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Helene O'Leary
Indiana University Libraries

Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011

IU librarian Lou Malcomb honored with 2011 'Documents to the People' award

April 18, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Try Googling "Documents to the People" and you'll end up with 362,000,000 results (in 0.17 seconds).

It's Indiana University librarian Lou Malcomb's job to help people cut through such information overload. The head of the Government Information and Kent Cooper Services Department in IU's Herman B Wells Library, Malcomb was recently named the recipient of the 2011 "Documents to the People" Award, presented by LexisNexis/Government Documents Round Table/American Library Association.

She is being honored with this year's award for her "commitment, creativity and dedication to the principles embodied in the phrase 'Documents to the People,'" the organization wrote in a statement.

"This is a fitting recognition for Lou, who is fiercely committed to keeping public documents in the hands of the public," said IU Associate Professor of History Nick Cullather. "She has patiently taught generations of students how to know more about their leaders by reading their papers, and she has organized an IU documents repository that is approachable and easy for researchers and citizens to use."

During her 40 years with the IU Libraries, Malcomb's methods of finding information have expanded from frequent phone calls to government agencies and "knowing where to look" in books (yes, she still consults actual books on a daily basis) to the addition of live, online chats with library patrons and helping researchers cut through the morass of available public information that turns up on Web searches to find exactly what they need.

Forward-thinking projects

Malcomb's Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) Floppy Disk Project, launched in 1999, was one of the first attempts to preserve federal depository materials in digital format. The project continues to provide Web-based access to both the data and software required to use the valuable information housed in this now-obsolete format.

More recently, she provided the impetus and leadership for a much larger-scale preservation and access project as chair of the project working group for the Indiana Light Archive for Federal Documents. "Lou's presence and stature within the Indiana government documents community played a significant role in assuring the integrity and feasibility of such an undertaking," wrote one of her colleagues in a nomination letter for the award. "With Lou's help and guidance, what began as a project involving only the Indiana University federal depository libraries became an unprecedented collaboration involving all of the depositories in Indiana."

Malcomb and the working group hammered out the details of collection assignments, cataloging standards, preservation best practices, delivery criteria, disposal guidelines and the reference, instruction, training and professional development responsibilities that formed the basis of two critical documents: the Indiana Light Archive Collection Stewardship Guidelines and Memorandum of Understanding/Cooperative Agreement. These documents enabled the creation of a collaborative shared print repository for the state of Indiana; the resource is also now a national model for collaboration in preservation, cataloging and public access.

Farm girl at heart

Malcomb's generosity, humor, expertise and passion for government information have won her the friendship and respect of her colleagues, one of whom describes her as the "quintessential government documents librarian."

But beyond her encyclopedic knowledge of government resources -- she has worked in government publications since 1974 -- is a side of Malcomb most people wouldn't match with her professional image.

Malcomb grew up on a farm in Lovett, Ind., where salad was something you picked from the back yard and a steak came directly from the family cattle (when she started college, it made Malcomb smile to hear fellow students talk about fancy steak dinners). Conversation at the family dinner table often focused on politics and policy; Malcomb's dad was a county councilman, and the family knew many congressmen and other elected leaders by first name. She learned about bills and the Supreme Court along with reading and math, and through osmosis, picked up both government and farming terminology.

Although her parents didn't have college degrees themselves, Malcomb said, they so prized education that when her sister got only a partial scholarship to college, her father sold oak and cherry trees to make it happen. He was prepared to sell more trees for Malcomb, but she received work-study grants and scholarships to IU, where she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees.

To this day, Malcomb spends weekends at the 130-acre Angus beef cattle farm near Lovett that has been in her family since 1824. Family members currently help take care of the farm, and she can still pick dinner from the back yard. "It's currently just a weekend retreat, but I may retire there someday," she said.

During her time as an adjunct faculty member in the IU School of Library and Information Science, Malcomb was honored with the IU School of Library and Information Science Alumni Award in 2005 and the Indiana University Teaching Award for teaching achievements in the School of Library and Information Science in 2002.

Currently, she staffs the CIC's free, Web-based service, "Government Information Online: Ask a Librarian." Launched a couple of years ago, the new service enables the American public to ask librarians from federal depository libraries nationwide questions related to any federal agency through live chat or e-mail.

Ask a librarian

Malcomb said "Ask a Librarian" not only builds upon the strength of the university's extraordinary research library, but also responds to the way citizens seek information today.

"IU has been a depository library since the 1800s," Malcomb said. "Our collections, and the expertise we've developed by using them, have been of great service to those who come in the door. Now we're broadening our reach in yet another way by making our expertise available to anyone throughout the nation."

"Lou Malcomb is richly deserving of this honor," said Brenda L. Johnson, Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries. "She embodies all the best qualities of a librarian: passion for teaching, extraordinary resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity and an unwavering commitment to service. We are exceptionally proud to have someone of Lou's caliber here at the IU Libraries."

As more and more information becomes available online, Malcomb estimates that IU receives only 10 percent of the printed materials it received from the federal government just a decade ago.

"Though fewer people must now refer to a tangible item, they still need to know where to look and what to look for," Malcomb said. "The Internet is faster in many ways, but researchers still have to know their way around government jargon or legalese. That's where the IU Libraries can help."