The Birth and Development of Find-It!
First Monday


The Birth and Development of Find-It!: Washington State's Government Information Locator Service

While the idea of an electronic-based locator system to help citizens easily find information by and about government (commonly known as government information locator systems, or GILS) is not new, Washington State approached the development of its GILS program in a different way. This GILS emerged from the work of a legislatively created, government official/citizen task force designed to increase public access to government information. The Washington State Library (WSL) developed not only a metatag-based locator system, but also a marketing and training program to make government agency participation easier and more attractive. The system itself was developed from the user's point of view to make it more intuitive for users with a variety of computer skills levels.

With the assistance of a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Washington State has successfully replicated its GILS system in several other states and raised the visibility of the issue of state library agency leadership in this aspect of information management. As a result, a growing number of states are developing similar systems. A second IMLS grant to Washington State will formally explore and pursue opportunities for interstate interoperability of locator systems.

Contents

Introduction
Discussion
Conclusion

Introduction

The 1990's witnessed the explosive growth and development of computer technology applications in all aspects of life. The opportunities that presented themselves in the area of information management were at once tantalizing and challenging. Governmental entities saw possibilities for getting information out to the public, but they also discovered that the tactic of "just put it on the 'net" resulted in not much more access to that information than there had been in the past.

The U.S. government, and a couple of individual states, pursued the strategy of developing systems designed specifically to identify, actively seek out, consistently describe, and organize government information to improve access. Thus government information locator systems, or GILS, were born. Early GILS were designed more from the perspective of computer technical personnel. Descriptor systems, generally of the metatag variety, were sufficiently complex that they tended to discourage participation from the very public sector entities that produced and held the valuable government information that would be of use to the public.

Library professionals have long been skilled in content management - the identification, acquisition, description, and organization of useful collections of information - as well as the public service aspects of information access, helping individuals find information. However, expertise in content was not sufficient to produce an effective system. Information technology staff held valuable expertise in the emerging tools of the information access trade and archivists had skills to offer in the life cycle of information that were vital to any access effort. The public - ultimate consumers of the products of a GILS - was the best source for effective system design and priority setting for what information should appear in the system first.

It was within an atmosphere of partnership - librarianship, information technology, archives, and potential consumers - that Washington State developed its government information locator service.

Discussion

Background

In the 1994 session of the Washington State Legislature, former Senator Dean Sutherland pursued an idea that selected state agencies should accelerate their efforts to make valuable government information available to the public through emerging electronic technology. The Washington State Library urged Senator Sutherland to consolidate his efforts into the formation of an inclusive task force that would be tasked with developing recommendations to make government information more widely available to the public through electronic means. Then Representative, later Senator, Cal Anderson saw that leadership in this area was not confined to a single agency, that content, machine, and information management policy skills would be needed to produce an effective result.

Thus was the Public Information Policy Access Task Force established, co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Information Services (state computing operation, also known as DIS) and the State Librarian. Over the next 18 months, the group, composed of state and local officials, the media, and citizens with particular interest in electronic information access, labored to achieve consensus on quite a number of information policy issues. Their final report, "Encouraging Widespread Public Electronic Access to Public Records and Information Held by State and Local Governments," contains the basis for government electronic information policies and makes recommendations for further action.

When legislation was introduced in the 1996 session of the State Legislature, it included provision for the development of a locator mechanism to ease the public's access to government information through electronic technology. The State Library (WSL) was given the job of developing a government information locator system (GILS), in concert with the DIS and the State Archives.

Working with a modest budget ($398,000 over two years), and coordinating with a stakeholder group the mailing list for which numbered in excess of 500 people from government, business, and general public, the WSL and its partners proceeded to develop not just a government information locator system, but a total service approach designed to encourage participation by both information contributors and information consumers. Discussions revealed many valuable points that were rolled into the development of this GILS, including:

  • Consumers do not want to have to guess which agency or department or even level of government holds information they seek; they desire access by general subject and/or "major life event," such as obtaining a driver's license or business permit, adopting a child, or paying the correct amount of taxes. They also do not want to experience dead ends in searching. Washington's GILS is thus subject-based, includes frequently asked questions, and has a provision for users to contact the State Library for further assistance if the information they seek is not available in the system.

  • Government agency staff are willing to participate in programs such as this one, even to the extent of metataging their own information, so long as the metatag system is fast and easy and updates occur as automatically as possible. Washington's GILS program includes training in metataging and spidering to harvest updated information that has already been metataged.

  • No GILS can, or arguably should, put pointers to all government information into a GILS system; rather, information the public wants most should be pursued first. State 800 telephone information line operators and agency public information officers proved invaluable in identifying those areas of information and setting collection priorities.

The Washington GILS, which became known as WAGILS, with the official name of Find-It! Washington, has proved successful, both from the point of view of agencies and the public. In April, 2000, it was the second most frequently visited site on Washington State's Access Washington Web page. Businesses and the general public are the heaviest users, with Boeing a particularly frequent visitor to the site. Government officials also make good use of the service, with legislative staff being the heaviest users.

Replication

During this time, other states realized a similar need to make government information more easily available through electronic technology. As the WAGILS project proceeded, other states became aware that it was in development and was meeting with success. Repeated requests for assistance to replicate similar efforts in other states led to the Washington State Library's successful application for a Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant for that purpose. First inquiries to state library agencies had revealed some level of interest in 26 states; the grant permitted in-depth work with three. As a result, WSL staff worked with staff in the state library agencies in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Illinois to produce results similar to those experienced in Washington State. New Mexico also joined in the replication effort. However, because one activity pursued as part of the grant included an unofficial nationwide GILS conference, almost 30 states sent representatives to share best practices, learn from the experiences of others, and form personal networking connections that have led to GILS projects in an increasing number of states.

As state library agencies assumed and pursued leadership in this important area, they attempted to solidify national recognition of the importance of cooperation among state library agencies, chief information officers, and state archives operations in the development of government information locator systems. In summer, 1999, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) developed a statement that set forth this vital partnership, couched in the form of a joint recognition statement entitled "Electronic Access to Government Information Through Government Information Locator Services." COSLA adopted the statement in October 1999; NASIRE (National Association of Information Resource Executives) and NAGARA (National Association of Government Archives and Records Agencies) each adopted it in January 2000.

WSL GILS staff also developed a handbook on GILS systems in general, including information of value to those states considering developing such a system.

Future

GILS systems are now growing rapidly in the various states. Some have adopted or adapted the WAGILS approach, including its metatags and subject headings. Others, for a variety of reasons, have chosen different approaches to both metadata and subjects. As differences proliferated, so also did the perceived desire to seamlessly connect the various systems, not only to expand the amount of information available, but to also facilitate the needs of information consumers whose activities transcend state boundaries.

The Washington State Library again successfully applied for a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services, this time to pursue interoperability among disparate systems. The grant will pursue this goal on two levels:

  • By dividing the U.S. into five to six regions, designated state library agencies will conduct discussions and work sessions within their assigned region, coordinating at the national level, in an attempt to develop a common set of major subject authorities for GILS systems. While such a standard would be voluntary, adoption by any state would facilitate its ability to interoperate with other like systems nationwide.

  • Through coordination with the private sector, software will be developed and tested that would in effect translate differing sets of metatags, facilitating access to system users. The Tokens software approach came to be favored over a move to adopt Z39.50 protocols, as the former concerns itself only with the data and proceeds independent from otherwise necessary adaptations to servers and other equipment in the various states, a requirement not always achievable.

The second IMLS grant has just begun, but already interest among the states is widespread. The resulting standards will not only facilitate interoperability, but will also serve as a solid example of the skills library professionals bring to content management and the ability of state library agencies to successfully lead such an effort in a highly collaborative manner.

Conclusion

Some have said that in the world of the Internet, there may no longer be a use for libraries. However, libraries, and professionally educated librarians, are finding themselves busier than at any other time in history. Policymakers and the general public are coming to recognize the content management expertise of librarians, skills that transcend information formats and technology of various kinds. State libraries in particular are making good use of their leadership skills, within their state government structures and with local libraries of all types within their state boundaries, and cooperatively on the national level, to achieve exciting results in the area of public access to government information. With their strong connections to local libraries of all types, but especially public libraries, state library agencies also offer government agencies a ready-made cooperative network of information centers, located in virtually all communities of any size nationwide, to help get government information disseminated widely and readily to the public ... places the public already accesses for other types of information.

At the same time, librarians are capitalizing on critical partnerships, with information technology professionals, archivists, policy makers, other government officials, businesses, and the general public to make sure that complex information access systems and services develop and proceed in the most effective ways possible, remaining sufficiently nimble to change with advancing technology and the needs and desires of information consumers.

About the Author

Nancy Zussy was born in Tampa, Florida, to a military family. She travelled extensively as a child, being raised "between the State of Texas and the nation of Turkey." She earned her Bachelor's in Education degree from the University of Florida (Gainesville); a Masters in Library Science from the University of South Florida (Tampa); and a Masters of Science in Public Administration, also from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Ms. Zussy has served as a K-8 media specialist; reference professional, Assistant Director, and Director at a public library; and Deputy State Librarian and State Librarian (1986 - ) at the Washington State Library. Her emphasis has long been improving access to information in all its aspects. She has written access related legislation, served on statewide and national task forces dealing with this issue, and focused efforts at the Washington State Library in that general direction. In 1998, she served as a consultant/speaker on behalf of the United States Information Agency in Uzbekistan and Russia in the area of connecting people with their government through government information available through libraries.

When not engaged in library related pursuits, Ms. Zussy spends much of her free time singing with the Olympia Chorus of Sweet Adelines, in a quartet and the chorus. This summer she will travel to England and Ireland with a Western U.S. chorus of 109 women assembled to perform concerts there. She also assists her husband in staffing events related to unlimited hydroplane boat racing and serves at the Seattle race as producer of the air show.
E-mail: nzussy@statelib.wa.gov

Selected Bibliography

Washington (State), 1995. Public Information Access Policy Task Force Report and Recommendations: Encouraging widespread Public Electronic Access to Public Records and Information Held by State and Local Governments. Olympia, Wash.: The Task Force.

Washington State Library, 1999. Guide to Implementing a State Government Information Locator Service. Olympia, Wash.: The Library.


Editorial history

Paper received 9 May 2000; accepted 15 May 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Birth and Development of Find-It!: Washington State's Government Information Locator Service by Nancy Zussy
First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_6/zussy/index.html





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