Sheehy receives highest national award for documents librarianship

April 07, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Helen Sheehy, social sciences librarian at Penn State’s University Libraries, has been named the 2016 James Bennett Childs Award recipient in recognition of her nearly 30 years of service and significant contribution to the field of documents librarianship. The award is presented by GODORT, the American Library Association Round Table that advocates for issues around access to government information, which she served recently as chair.

In addition to being recognized for her service to the documents community, Sheehy’s work in the area of international documents librarianship was highlighted in her award nomination. Sheehy has traveled extensively as chair and member of the Government Information and Official Publications Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), focusing on issues of access to governmental documents, and has consulted and conducted workshops in Russia and China.

One nominator wrote, “Helen’s commitment to promoting the use of and interest in international documents can be seen in her long list of publications and presentations, as well as her active participation in IFLA and GODORT over the years.”

“Helen’s contributions to the library profession, especially to the documents community, are incomparable,” Barbara I. Dewey, dean of University Libraries and Scholarly Communications, said. “Her expertise and contributions to the University Libraries and Penn State’s research community are invaluable, and I’m thrilled she is receiving career recognition nationally.”

Transparency, accountability and the free flow of information, particularly in the realm of government activities, is central to a well-functioning democracy. Sheehy noted that the millions of government documents housed within the University Libraries — accessible to students, faculty and the public — are a vital resource, as they serve as a record of how the U.S. and intergovernmental organizations interact with citizens.

“If we are to maintain a free society, we need to understand the work our governments do. There is a lot of talk about how dysfunctional government is, and how it should be downsized. I believe much of that is because most Americans have only a superficial understanding of what governments at all levels do, and how their activities influence everything in our lives,” Sheehy said. “GODORT works closely with agencies within the U.S. and internationally to ensure that the work our taxes support is available to citizens.”

Penn State’s government documents collection is large and considered to be one of the best in the country in many areas. It contains millions of items, including current materials, such as hearings on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the NSA surveillance activities, and historical documents. “The U.S. Serial Set, one of the first sets of U.S. documents distributed to libraries, is a treasure trove of historical information and covers everything from reports of early explorers, to the United Nations’ discussion on the partition of Palestine and hearings from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the 1960s,” Sheehy explained.

Sheehy noted that the role of documents librarians today is as critical as in the past, even though government information is available online. “Google search is not an effective way to do research — you have to understand who in the government will be producing whatever it is you are looking for, and going back to that agency’s website and doing a deep search.”

Researchers who seek documents in the University Libraries can access online guides and get help from librarians and information specialists. As a result, the collection is popular not only with faculty and students, but also with the public.

Regarding her receipt of the award, Sheehy said, “Being recognized by your peers is really the highest of honors. They are the ones who understand your work best and can evaluate its worth in the community as a whole. I feel like the time and effort I put into being a documents librarian has been a benefit to the larger community of librarians.”

Sheehy received her undergraduate degree in nutrition from Framingham State University and her master of library science degree from Clarion University.

For more information about the Social Sciences Library, visit Guides to Penn State’s government documents collection can be found online at

Last Updated April 07, 2016