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Banner: Council of Federal Libraries

Federal library service today :
In transition

A paper submitted by the Council of Federal Libraries to the Canadian Centre for Management Development's Action-Research Roundtable on Internal Services.

January 11, 2002

Executive Summary

The Council of Federal Libraries (CFL) was created in 1976 by the National Library of Canada (NLC) to advise it on the coordination and leadership of federal government libraries. The Council coordinates joint ventures with the guidance and support of the National Library and also serves as a forum for discussion of federal library, information and information technology policies, programs and procedures to inform the Government of Canada.

The almost 300 federal government libraries are organized according to a variety of models within their departments/agencies but are, in addition, interconnected in many ways. Informal cooperative arrangements are the norm, for sharing of catalogue systems and information, borrowing materials, referral of questions, specialized collecting, professional development, etc. The relatively decentralized model currently in use could be improved for greater efficiency and effectiveness of federal government library services, and this issue needs further study. The lead role of the National Library needs to be strengthened, and policies regarding provision of information services to public servants need to be developed.

The roles of federal government librarians are shifting into the management of knowledge, of electronic resources and the strengthening of the networks among client groups. These roles are developing in addition to the responsibilities of the libraries for the collecting, preserving and providing access to the publications of the federal government. Information is taking its place as a key resource to effective government, along with financial and human resources.

Measuring the value of information and knowledge to an organization must include consideration of the effect on the timeliness and quality of decisions, policy advice and programs. This is a difficult but necessary task if information-related initiatives are to be evaluated and funded in a rational manner.

The contribution the federal government library community has to make to the Government Online agenda is essential, but tends to be unrecognized. Resolution of the issues identified in this paper requires concerted action and awareness among senior government managers of the potential of library services to contribute to government today and in the future.


The Council of Federal Libraries

Introduction to the CFL. The National Library of Canada (NLC) established the Council of Federal Libraries (CFL) in 1976, with the goals of: improving the utilization of federal library resources through coordination and sharing of resources, advising the National Librarian on matters related to library services and access to information within the federal government, and promoting coordination and professional development among federal library staff. The Council coordinates joint ventures with the guidance and support of the National Library and also serves as a forum for discussion of federal library, information and information technology policies, programs and procedures to inform the Government of Canada.

CFL's activities. The Council is active. It holds an Annual General Meeting and Annual Fall Seminar on a topic of professional interest. It has awarded the Agatha Bystram Award for Leadership in Information Management for eight years. It established a Consortium in 1995 to use the collective purchasing potential of government libraries to realize cost savings for its members. The Consortium has grown to the point that it is self-supporting. The Council has a long history of providing continuing education to members, providing moral support and networking, supporting sharing of best professional practices, and fostering co-operative ventures. Action teams are working on three projects: how to further metadata initiatives in federal departments and agencies through libraries; the creation and delivery of a basket of shared desktop information tools for federal employees; the development of career path options for the federal library community so that the skills of its members can grow.

Organization of the CFL. The Council is directed by a Steering Committee, chaired by the National Librarian. The vice-chairman is the Director General of the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI), part of the National Research Council of Canada and Canada's national science library. Heads of federal libraries elect from among their number the remaining members of the Steering Committee. Under the Council's bylaws, membership is limited to library heads who are federal employees (employees of departments, branches, agencies identified in Schedule I, I.1, II and III of the Financial Administration Act). The library community across the whole of the federal government is in fact one community that draws from one talent pool, shares information and experience, etc.

The National Library of Canada

Mandate. NLC is Canada's centre of excellence in librarianship. It is charged with collecting and making available to citizens Canadian publishing in all formats, and all subjects and disciplines, including government publications, and with supporting Canadian libraries and librarianship. It has been empowered to coordinate library services of departments, branches and agencies of the Government of Canada since 1969. It created the Council of Federal Libraries in 1976 and provides its secretariat. NLC has a responsibility under Management of Government Information to monitor the organization and access to published federal information. It has ensured that the bibliographic resources held by federal libraries are included in the national database, AMICUS, which is available to all Canadians.

Relationship to the other federal government libraries. The National Library Act as it stands currently gives NLC the authority to "coordinate the library services of departments, branches and agencies of the Government of Canada including …" with a list of various functions such as cataloguing etc. The Act is under review, and NLC is looking at options relating to the type of leadership and coordination it can bring to the provision of library services to federal departments and agencies.

Federal government libraries

Number and location. There are at present almost 300 federal government libraries. They range in size from one-person libraries with small collections of a few hundred titles to organizations with large staffs providing service from huge collections, with complex systems to support them. The majority of these almost 300 libraries are small (from 1 to 5 staff). The two largest players, NLC and CISTI, dominate the federal library scene.

Librarians in isolated geographic locations. The majority of the libraries are located in the National Capital Region, although the remaining ones are spread out across the country and (in a few cases) around the world. The more geographically isolated librarians tend to face more challenges in providing service to clients, and are clearly disadvantaged with regards to opportunities for continuing education/knowledge transfer and career progression.

Mandates. As typical special libraries, federal government libraries serve a well-defined clientele, i.e. the staff of the department and focused external clients, are funded by the department, collect material on the subject specialization of that organization, and have staff trained and educated in that area of expertise. The subjects of the collections and subject expertise of the staff in a federal library vary greatly: public administration, science, health, law, finance, business, agriculture, history, etc. The vast majority of federal libraries have been established when a particular department / agency / branch / institute felt it needed library services, and they are often local in focus as far as senior management is concerned. The "bigger picture" of library services across government has, until recently, rarely been a preoccupation of senior managers.

Policy framework. The policy framework within which NLC and other federal government libraries operate includes: Management of Government Information Policy, Communications, several Internet-related policies and guidelines, Depository Services Program, and the Access to Information Policy.

Reporting relationships. Functionally, there is considerable variation in where federal librarians report within the organizational structure. Some report to program areas such as policy or research, others to a corporate support area. As a result, many federal librarians do not have a strong affinity with internal services as a whole. When they do report to a corporate support area, libraries are typically reporting to senior managers with a very different type of background (often finance or IT) who may not have much appreciation for the value of information and the services libraries offer. More and more federal organizations are bringing Information Management services, including library services, together with Information Technology services. A number of organizations have merged Records management with library services, or public affairs and library services, and this trend appears to be increasing.

The Virtual library. The growth of the "virtual library" has changed the landscape of libraries and collections. A handful of federal government libraries are "virtual only" with a staff to support service but no traditional collections; a few libraries have a very modest collection of electronic resources in addition to traditional collections; most are somewhere in-between.

Demographics. Like other communities across the federal government, the library community is facing the retirement of a large number of its members over the next 2 to 3 years.

Current issues facing the federal government library community

How federal library services are delivered

Current state. The close to 300 federal libraries would appear at first glance to be independent from each other, as indeed in some senses they are, with respect to funding. However, further review indicates that they are interrelated within a complex network of relationships.

Networking and interdependencies. Many federal department and agencies have a number of libraries within them which are networked formally; for example, a central or lead library often has functional authority over all libraries within a given department, or it may have direct authority for the staff and budgets as well. In addition, federal librarians have always relied heavily on informal networking and sharing arrangements which they create themselves within and across departments/agencies. There are many types of informal arrangements. Sharing of catalogue information and borrowing of materials, referral between libraries to get questions answered, and information sharing on professional topics are some examples. In-depth collecting in specialized areas has continued in spite of price increases and static acquisitions budgets, through dropping collecting in peripheral areas. Scanning and other electronic-based means have given libraries the ability to acquire materials quickly for clients on a request basis. As a result, many of the federal libraries, already highly specialized, are becoming more specialized and, simultaneously, more interdependent. Many serve as resources for their particular discipline or specialty across government, Canada and beyond. Effective networking, often extending beyond government, has enabled federal government libraries to remain responsive to their environments and increased their efficiency, with the result that they deliver excellent service for the resources invested.

Virtual library. Electronic tools have brought us the ability to serve clients who were previously under-serviced, due to factors such as isolated locations and the limitations of traditional formats. The negotiation for these electronic tools (indexing and abstracting databases, online periodicals, etc.) department by department is highly inefficient. The concept of the headquarters library providing this service to a given ministerial portfolio - where the electronic licenses are negotiated by one library on behalf of individual sectors, branches, and portfolio agencies who choose to buy in - is also alive and well in some key departments (Industry Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, to name two). The CFL's Consortium takes the concept a step further by negotiating centrally with the vendor and organizes the sharing of inter-departmental licenses for electronic products. The successful negotiation of a Crown license for electronic media monitoring products, concluded some years ago, demonstrates clearly the value of Crown licenses for electronic products, and the library community is working to extend this concept to more electronic information tools for which it feels there is a clear need among public servants across government.

Clustering. Federal libraries with common interests engage in clustering activities (for example, the scientific and technical libraries, the legal libraries, the public administration libraries). The Council supports and encourages these efforts, which have yielded initiatives which have moved the community forward. These clusters may cross "portfolio" lines; for example, a museum with a scientific or technical mandate may have much in common with other libraries in the sci-tech area, in addition to finding it useful to network with other museum libraries within its portfolio.

Need for alternate models for service delivery. The distributed model on which the federal libraries are operating needs to be studied and options for improved or alternative models generated and evaluated. It is clear that the provision of library services can be streamlined and improved to support a workforce capable of operating horizontally across departmental structures.

Need for library service policy. There is, in addition to a better model for service delivery, a need to mandate information services to public servants through government policy which makes it a requirement to provide information services to departments.

Need for strengthened role for the National Library of Canada.
To enable the maximum development of library services in the federal government, a focal point is required. One government department must be charged with leading the libraries through a restructuring, informing and advising the Government of Canada and working with other elements of the IM community.

NLC is the only organization capable of being this "lead" department: it has been the leader of the federal government library community since 1969, is well connected to the world of librarianship in Canada and around the world, is credible with central agencies and is able to support a secretariat. The NLC is looking at revisions to the National Library Act to strengthen its coordinating and advising role with respect to library service to the federal government.

It is also, in the revisions to the National Library Act, looking to strengthen its role within Government as the expert in the development and implementation of standards, best practices, etc. for access to published information (e.g. for interoperability of systems and networks; for organizing materials, whatever the format; for the creation and preservation of electronic publications; for metadata; for thesauri).

NLC is also best placed to work in conjunction with the Organizational Readiness Office, the federal government library community and the rest of the Information Management community to develop centralized programs for renewal through recruitment, orientation, training and career development of staff.

The roles of federal government librarians

Introduction. The roles of federal government librarians have expanded greatly over time. The traditional library activities of evaluating, selecting and acquiring materials, cataloguing, answering reference requests, liaising with clients, managing collections, and managing library systems all still exist. Added to them are a growing list including: facilitating, training (including virtually), Web design, metadata creation and management, knowledge architecture, contract negotiation, marketing, information auditing, and more involved systems and database work, such as integrating library systems with other corporate systems. There are many instances where federal libraries have moved to assume responsibility for Internet/Intranet content and metadata/thesauri construction for their entire departments, or where library trained managers have moved out of the library to assume project or functional management of those areas.

Convergence within the Information Management community. A number of factors have tended to suggest in recent years that "convergence" of the library community with other parts of the "Information Management" community would be useful to the provision of services and the development of the communities. The key factor has been the development of communications technologies which are allowing the rapid availability and transmission of information of all kinds to all sectors of society. The Government-On-Line Agenda for connecting all Canadians to key federal government information and services by 2004 has brought to the Information Management community high-level attention which was badly needed and very welcome.

Benefits to clients. Clients of federal government library service will benefit from increased integration, transfer of skills, and the knowledge being exchanged among members of the IM community. Innovative and integrated tools and approaches for the management of information are needed. Librarians have many skills and tools in the management of information and provision of information service, and these will be leveraged more effectively in a converged IM community. Standards and protocols that the library community has developed and uses internationally (cataloguing, classification, subject headings, machine-readable records, Z39.50 for cross-database searching, etc.) can be used within new IM applications or serve as models to support them.

The IM contribution to Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management is a discipline in which a number of different communities, including IM, can and need to participate for optimal efficiency. The library community's skill set can bring much to the discipline of Knowledge Management, and it is clear that the Records Management community also has a contribution to make in this area. Many departments and agencies, however, are very focused on the current government-wide crisis in Records Management, and on taking action in this area. The IM contribution to KM in the federal government today is quite fragmented. There are interesting initiatives in a few departments in which IM people are involved, but the community as a whole has not engaged in this area. The IM community needs to be proactive about engaging in a more coordinated and visible way so that KM can proceed along the best development path possible.

Internet myths. A number of myths regarding electronic resources threaten effective library services and, therefore, the quality of work of public servants. One such myth is that "it's all on the Internet". Related, and equally false assumptions, are that scholarly literature (indeed all literature) has all been digitized and is available; that researchers/clients can be totally independent at the desktop, since the information is all there; that there is money to be saved in making library materials available at the desktop and eliminating print collections. The danger in these assumptions is that federal government employees will not search information sources beyond those present on the desktop, on the assumption that "everything" is there. This will lead to vital sources of information being missed, and the quality of advice and decisions would clearly suffer.

Reality. In fact, the availability of the relevant literature via the Internet or indeed digitally at all is far from assured. Digital materials, particularly those on the open Internet, have an inherent instability: disappearing URLs, texts which are revised with no or difficult access to earlier editions, etc. The quality of information available on the open Internet, and indeed via licensed electronic resources, varies enormously, and a significant part of the information professional's task is to assure clients that they are viewing valid and authenticate sources. The evaluation, selection, licensing, access and client use issues involved in licensed digital materials can be very complex, as the technology and business models underlying the provision of these services have not yet stabilized. In fact, libraries are finding that their professional complement needs to be expanded to cope with new technologies and methods of delivering service, while being required to maintain traditional processes etc. all the while.

Conclusion. Federal government libraries are delivering services via a blend of traditional and innovative means and this won't end soon; less physical space will be needed for book stacks and the custodial role will decrease for the "typical" federal government library; the role of the librarian as a guide, "knowledge mentor" and trainer is growing, and these skills will be useful in the total IM concept; the Knowledge Management function is a natural extension of what librarians do in guiding and connecting clients; librarians, along with other parts of IM, are needed as much as ever, although how the service is delivered is indeed changing.

Value of information to the organization

The need for information to create knowledge. Most public servants are knowledge workers and need efficient, effective access to the right information at the right time. Public servants cannot give the best advice to government, create policies, design programs or give the best information to Canadians unless they have a rich information resource available to them. This information resource will include information generated from within the public servant's own organization, from central agencies and other government organizations, from partners, clients, provincial ministries, foreign governments, international bodies, research institutes, trade publishing, research periodicals, etc. This information must be evaluated, selected, and authenticated, and access to it provided in a cost-effective manner. Public servants need training and ongoing assistance in how to access the information and use it. Providing this information resource is a complex task requiring resources and skilled professionals.

Measuring value of library services. The value of information is hard to measure. Libraries generally collect "usage statistics", and can perform simple analyses of "how much did each use of this item cost, compared to what it would cost to buy access to it as needed". Of course costs of processes - such as cataloguing an item into the collection, or removing one from it - can be tallied. Real analysis of the value of information to the organization, in terms of the impact on decisions, etc., is imprecise, expensive, and time-consuming to perform. Some studies have been done on the return-on-investment for certain electronic tools, but these studies tend to measure how much of an employee's time is saved by use of one tool over another, a commercial tool over the open Internet, etc. The impact of the availability of various levels and types of information and service on resulting decisions or actions is rarely measured.

Library services are usually accepted as being "good" and "needed", but such motherhood concepts are difficult to translate into actual dollars invested, and libraries tend to be targets when budgets are tightened. One test some libraries use is to acquire what the client is willing to pay for, on a title-by-title basis, but by its nature this method is time- intensive, local and is applied inconsistently. Particularly with electronic resources, we are at a state where it makes sense to centralize more, to render services more cost-effectively by widening the scope of licensing arrangements.

Conclusion. IM projects have not tended to obtain needed funding in the past due to a variety of factors. The lack of the appropriate "drivers" to establish a context and a need for them and to provide funding sources for them is clearly a factor. Another factor is that within a given organization, an IM project typically is competing with IT projects for funds, and IM projects typically lack the clear results, timelines, inputs etc. that IT projects generally have. There is a need to find a way to evaluate the business plans for IM projects that suits IM projects, that both allows them to be compared to other types of projects requiring funding, and that allows them to be compared to each other.


The current model of delivery of federal government library services is far from as effective as it could be. The role of the National Library of Canada as the lead of the federal library function needs to be strengthened, and provision of library service to public servants needs to be covered by government policy. The role of the librarian has expanded and will continue to do so. Information Management practitioners have an important role to play in Knowledge Management. There is a need to find a way to evaluate Information Management projects that is useful in the IM context.

Submitted by:
Julia Goodman
Development Officer, Council of Federal Libraries
National Library of Canada