Magazine article Information Outlook

Transforming a Government Library: The Wirtz Labor Library in the U.S. Department of Labor Went Digital in January 2008, but It Was Far from Easy

Magazine article Information Outlook

Transforming a Government Library: The Wirtz Labor Library in the U.S. Department of Labor Went Digital in January 2008, but It Was Far from Easy

Article excerpt

On March 4, 1913, just hour before leaving office, President William Howard Taft signed legislation the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Its mission in 1913 was to "foster, promote and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment " Socio-economic conditions have changed greatly since 1913, and new statutory responsibilities have expanded its scope, but the department's mission remains unchanged.

Helping the agencies within DOL to achieve this mission is one goal of the Wirtz Labor Library. Located at DOL and situated on Constitution Avenue at the foot of Capitol Hill, the library's holdings include approximately 140,000 titles, and it serves an average of 500 walk-in patrons a week. Additionally, the library serves 2,000 customers a week through its Web site. The library has both a general collection and a law library that serves 425 lawyers from the Office of the Solicitor. The library also serves those outside DOL, including researchers, college students and the general public from around the world. The collections include a wide variety of subjects, including labor and its history, labor unions, economic policy, theory, history, industrial relations, and the worker throughout history. The library also houses a sizeable collection of historic labor union newspapers.

When I arrived at the Wirtz Labor Library in June 2006, there had been a change in contractors. The library has been contractor-operated since 1988, with a federal librarian acting as director and as technical representative to the contracting officer. I found a traditionally styled library with a small staff. Positions included the director, a project manager, a law librarian, a cataloger, a cataloging technician, a reference librarian, a systems librarian, an accountant, and a general technician.

The contracting corporation in place in June 2006 had never done business with a library and never sought out and hired library staff. In a discussion of serials, the question was "what is a serial?" The contract provided for the salaries of the staff, and had $100,000 reserved for "equipment and supplies." The latter consisted of two dinosaur public copiers, toner cartridges, and paper. Clearly, changes needed to be made!

My Vision for Change

On Day One, I already had a major project in mind: to create a digital library to preserve some of the valuable, old and unique items in the collection, and offer them to the world as searchable full text from our Web site. I wanted to bring the library into the 21st century with technology and fast electronic access while continuing to preserve paper content.

One immediate obstacle to my vision was the staff. The staff configuration was very traditional in nature, with traditional job descriptions firmly established. This did not allow for creative thinking. I needed to outline my vision and take it to DOL's administration. My plan was to purchase equipment and software necessary to begin to digitize. It also involved scrutinizing the contract and contractor to see whether some changes could be made to accomplish the new vision.


I went out on the road and talked with scanner and software vendors. Cost was most definitely an abstacle, but there was some end-of-year funding that might be available. I thought that all we needed to do was to purchase a scanner, begin scanning, and store the scans in a file on a computer or agency server. After that, we could creat a Web-based labor thesaurus and drill down level-by-level to get to the titles and documents themselves. Alternatively, we could simply incorporate a link to the electronic files in our online catalog. Then I learned that a software package could be purchased that would do everything for us. It sounded so easy!

I was under pressure to make a decision. …

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