Vol. 10 No. 6 June 2002
My Country, Right or Wrong
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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Interesting phrase. Synonymous with gung-ho, chauvinistic nationalism. The Quotations section of Microsoft's Bookshelf gives the background of the phrase and a hint of the debate it has aroused:

"Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." Naval commander Stephen Decatur originated the phrase in a toast given at an April 1816 banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, to celebrate his victory over the Barbary pirates. (The action in Algeria also gave the U.S. Marine Corps anthem its "to the shores of Tripoli" phrase, saluting their first renowned military action.)

Fifty-five years later, Carl Schurz, German-born U.S. general and U.S. senator, clarified the concept, "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." British author, G. K. Chesterton would probably have agreed with Schurz, since he wrote in 1901, "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

This issue of Searcher primarily concerns issues and challenges of federal information services and policies. Historically, the federal government has provided essential support to the development of new information technologies and services. While never really seeming to follow any master plan, federal agencies, acting individually, have funded essential research, purchased innovative systems (and, more importantly, stuck with those systems while they went through debugging periods that sometimes lasted for years), and provided cheap or free, but high-quality content around which new information services often built their value-added structures. The Feds have been on the side of the angels when it comes to information.

Over the years, the progress of federal information services and technologies has occasionally led to attacks by private sector information services that built their businesses around yesterday's federal information infrastructure and found their foundations wobbling when the Feds moved to another infrastructure. Remember when Disclosure, a private service, supplied the only real access to Securities and Exchange Commission reports — at a hefty fee? Then the SEC automated with its EDGAR service. Disclosure worried but came up with its own enhanced electronic versions, still at a hefty fee. But then, along came the Web — not to mention, Net activists — and EDGAR reports went out straight to the people. Value-added services still improve SEC offerings, but these services are new ones working around EDGAR and at an adjusted price rate. Gone forever is the obligation to use a private sector service to get realistic access to online SEC reporting.

The howling of vendors may depress sympathetic information professional consumers, but now the progress of federal information has turned toward — and on — librarians. As Mark Twain so sagely observed, "By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man's, I mean." Like Mark said, endurance gets a lot tougher when the Adversity gets a lot closer.

The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) has been in operation for near a century, sending out government reports from the GPO to libraries around the country for passing on to their patrons. Most participants in the program gather only partial GPO collections; only larger libraries subscribe to the entire oeuvre. Nor does the GPO's output encompass all the publications of federal agencies. Other government agencies, such as the National Technical Information Service, provide alternative publication routes, not to mention direct publication by individual agencies and their contractors.

But now federal agencies have begun turning more and more to direct publication over the Web. This could mean the elimination of federal depositories over time.

What should information professionals do? Well, I know this is going to get me in trouble with a lot of librarians, but — what the hey! — I think we should encourage it. In fact, I think librarians should lead the way in designing a new system that relies on Web delivery of all federal information, but ensures the protection of solid archiving and the enhancement of value-added delivery. And all of this should come from librarians as a profession.

What should this new commitment entail? Well, just off the top:

  • Mirror or back-up archiving of federal Web output at a number of large research libraries, the number to be based on a study of how many back-up sets one needs for total protection.
  • Digitization of print documents still produced by federal agencies, e.g., through JSTOR or similar efforts.
  • Research on user needs in content and interface design.
  • Active, vigorous matching programs to alert any and all clients of federally generated material of possible interest.
  • The building of community discussion forums where people using federal data can communicate with each other and back to federal agencies.
  • Advising government agencies on new and changed information needs in a timely and effective manner.
Let's get librarians working on today's and tomorrow's problems, not on yesterday's. Let's do all the things we couldn't do before, due to the restrictions of print as a format and of institutionally limited visions of clienteles. Now that we don't set seeing their shoes as a condition of service for clients, that we no longer insist on walk-in hours of service, we can free our energies up to build new and better services. We can build interfaces that include virtual reference options. We can synthesize what we learn from clients about what they learned — and didn't — from the federal documentation and offer our professional suggestions to federal agencies for improving their connection to citizen needs. In doing all this, we would not only set a better course for federal information, but — extending the historical tradition of the federal government's role in the information arena — a new path and a new model for information services everywhere.

It's a glorious new world, a glorious new century. The sun is shining in America.

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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