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Today in Government Information: Why you still want a library

Anyone who has looked for government information in the past several years knows that most of it is available online. As long ago as 1998, when I started working with government documents, the word was spreading that “soon” everything will be online. I’m not sure we even knew what a PDF was in those days, nor authentication, but we knew which way the wind was blowing. Close to 15 years later, not everything is online, but many government information sources are not distributed in print any more. The trend towards putting more and more online continues.

That raises an obvious question which troubles some in the government information community. If virtually everything is available online – and in the realm of government information, almost free of charge – why on earth do we still need depository libraries? When a researcher can sit in the comfort of his own home, in his bunny slippers, and find all the information through a Google search, why maintain the depository system?

The Modern Researcher

The answer is expertise from librarians, particularly government information specialists. Each depository library is required to designate a staff member as a “coordinator” who is charged with maintaining the collection, ensuring access to the public, and assisting researchers in need of assistance. While it is true that a simple Google search can turn up a wealth of information, can it verify that you’re looking at the most recent edition? Can it suggest an agency’s other publications that might be useful? And if the search is too successful, can it help you weed through thousands of results, by suggesting additional terms to include or avoid? A government documents specialist can do all of that, and more. The depository system is not just a distribution method for print documents, it is also a network of specialist librarians across country. These librarians are often the best gateway to information aside from an agency itself, and they are so much more convenient – wherever you happen to be.

Map of Depository Libraries

Map of Depository Libraries

I don’t think depositories are going anywhere. I think they bring value to researchers and the general public, and as the Government Printing Office says, they keep American informed.

I know those books were here yesterday…

If you’ve been in the Professional Center Library in the last couple of days, you’ve probably noticed that we’re once again making some changes to the second floor. Don’t worry – there will be much less construction this year than last! Here’s a look at what will happen:

Right now, books are being shifted to clear out some space for future work. They’re also being reorganized, slightly. While in the past books on the second floor have been shelved purely by function, at the end of this project they’ll be in call number order – just like books on the first and ground floors. It turns out that they’ll be in a pretty similar order, so hopefully it won’t take too much getting used to.

The shelves that are getting cleared out are mostly those in front of the Reference Librarian offices. Those shelves will be removed, and the Reference Desk will be relocated to that area. The form books and the Reference section will be put in new shelving near the copiers on the second floor, and work tables will be shifted around.

In July, there will be some construction to change the configuration of Reference Coordinator Angie Hobbs’ office. She’ll be working out of the an office on the back wall, near the Reference Librarians (Room 2201D) temporarily, so stop by if you need something notarized. There will also be some touch up work to some of the walls throughout the library during that time.

We’re excited about what the changes mean for the library – a new look, better access to the reference librarians and materials easier to find. To keep you up to date, we are resurrecting our Twitter hashtag #newPCL from last summer. Follow us @wfupcl and find out what to expect on any particular day!

Iceberg, right ahead!

The Titanic disaster of 1912 has long fascinated the American public, spawning thousands of historical books and documentaries, and providing the setting for a plethora of fictional stories on page and screen. But have you ever thought about all of the legal ramifications of the disaster? Here’s a look at some of the ways law has played into the Titanic story.

A print of the alleged iceberg in question

The alleged iceberg in question, titanic-iceberg.com

The earliest cases to appear in United States courts are admiralty petitions, merely captioned “The Titanic.” One from 1912 was involved with settling the estate of a passenger who went down with the ship (204 F. 295). Two more, from 1913, dealt with technical questions regarding the tonnage of the ship and the possible limitation of liability for the White Star Lines. The question of tonnage was an issue at British law, not United States law, and the judge in that case declined to declare the tonnage (204 F. 298). In the second case, the judge declined to limit White Star’s liability (209 F. 501). Exciting – such is the stuff movies are made of! Hm, or not.

Believe it or not, there is much more recent litigation involving the doomed ship. The more recent cases tend to deal with salvage issues, raised by the “salvor,” R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. Since the ship’s resting site was identified in the 1980s, rights to the property have been at issue. In 1998 R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., tried to prevent anyone else from visiting & photographing the wreckage. While the lower court’s opinion was affirmed in part, and remanded, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court “insofar as they purport to prohibit the visiting, viewing, searching, surveying, photographing, and obtaining images of the wreck or the wreck site.” 171 F.3d 943 (4th Cir. 1999). A 2002 case, also in the Fourth Circuit, held that the salvor of the items did not have the right to sell them. (R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. v. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, 286 F. 3d 194 (4th Cir. 2002) (see the gift shop at the R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., web site, featuring “artifact replicas,” “replica china” and “authentic coal”). While probably any authentic artifacts from the Titanic would sell at a huge price, some of what went down was already priceless. For more about the international aspects ownership of art and cultural property and salvage, see the PCL’s Art Law research guide.

Titanic on the Ocean Floor

Titanic on the Ocean Floor, from National Geographic

In addition to the maze of case law surrounding the Titanic, there were of course Congressional publications. Hearings were held in April and May, 1912 – totaling nearly 1200 pages of text, maps and tables. Six weeks after the sinking, a much shorter Senate Report investigating the tragedy was published, and includes lists of the crew and passengers, as well as speeches by two Senators. And on June 4, 1912, the captain and crew of the rescuing vessel Carpathia were officially thanked by Congress (H.rp.830), and given medals of honor (62 H.J.Res.306).

This is only a taste of the many official documents involved with the legal aspects of the Titanic disaster. Because remember – for each action, there is an equal reaction!

Leap Day!

Gilbert & Sullivan fans know that contracts can be hard to interpret if February 29 comes into play. The entire plot of the operetta The Pirates of Penzance is prompted by poor Frederick, born on leap day (like Ja Rule), and apprenticed to the pirates of the Tarantula “until his 21st birthday.” Of course, in Frederick’s 21st year his birthday does not actually occur, so the pirates – in order to keep him aboard – argue that his 21st birthday won’t occur until he is 84 years old!

Keen legal minds will probably spot some issues with that as a legal premise, but leap day does play a role in some legal disputes. Did you know that the “Twenty Ninth of February” has its own entry in Corpus Juris Secundum (86 C.J.S. Time §11)? This section explains how to calculate periods of time that include leap days. These extra days are actually counted together with the prior day, in cases where you’re counting multiple years. But if you’re counting mere days, the days are indeed counted separately.

Why on earth does this matter? Most of the cases that discuss leap days are calculating either a period of time allowed for filing a claim or response of some kind (measured in days or months) or prison sentences (usually measured in years). Like many things (including time to final exams) – it matters a great deal in the short term, but less and less in the long term!

Arthur Miller and The House Un-American Activities Committee … in the Limelight

Say “Arthur Miller” to a lawyer or a law student and most think of Arthur R. Miller, eminent scholar on civil procedure and co-author of Federal Practice & Procedure (aka “Wright and Miller” to many), and star of the Sum and Substance Civil Procedure recordings. But this week two Wake Forest Law professors will be shining a light on another Arthur Miller – playwright, Tony-award winning author of The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, and one-time husband of Marilyn Monroe.

The Crucible dramatizes the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, a real-life “witch hunt” that exemplified the metaphorical use of the term. It was written in 1952 and premiered in 1953, and was first produced as a motion picture in France in 1957. (More readers are probably familiar with the American film from 1996, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.)

The Crucible is often seen as a denunciation of McCarthyism. Miller had worked on several projects with Elia Kazan, who had in 1952 testified and identified members or former members of the Communist Party, and Miller reportedly broke with Kazan over his “friendly” testimony. Miller was under some suspicion of being a Communist or sympathizer himself, based on petitions signed and meetings attended dating back to the 1940s. In 1954, Miller’s passport application was denied by the Department of State in 1954, for being a “fellow traveler.” On June 21, 1956, about the time of his marriage to Monroe, he was subpoenaed and subsequently appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly referred to as HUAC). Miller refused to “name names” and was convicted of contempt of Congress (152 F.Supp. 781 (D.D.C. 1957)). His conviction overturned in a one page per curiam opinion, 259 F. 2d 187 (D.C. Cir. 1958).

Intrigued? Come to the CLE at noon on March 1st. Want to read more about Congressional investigations, HUAC, McCarthyism, or  17th Century Witch Trials? Check out these resources from the Professional Center Library!

Government Information to the Rescue!

Are you so stressed you didn’t realize it was February already? Were you so busy working on your Legal Writing Brief that you forgot to get your sweetie a Valentine’s Day gift? Did the two of you agree no gifts this year, but then someone changed their mind?

Here’s a handy guide to get you off the hook, courtesy of published government information:

“Oh, sweetie, I didn’t want to get you candy this year – did you know that the CDC recommends avoiding sugary snacks? I just want to keep that gorgeous smile of yours gleaming & pain free! Because they also say that almost 25% of American adults report tooth pain in the six months, and that could be from cavities!” (While the CDC also provides relevant information, we do not recommend using concerns about the obesity rate in America as an excuse, incidentally.)

Conversation Hearts

If you don’t think dental health is a good approach, try another:

“You know, there are so many people with allergies, I just didn’t want to risk getting you flowers – pollen can trigger allergies or asthma! [If necessary: I know you’re not allergic, of course, but your roommate/officemate/neighbor might be seriously allergic and how would we know? I’d hate to make someone else miserable trying to show my love for you!]”

No273 13 Oct 2009 Sneeze

And if the stakes are a little higher, and someone’s expecting a shiny, expensive present, you can always pull the blood diamond card:

“How horrible would it be, if I professed my love with something so tainted? I just… I just…. can’t…. !!” (You’re on your own explaining why you can’t produce a conflict-free diamond.)

Diamond Age

Be advised: you must say any of these excuses with a great deal of charm and persuasion. But you’re in law school, so you’ve learned persuasion, and all of our Wake Forest students are naturally charming. Good luck, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Government Information in the News

Government information is constantly making news, and many of the documents referred to are available online if you know where to look. Looking at the original documents being referenced allows you to draw your own conclusions and to evaluate the story you’re reading on a different level. Here’s a round up of several pieces of government information people have been talking about recently.

  • Many stories are based on proposed legislation, such as the this one about a rally by proponents of the DREAM Act.  Legislative information is some of the easiest to find.
  • Sometimes the government publication is the story itself. Recently released FEC statistics were the top story on Sunday, October 23’s Winston-Salem Journal. The FEC’s website (www.fec.gov) provides reports of election fundraising by candidate, including local Congressman Mel Watt.
  • And sometimes the government information is buried in a larger story, as in this case, where a GAO report from 2010 regarding improperly received Social Security Disability Insurance benefits was referenced on the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal on Oct. 23.

Not all hot topics in the news are available online immediately, however. For instance, news about a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommendation that boys be routinely vaccinated against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine is not yet on their website. From the looks of the listings currently online, it might be a month or two before it gets posted there (and here, for final recommendations).

Keep your eyes peeled & you’ll see government information everywhere!