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Celebrating Serendipity and Collaboration: An Interview with Judith Russell
Posted On March 14, 2017
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Russell: For some time, I’d been having conversations with the vice president for research and the faculty research council about our institutional repository. Initially, they were focused on visibility of the research performed by our faculty. We needed to know what faculty members were publishing to promote the university by promoting the faculty research. Then, in the midst of those conversations, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institutes of Health came out with their mandates to make federally funded research accessible. Suddenly, there was a much greater need to make sure we identified as many of the publications resulting from federally funded research as we possibly could. This is a really important institutional challenge, because even though the individual researcher is the one who is supposed to make the publication available, if it isn’t done, the university can be hit with penalties. That can mean that the institution isn’t allowed to compete for future research funding, so noncompliance is a big potential problem, and the vice president for research is the one losing sleep over it.

The library used its expertise to find a solution by creating an automated mechanism to identify all the publications that need to be deposited. It is a great deal of work to get faculty researchers to deposit their publications. So I reached out first to Elsevier and then to CHORUS to see if we could get metadata from them to identify what our faculty have published without depending on the individual faculty members to report their publications. The next step, once you know what’s been published, is to determine if the publications have been deposited. The Office of Research team still has to track down the documents that haven’t been deposited, but it makes their work much more efficient and effective if we can help them identify the articles that are already compliant. The benefit for the library is that, through our industry partnerships, we’re also a much more important partner with the research faculty and have taken on a new role that contributes to compliance with these important mandates and to the institutional mission.

Shumaker: So it’s an initiative that involves multiple alliances that meet different goals for different constituencies. The faculty members get some relief from having to remember their responsibility to deposit, the vice president gets better compliance with lower cost, and the library fulfills the goal of improving access to information.

Russell: It really expands the library’s role in the institution. We’re managing information for multiple institutional purposes—administrative as well as research—and we’re meeting an institutional requirement. And it’s a natural extension of what we have already been doing.

Shumaker: Going back to your time at the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS), and then at the GPO, you’ve been a leader in the development of federal information policy. What’s your perspective as you look back on those efforts?

Russell: My indirect involvement with information policy started when I worked at the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency that advised Congress on the technology implications of the legislation it was considering. From there, I moved to a job in the information industry, developing products based on government information. Later, I had other positions in the information industry, including government relations, and that was the beginning of my direct work on policy from the corporate side. That work in the information industry led to a position at the GPO, so I learned about how the agencies were creating and using information from both perspectives.

Then I went to NCLIS, which was a tiny agency with five employees and 15 part-time commissioners. Tiny as it was, it had a mandate to advise the White House and Congress on the information needs of the American people. We were able to advise on information policy at a time of intense change that was creating wholly new ways of delivering information to people. It gave us a chance to look at what was happening in the federal government at a critical time. For example, the depository library system had existed since the early 1800s, sending print material out to libraries, but people still had to get to a library to access it. We saw that with digital distribution, they would no longer have to go to the physical library.

NCLIS did some really interesting things. One was an early study of government electronic (desktop) publishing. We surveyed publishing managers in government agencies and asked about authenticity. One of the questions was, “How do you ensure that the information you’re publishing is authentic?” And the most common answer was, “Because the seal of the agency is on the cover.” Well, with desktop publishing, anyone can put the seal of a government agency on their information (not legally, of course, but it is simple to do as a practical matter). So it was interesting, or maybe amusing, that the publishing managers were in a time warp, believing that just the printing of the seal guaranteed the authenticity of the publication. They were struggling to re-examine their role within their agencies, with changing requirements for establishing authenticity, not to mention the growth of electronic dissemination.

One year at NCLIS, we did a hearing on information services for people with disabilities. It was held at Gallaudet University, and one of the senior leaders of the university spoke to us. I’ve never forgotten what he said: “We are all only temporarily ‘abled.’” So if you look at services for people from that perspective, inclusion and accessibility are not something we’re doing for “them.” It’s something we’re doing for all of us. So, at NCLIS we were a tiny agency, but we felt like the mouse that roared.

Shumaker: You’ve been instrumental in raising our awareness of government information and its importance. What are your thoughts on the status of government information policy today?

Russell: One of the reasons I brought that up in the lecture is that we continue to have many random and sometimes contradictory laws and regulations related to government information policy. I believe in the ideal of simplifying and clarifying our policy and the goal NCLIS established of getting the agencies and the government as a whole toacknowledge information as a strategic national resource. It’s never happened, but I believe it’s still a timely and appropriate ambition. The government is so vast, and it collects, analyzes, and disseminates so many different types of information on different topics, but its information activities lack that foundation. One of the things we learned at NCLIS was that the Department of Agriculture, uniquely among all the cabinet-level agencies, has the mission of disseminating information stated in its charter. The very first sentence of its enabling legislation makes the gathering and dissemination of information part of its core mission. If that were a part of every agency’s enabling legislation, it’s almost unimaginable what a difference there would be in the whole attitude of every one of the agencies, in their whole approach to managing information. The belief that information is a strategic national resource that needs to be protected, preserved, and supported financially would cause fundamental changes throughout the government.

I’d love to see Congress, someday, go back and do that—change the enabling legislation for each agency. It would be hard to do, of course, because almost every committee would need to be involved, but it’s something I believe in very deeply. We need to keep pushing for this. This is also one of the things that is so wonderful about our profession—because who is going to espouse these principles, if not librarians?

Shumaker: Judy, I’m sorry to bring this to a close. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Russell: It’s been fun. We’re so caught up in the day-to-day, we don’t often take time to reflect. The lecture, and talking with you, have given me a chance to do that, and I’ve appreciated it.

Photo is courtesy of Judith Russell.

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Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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