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In the case of government publications, therefore, while the leopard has remained essentially the same in its fundamental functions, it has, in many countries, truly changed its spots. As one of the sub-themes of this General Conference suggests, the official publications produced by some countries conform to the metaphor of a narrow footpath while in others there has been an acceleration of change that has resulted in new patterns of publications that reflect new technologies and changing political socio-economic factors. Understanding the implications of these changes will help librarians in their role as information providers.
To date no generally accepted theoretical framework has been developed regarding how official publications are used as research tools in a world that is now interconnected by the advance of telecommunications technology. Yet librarians, as information providers, are concerned, first and foremost, with the acquisition of materials produced by government agencies and with providing adequate access to this body of valuable information. This paper, therefore, explores the different ways that researchers access official publications in today's changing political and information environment. I argue that the availability and reliability of government documents influence the way in which official publications are utilized and thus have implications for the services that librarians provide.
In order to account for differences in the amount and veracity of official publications produced by various governments I propose the following three steps: (1) establish categories that are appropriate for revealing distinctions in the quantity and quality of government publications; (2) set forth three prevalent modes of inquiry utilized by scholars; and (3) briefly elucidate the reasons why certain modes of inquiry are more appropriate than others depending on the quantity and quality of the information that is available, i.e., this will be done by a discussion of the matrix that is generated by combining points 1 and 2 above, and by analyzing how these relationships predict to the information seeking behavior of researchers.
In order to enhance awareness of official publications, two comprehensive guides to official publications have been published in recent years. These are Guide to Official Publications in Foreign Countries, edited by Gloria Westfall (7) and Introduction to Information Sources in Official Publications, edited by Valerie Nurcombe (8). An examination of these guides suggests that official publications can be divided into three major categories:
B. "Medium volume" countries have a centralized government printing office that is responsible for publishing only certain titles. Individual agencies are responsible for the publication and dissemination of data relevant to their own activities. There is no central government office that handles distribution of official publications; instead, well established private vendors are the main distributors. Many Asian and Latin American countries belong in this category.
C. "Low volume" countries have no centralized government printing office for official publications. Agency publications are minimal. Examples of countries in this category are North Korea and countries at war. As a general rule, overt restrictions by governments on the publication of official information correlate with restrictions on the availability of information in general.
Any comprehensive measurement of the quality of official government publications is beyond the scope of this paper. It can be stated generally , however, that the quality of data from high volume countries tends to be the most reliable. As one noted scholar put it, "...where public life is free and robust and government agencies are routinely scrutinized, their data and analyses can be compared with those collected by independent research institutions."(9) In contrast, data from low volume countries are generally the least reliable, if only because they are least subject to independent verification. Means of data collection are frequently unknown and there is a greater likelihood that information will be skewed for ideological reasons. The reliability of data from medium volume countries falls variably between these two extremes.
In order to put this paper in proper perspective, therefore, I will describe the two most commonly identified information seeking behaviors of academic researchers -- citation chasing and informal networking (personal contact). I will then add a category of behavior that is rapidly emerging -- electronic browsing. Although not mutually exclusive, the attributes of these three information seeking behaviors can be described analytically as follows:
B. Informal Networkers, particularly area specialists and those who need research information from a specific country, frequently utilize personal contacts. Others in this category are those with information needs that can most reliably be met by colleagues or informants in the field. Conference attendance is an important vehicle for these researchers as are interviews (structured and unstructured) and personal correspondence. This is clearly the strategy of choice for people who require data from societies where information is distorted for political reasons and/or is limited in amount. In these circumstances restrictions imposed by the information environment can be reliably circumvented only by access to data that are provided through a trusted personal contact.
C. Electronic Browsers frequently surf the Internet in search of online catalogs, subject indexes and abstracts, full text articles, the homepages of government agencies from around the world, etc. These individuals are also sophisticated users of the e-mail system in a manner that not only increases access to global data but also enhances personal contacts. To some extent, the caveats noted above for citation chasing apply here as well. Perhaps more important, however, is the general paucity of personal computers in societies with low levels of economic development. The opportunity for employing this information seeking mode is then restricted to a privileged few.
Expected Types of Information Seeking Behavior Based on the Volume and Reliability of Data and the Receiver's Information Environment
Table not available, please contact author.
Table 1 suggests that if the research topic concerns high volume countries (e.g., North American countries) scholarly inquiry will generally employ citation chasing or electronic methodologies whereas when research concerns countries like North Korea, the most reliable information (excluding electronic intelligence data which are not available to the general public) will be derived primarily from personal networks, to the extent that these are available.
A citation chasing strategy implies that researchers have relatively free access to information. An electronic strategy implies both the availability of equipment and, concomitantly, the willingness of governments not to interfere with the free flow of information. An informal networking strategy, however, suggests restrictions on the free flow of information. In these circumstances personal contacts are a critical means of obtaining information about and from a specific country. Different information seeking strategies will be employed by researchers in different information contexts. For example, where access to computers is limited or virtually non-existent for economic reasons, as is the case in some medium and all low volume countries, information disseminated in an electronic mode from a high volume country will have limited impact. The reverse holds true when this information is targeted electronically at a high volume country.
A limited survey of scholars at my own institution who use official publications is revealing. Scholars who use official publications from countries such as those in Eastern Europe, Russia and Malaysia rely heavily on personal contacts to access official information. Scholars who use US government publications tend to rely on library collections. The same survey also suggests that researchers are well aware of the reliability and/or unreliability of official publications. One scholar commented that in certain countries the level of accuracy even differs from ministry to ministry .
What Table 1 tells us is that information seeking behavior varies markedly depending on both "sending" and "receiving" conditions. Those who target information to potential users must be aware of these limiting conditions. Librarians who are responsible for facilitating the provision of information must also take into account the same factors when designing service programs.
Librarians as well as information suppliers such as governments must learn to respond in a timely way to the changing international information market. New technologies and means of access provide librarians with an unprecedented opportunity to develop new types of delivery services and to provide improved access services to official publications. These opportunities, however, must be placed within the context of constraints defined by types of information delivery and modes of information acquisition.