Navigating a Sea of Records

Treasures like this photograph of an oiled Kemp’s Ridley Turtle are awaiting discovery among the records that NOAA has made available online. This turtle was cleaned and treated by a team of sea turtle experts before he was returned to less treacherous waters. (Credit: Carolyn Cole, L.A. Times)


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Wendy Schumacher, Ph.D., PMP. Wendy, thank you for sharing your story.

I started my job as the FOIA Officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about a year after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. My new colleagues had collected, organized, reviewed, redacted and released tens of thousands of pages of records in response to a large number of FOIA requests prior to my arrival. They also identified the importance of making the records they released in response to those FOIA requests available to the widest possible audience. It was a great idea, but the project needed a champion.   So, I took off my FOIA Officer hat and put on the librarian one. After brainstorming with my organization’s webmaster, it didn’t seem feasible to host these large files on our server. We needed to figure out another way to give people access to the great information NOAA could provide.

In addition to potential FOIA requesters already identified, “people” in my mind include my school-teacher sister’s elementary school class. She has always been interested in how her students can see the scientific data that I organize at work. The others who help fuel my passion for information sharing are the science teachers that I met teaching library cataloging and website development in the Peace Corps. I was committed to finding a way to make our resources easy to search.

The thought of these audiences kept me driven to find funding for the project. We did, and a few months later the NOAA FOIA Office collaborated with the NOAA Library to make the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill records available through the Library’s online catalog. Not only does this mean that potential requesters do not need to file a FOIA request to see what already has been released, but researchers around the world can access the records by using common library catalog systems. This reveals a group of documents that they may not otherwise know exist. The connection is made by using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) so that a potential requester can click on the LCSH hyperlink on the NOAA website to see what other information may be available through multiple international cataloging services. A link to the NOAA Library Catalog can be found on the NOAA FOIA homepage.

Here is what the LCSH or Subject term links look like after searching for “NOAA FOIA documents”:

By clicking on Sea Turtles–Effects of oils spills on–Mexico, Gulf of. you’ll see that a total of 40 FOIA requests asked for records about Sea Turtles:

In Fiscal Year 2012, over 670,000 individual pdf files were viewed. Although it’s hard to say how many potential requesters got their information immediately instead of having to wait for a response through the FOIA process, I can confirm that NOAA did not receive any requests asking for clarification about what was posted. That meets any FOIA professional’s definition of “satisfied people.”