library and Information Network. FEDLINK is an organization of federal agencies working together to achieve optimum use of the resources and facilities of federal libraries and information centers and the information services they provide to agencies, Congress, federal courts and American citizens.

FEDLINK award recipients over the past few years have been recognized for new and relatively low-cost ways they’ve been able to achieve significant results. For example:

  • At the Darnall Medical Library at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a clinical librarian is embedded into the inpatient internal medicine and pediatrics teams. This gives providers the rapid ability to identify esoteric drug interactions, radiologic procedures and other up-to-date guidelines.
  • At the National Institutes of Health Library, the branch chief blended technology with librarianship to implement three custom library solutions. He developed a portfolio analysis process to create a searchable 12,000-record website on Alzheimer’s disease research; established a searchable funding database for a 6,000-record website on chronic pain conditions; and collected a digital archive of more than 5,000 publications on pandemic and epidemic influenza.
  • The National Library of Education (NLE) was recognized for delivering customer-oriented solutions to information challenges, including bibliometrics, innovative outreach and curation of information materials. As a provider of library services to NLE, LAC Group was happy and proud to support NLE and be part of the team that implemented these solutions. We helped NLE staff develop web portals for each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that compiled over 2,000 vetted links to state and federal sites, along with newsfeeds and dynamic literature searches. We also aided in the development of new bibliometric tools to capture citations of department data in scholarly publications.

These kinds of innovations are within reach of many federal libraries and demonstrate that it’s possible to expand services and provide enhanced value even when budgets are tight.

Reimagining physical space

Libraries have always been centers from which information is distributed and shared. As more information is captured and transformed into digital formats, that role is expanding. The need for physical library space is changing, prompting forward-thinking federal libraries to reinvent that space into areas for collaboration and hubs for inter-agency information exchange.

The National Science Foundation, another LAC Group client, recently moved to a new LEED-certified building in Alexandria, Virginia, providing an opportunity to re-imagine and modernize the NSF library to emphasize the Foundation’s digital resources. The new space and furnishings can be reconfigured as needed to convert the reading room into a meeting room. Audiovisual enhancements include a large, wall-mounted monitor for streaming videos or custom library content.

Expanded information outreach

Libraries are finding new ways to make information available to wider audiences as they fulfill their core missions. From expanded digitization of collections to enhanced websites to YouTube channels, federal libraries are actively pursuing the directive of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to make the data and publications resulting from federally-funded research available to the public.

  • The archival Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database at the National Agricultural Library, an LAC Group client, is a major repository of documented plant data that botanist, Dr. James A. Duke, collected over many years. The original system created in 1994 had a limited and dated interface. The library added functionality to the database and made enhancements to the user interface to provide users more options for searching and downloading content.
  • The US Army Engineer Research and Development Center Library (ERDC) modernized its knowledge management services by collecting, digitizing and making rare and one-of-a-kind knowledge products of the US Army Corps of Engineers visible to common search engines. This digital repository features metadata and site maps that increased the discoverability of repository materials by 400 percent.

In just a few years, policies to promote public access to data and publications resulting from federally-funded research have become the rule rather than the exception. Libraries can continue to make significant strides in this area as a way to demonstrate their value to the public, universities and other institutions.

Taking the long view

Libraries are particularly vulnerable to budget cuts and constraints, which is why federal agencies must fight the outdated misperceptions of the library as being irrelevant in our digital age. Forward-thinking agencies are taking the long view when pursuing innovation, space renovation and outreach. Digital and virtual libraries play a crucial role in the push to deliver as many services as possible online, as they allow for systematic and cost-effective ways to capture, manage and share information.

Federal libraries are an unmatched resource for creating and coordinating information resources. However, the most beautifully coordinated collection is of no use if it fails to get used. That’s why it’s more important than ever for agencies to assess their knowledge management and information resources, find new ways to match them with user needs and make them readily available for discovery and access.

LAC Group supports federal agencies with library services that enable them to do this work in an effective, sustainable way.

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