I’m in a Big Bend state of mind

April 27, 2011 by

Big Bend National Park brochure in Government Information (Gov Doc I 29.8:B 48/4)

Two years ago, I scrawled a figurative GTT (Gone to Texas) on my life in Virginia and headed for the Hill Country. One of the first books I bought upon my arrival was National Parks of the West. It didn’t take long to figure out that Big Bend National Park, with its environs ranging from mountains to canyons and from desert to river, needed to be on my “places to go” list.

Therefore, when The Wittliff Collections announced a panel discussion about Big Bend, I put it on my personal calendar. Over the course of an hour-and-a-half I got a major reality check: the National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

It was all a little intimidating to someone who recently managed to get lost on a five-acre tract of land, especially when combined with Laurence Parent’s description of his latest book Death in Big Bend, which details 17 true stories of rescues and fatalities.

Fortunately, the panel went on to describe the more positive aspects of Big Bend, and the dry wit of retired National Park Service ranger Marcos Paredes did much to enliven the evening. Side note: Mr. Paredes is profiled in Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, which is available in the library as well as online.

Since then, I’ve done a little digging to see what else we have about Big Bend in the Government Information collection. Our Texas Documents collection includes The Journal of Big Bend Studies (Tex Doc Z S900.6 J826).  I also found a Big Bend National Park brochure (Gov Doc I 29.8:B 48/4) in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) collection and a range of USGS maps (United States Geographic Service) in the topographic map collection.

As it stands, Big Bend is still near the top of my “places to go” list with the added bonus that I now have an expanded list of books to read, thanks to the Wittliff Collections staff.


Government Information: Available to all?

March 22, 2011 by

In the past few weeks, conversations on three recent events gave me reason to pause to reflect:  the declassification of the Pentagon Papers, the acquisition of Twitter archives by the Library of Congress, and Wikileaks.  First some background on each of these topics:

(1)  The Pentagon Papers are being declassified.  The Pentagon Papers detail the actions of United States prior to the Vietnam War.  The nation’s awareness to these top-secret documents was first raised on  June 13, 1971 when the New York Times published a front page account based on leaks of these documents.  The Times story described how the U.S. provoked actions would later be used to justify participation in the Vietnam War (see additional description here).   This was a complicated and confusing period of our nation’s history, involving questions about government rights and  freedom of the press.  A description of the entire declassification project is available in this posting from the National Archive & Records Administration’s National Declassification Center blog.

(2)  The Library of Congress acquired Twitter archives. This actually happened about a year ago, and yes, it’s not just the Congressional Record that will be shelved at the Library of Congress.  All of the Twitter archives since 2006 will be housed at the Library of Congress (for more information, see Library of Congress blog entry or this Twitter post).  Tweets may only be accessed after a six-month delay.  Allowed uses are limited to internal library use, non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.

(3) Most people have heard of  Wikileaks, but not everyone knows what it is.  Wikileaks is a nonprofit organization that posts secret or classified materials from anonymous sources.  Wikileaks is controversial because of the possibility that some postings could harm national security and compromise international diplomacy.  At the same time, Wikileaks supporters claim that it increases transparency of information, similar to “freedom of the press” claims raised by journalists.

The importance of government information being open and available to citizens is eloquently described by James Madison:

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.

Government documents collections, which house official government information resources  across the country, were created to provide citizens with access to government information.  Government information librarians are frequent champions of  “documents to the people.”  However, the above examples all occupy a gray area.  In each case, there is (or has been) some uncertainty about how much information should be shared.  Even within the library community, there is debate about the sharing of controversial information, especially in regard to Wikileaks.  The Library of Congress, for example, has barred access to Wikileaks through its computer system.  However,  a handful of libraries have actually cataloged the Wikileaks website.  For additional perspective from librarians, see:  A Librarian reacts to Wikileaks and A Librarian reacts to “A Librarian reacts to Wikileaks.”

These are indeed interesting times that we’re in right now. These are not easy decisions to make.

And you thought government information was just musty old documents?

Let’s Move…

February 21, 2011 by

Let's MoveLet’s Move (online at http://www.letsmove.gov/) is First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to tackle the problem of childhood obesity.  The one-year anniversary of the program (2/9) sparked a flurry of new media interest in the project, including appearances by the First Lady on the Today Show and Live! with Regis and Kelly.

But, it is not just children that can benefit from the White House interest in physical fitness.  There is also great information on how individual adults can pursue their own fitness initiatives, including an online physical health assessment available at: http://www.presidentschallenge.org/challenge/adult.shtml.

This guide comes from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, a committee of volunteer citizens who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about opportunities to develop accessible, affordable and sustainable physical activity, fitness, sports and nutrition programs for all Americans regardless of age, background, or ability.   The President’s Council (2010‐2012) is led by two co‐chairs: New Orleans Saints quarterback and Super Bowl XLIV MVP Drew Brees and three‐time Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes.  The Council was originally founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 as the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.  For more information on the history of the Council, see http://www.fitness.gov/about-us/what-we-do/council-history/index.html.

Central Texas weather is really great right now, so let’s move…

Game on

February 21, 2011 by

Jane McGonigal was on the Colbert Report the other night touting her new book Reality is Broken, in which she argues that game-playing is not only productive, but an activity to be encouraged. She’s an intriguing individual, and you can read more about her, including her appearance at South by Southwest 2008, in an IM interview on the blog Geek Gestalt.

I have to admit that I once entered physical therapy for a joint problem caused by playing solitaire to excess. Ultimately, I had to delete the game from my computer, and now I play solitaire the old-fashioned way (with real cards) and limit my online gaming to WordRacer and Fowl Words.  Indeed, I do believe that games are worthwhile and often created board games when I was a school librarian as a way to make content delivery more fun.

So what does any of this have to do with Government Information? Well, the government funds an awful lot of research, and gaming definitely figures in some of it. If you go to the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) in the Alkek Library’s Research Databases and do an advanced search on the terms “games” and “learning,” the Department of Defense will be a frequent source agency in the results list. Just be sure to check with the Government Information staff if you find a report you’re interested in … you may save yourself the “nominal charge” for reports from the NTIS archives if the item is already in our depository collection.

Scientists are also turning to games and gamers to broaden their research base, as noted in the recent blog post “Leveraging research funds.”  Jane McGonigal gave a nod to EteRNA in the aforementioned IM interview, too. Of course, librarians who have been following the professional literature won’t be surprised by any of this, as the American Library Association actively promotes gaming, particularly as a tool for increasing literacy.

However, I was most intrigued by what I found in CQ Researcher: an article on video games that attempts to give a balanced view of the pros and the cons of gaming. While CQ Researcher is a commercial product, it is similar to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in that it attempts to give relatively unbiased, in-depth information on controversial topics. The CRS reports are technically for members of Congress so that they can make informed votes on legislation, and unfortunately they are not a part of the Federal Depository Library Program.  However, it is possible to find CRS reports from sources such as opencrs.com and the University of North Texas.

So read Jane McGonigal’s book, which states its conclusion in the subtitle, or do some research and come to your own conclusions about whether video games make us better and have the power to change the world.

Depository Library Survey

February 10, 2011 by

For 55 years, Texas State University Libraries have provided access to government information as a result of their membership in the Federal Depository Libraries Program (FDLP).  Libraries are changing, and depository libraries seek your input on our future.

Help us serve you better by completing a short (16-question) survey — your anonymous answers will be confidential.  Aggregate anonymous data will only be shared with the U.S. Government Printing Office and the Alkek Library.

Take the survey at


The survey is open from now until February 28, 2011.

Thank you for your input!

Finding your way

February 10, 2011 by

Map Pick Up in the Government Information unit on the 4th floor of the Alkek Library

Long ago and far away, I was a Geology major at the College of William and Mary.  Now that I’m working in Government Information at the Alkek Library, with its rich collection of United States Geological Survey (USGS) materials, I’ve  reawakened some long-dormant synapses.

Back in the 1970s (I know, I’m dating myself), we didn’t have the online resources that are taken for granted today. However, there’s something to be said for mastering the analog version of map study before moving to the online version, which is why the Texas State faculty encourage students to use our printed map collection. As a result, Government Information gets a lot of visits from Geography students at this time of year.

It’s no surprise that Texas topographic maps see the heaviest action, particularly for projects involving creek and river drainage basins. The 7.5 minute maps at a scale of 1:24,000 (often referred to as 24K maps), give the most detail at about 64 square miles per map. However, mapping an entire drainage basin often requires a broader view at a scale of 1:100,000 (100K) or even 1:250,000 (250K), which provides about 6000 square miles of coverage.

There’s no substitute for pulling maps out of the drawers and comparing the 24K, 100K, and 250K maps to fully comprehend the differences in detail and coverage. Once the best maps have been selected, users may fill out a Map Request Form.  The requested map(s) are printed by the Government Information staff, usually within 24 hours. In fact, 221 topographic maps have been printed in the past week!

Users who have mastered the art of map selection may prefer to use the online Map Request Form.  Since the form requires a map name and scale, there’s also a convenient link to the USGS Map Locator.

The Map Request Form also includes an “Other” option and a text box for “Additional Information” that enables users to send links to maps found online, even those that are not USGS topographic maps. Recent requests have included political maps of the world, a map of the Mediterranean basin, a FEMA flood map of downtown San Marcos, and a road map of eastern Russia. Scale and size can be tricky, but Google Advanced Image Search enables researchers to search for maps by size and even domain (.gov being a particular favorite in Gov Info).

Last, but not least, the Government Information map printing service is free to Texas State University students, faculty, and staff. There are even multiple copies of popular maps, such as San Marcos North, that are always available at the Map Pick Up table on the 4th floor … self-service, no waiting required.

Partial view of the San Marcos North topographic map (1:24000 scale) including the Texas State University-San Marcos campus.

Adding it all up

January 28, 2011 by

Then and now ... Government Information copies of Statistical Abstracts from 1911 and 2011

The Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011 was published this past month by the Census Bureau, an event worthy of two columns of ink in the New York Times. In a neat series of graphics,  the Times crunched 1000-plus pages of numbers into 18 factoids that reveal some interesting trends in the body politic.

Comparing statistics from one decade to the next is a powerful way to use  data, and editions of the Statistical Abstract going back to 1878 are available online. However, there are times when flipping through pages can be more productive than scrolling through screens. That’s where the Alkek Library catalog can be most helpful, as it lists the print copies available in Government Information.

So come on up to the 4th floor.  The New York Times article and the latest Statistical Abstract are on the Government Information Staff Picks display through the end of February and print copies going back to 1889 can always be found on the Government Information reference shelves.

Documents without shelves…

January 22, 2011 by

Sometimes the compact shelving in our Government Information unit drives me crazy…it is finicky, slow, and difficult to work with.  But now, thanks to some of the Alkek Library Cataloging and Metadata Services folks, we have a whole bunch of Government Information that is available online through our catalog.

The first installment includes titles like:

and many more!  In fact, more than 600 records were added to the catalog in January, all of which link to government resources.  These additions come as a result of  purchasing Documents Without Shelves by the Alkek Library.  This is not a database to search, but rather, it is a way to quickly add cataloging records to our catalog so that researchers can find relevant government information in our library catalog.

Government information can be a very valuable tool for researchers.  In a 2009 article,  Brunvand and Pashkova-Balkenhol described their analysis of 194 annotated bibliographies for college-level information literacy courses.  Forty-two percent of students identified a government source as their “best” source, even though assignment instructions never specifically required use of government information.

The amount of government information that is available in our library catalog will continue to grow as more Documents Without Shelves records are added to the library catalog each month.  Pretty cool, huh?

A big thank you to Jeanne, Lynn, Sheila, Charles, and Elaine!  You guys are awesome.

Leveraging research funds

January 15, 2011 by

The Everything old is new again post about Science.gov included a partial list of the agencies receiving 97% of federal research and development funding.  One of those agencies, the National Science Foundation, is supporting a project by Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University.  What makes this particular project interesting is that the scientists used part of the funding to develop an online video game called EteRNA.

According to a recent New York Times article, EteRNA players are challenged “to design new ways to fold RNA molecules.”  Each week, scientists choose several newly-designed molecules to synthesize in the labs at Stanford, with the goals of analyzing their models of RNA folding and ultimately deepening the basic understanding of the mechanisms that support life.

The scientists, some of whom also designed the online game Foldit, are leveraging the game-playing skills of lay people to increase their chances of discovering new principles of biology and providing new tools for nanoengineering.  The possibility also exists that games like EteRNA and Foldit will inspire others to pursue studies that lead them to join the scientific community and make their own contributions to scientific knowledge.

Everything old is new again

January 15, 2011 by

Image used with permission from Science.gov

Science.gov is a well-established source of scientific and technical information in the Alkek Library’s list of Research Databases.  It merits a second look as the latest version adds an Image Search for photography and graphics from NASA, NOAA, and the USGS-NBII Library of Images from the Environment (LIFE) … with more image databases to be added in the coming months.   Try a search on “sustainability” or “Edwards Plateau” to get a sense of how valuable this new tool will be to researchers.

In addition to images, the website is home to “over 200 million pages of government science information” representing a who’s who of agencies, from the Department of Energy (as one might expect) to the Department of Education (a less obvious candidate, but one that provides information of value to science teachers). Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, and Transportation, along with NASA, the EPA, and the National Science Foundation are also on the list that includes recipients of “97 percent of the federal R&D budget,” according to post in GOVDOC-L by Tim Byrne at the Dept. of Energy/Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI).

Researchers who make frequent use  of Science.gov will find the widget and numerous RSS feeds helpful tools for keeping current.  As this is the fifth version of  Science.gov in nine years, it’s a good example of why it’s worth keeping an eye out for  enhancements to this database in particular and to government databases in general.