Get to Know CSL: Samantha Hager on Colorado State Publications

From March through June of 2018, the Colorado State Library’s #GetToKnowCSL social media campaign ran to give a little insight about the people of our organization. Almost 20 of our staff were briefly profiled in that campaign. Now, #GetToKnowCSL is back, but this time we’re digging a little deeper. In a series of interviews, we are finding out about how the people of CSL derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have had. 

Today we have Samantha Hager, Library Consultant for the State Publications unit of the Colorado State Library. Broadly speaking, State Publications (or “State Pubs,” if you’re in the know) is tasked with saving and making available to the public all official documents published by Colorado state government entities. Although the Colorado State Library isn’t a public library in the usual sense of the term, State Publications maintains a physical collection, which is available to the public, as well as a digital depository which is can be found at http://hermes.cde.state.co.us/. But, as you will hear, that just scratches the surface of State Pubs and Samantha’s role within it, as well as the many hats she must wear every day.  

Samantha, with Penelope the dog

Mike: When did you become a librarian?

Samantha: I went to library school at Indiana University in Bloomington and finished my degree in 1998. But, I got interested in library work when I was in college; I worked at the local library in a few positions. That library had recently added some service points and needed staff to man them, so they taught some of the student workers how to do simple reference questions, simple research – and when to go ask for help. And I just loved that. Never knowing what question you were going to be asked and then trying to find out the answer. So, that was the bug that got me interested in going to library school.

M: And you still have the bug.

S: Yes. At heart I consider myself a reference librarian, even though I have a lot of different hats now. I moved around quite a lot and worked in a bunch of libraries. I went to Texas after library school and worked for Dallas Public Library, where I first started working with government information – international documents. They were a UN depository, and it was really interesting. I’ve been interested in government information since then.

M: What is it about government information that interests you?

S: The idea that your government should be open and transparent. It is important for the citizenry to know what their government is doing. You can’t really vote unless you’re informed.

M: Tell me about what State Publications does, and your role within it.

S: Our mission is to provide free, permanent, public access to state government publications. We’re committed to keeping copies of everything that all Colorado state agencies publish. The published part is the important part. We don’t keep meeting minutes, or internal guidelines – those are the sort of thing that would go to the State Archives. We have liaisons within the state agencies, and we communicate with them to get them to send us their publications. It’s part of state law, actually, that they are supposed to send us their publications.  We keep two copies – one for reference, and one for circulation. So, anybody in the state can check out one of our reports or publications, they just need a picture ID. They can walk in, or we do interlibrary loan. We also have a small collection centered on education and library development.

M: And you also answer peoples’ questions.

S: Yes. One of my “hats” is reference librarian, a role that I share with Amy Zimmer, and we answer questions and help people with research, mainly by email or phone, and we do occasionally get a walk in. Some people are referred from other libraries, or they are doing historical research and the State Archives might send them to us. As well as working with our contacts to get the publications, we also use our contacts if we can’t find the answer to a reference question, so they are a really valuable resource. We also have a system of 12 depository libraries in the state. We send them copies of state publications, the idea is to distribute state publications so someone from Grand Junction doesn’t have to drive to Denver if they want to look at something. More and more, we are not sending print publications because a lot of the state agencies are doing more digital publications. I manage the digital repository, and can serve as a resource for Islandora.

M: Islandora?

S: A free open source software, the system that we use to store digital publications. People say that it’s free like a puppy, not free like a sandwich – it’s a lot of work. But, I’m happy to help people who are thinking of switching to that program and who need help getting started.

M: Do you get a lot of the same questions?

S: Some of them are. There’s a big interest in faculty salaries. All of the public universities are considered state agencies, so if somebody is interviewing with a university they will do research and see if the faculty salaries are listed. We also get a lot of questions about Colorado law.

M: That’s a whole other thing.

S: Yes. We’ll sometimes be asked for an interpretation, which we can’t do. And also we get questions regarding wildlife, like “can you identify this bird in my backyard?” And we also get a lot of history questions, such as the history of schools. We have a lot of materials dating back to the beginning of Colorado. Some of them were published as reports, but they also have information about what’s going on in the state at the time.

M: What are you motivated by?

S: It’s helping people. It’s a big reward when I can help people solve their problem, even if it’s not something that we have, I try really hard to find the best person to refer them to. There’s some pride that I can do a good job and I’m good at ferreting out information. I also want to teach people about what’s out there and make it available to them. Some people think that government documents are boring and dry, and some of them are, but they are also very useful and there’s some surprisingly good information in there that people don’t realize. People are finding answers to the easy questions on Google, so they come to us when they can’t find what they need. So we’re trying to expose our digital depository, make it as open as we can, so search engines can find us.

M: If Google takes care of the easy questions, is it better for you being left with the more challenging questions?

S: Oh, yeah, I enjoy it. But besides just finding the answer, it’s also about teaching how to do research. Even college kids, I’m surprised that nobody taught them how to do research.

M: Do you think that people in general want reliable and true information?

S: I think so. That’s one of the big things in schools and university libraries – how do you evaluate if this is a trusted authoritative source, or if it’s just Joe down the street spouting off?

M: Well, how do you go about recognizing a trustworthy source?

S: Read about who is producing the information. If it’s a website, I always go to the About section, and find out where the writer is coming from. What’s their history? Are they activists? Is it a government source, or a business? That will give you an idea of if it’s biased or unbiased.

M: You used the word “problem” – is it usually the case that someone is having a problem, or are people just curious too?

S: Not always, but people do often come to us with a problem. For example, they might have a problem with their neighbors, so they are researching tenant laws, or recently we had a question about the Clean Air Act and people smoking near apartment buildings. Another was a man out of state trying to get custody of a child in Colorado, so there were a lot of questions about custody law. Or sometimes callers just want someone to talk to, and I don’t mind that.

M: Finally, what is the biggest challenge you face in your work?

S: Part of our mission is ensuring permanent access to publications. Now, in the digital world, people are still trying to figure out: how do you preserve a digital item permanently? There are proprietary formats – do you just want to preserve the words? Is the context important with the pictures? What do you do so that fifty years from now, someone who has a history project about 2019 can find it? Another challenge is the acquisition of the documents, since agencies are not printing documents, they will just put them on their website. So we do a lot of crawling of the websites – and there’s so much, how do you identify it and make sure you grab it and save it forever?

Michael Peever