One federal research entity celebrates its 75th anniversary

The Federal Research Division (FRC), an office within the Library of Congress, is celebrating its 75th year in operation. During that time, it has provided much needed non-partisan, custom-tailored research to federal agencies and others involved in governmental operations. To learn more about the FRC and its history,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the chief of the division Annie Rorem.

Interview Transcript

Annie Rorem It is a little known part of the library, although we’d love to be known across the federal government. So the Federal Research Division, or FRD, is a unit within the Library of Congress that produces highly world renowned and nonpartisan research and analysis to support evidence based decision making among a select group of clients. So specifically, FRD provides custom research to federal agencies, the District of Columbia government, and authorized federal contractors. And it’s crucial to to mention that FRD operates on a cost recovery basis and takes almost no appropriated funds to sustain its operations. So our clients pay us to conduct research on their behalf. And we were originally known as the Air Research Unit. That was way back in 1948, and we were established to provide research support for what was then a new U.S. Air Force. We later became known as the Air Studies Division and later the Defense Research Division, but assumed our current name, the Federal Research Division, in 1970. And that was when our mandate was expanded to include all of the federal government outside of Congress. So we sometimes call ourselves the Congressional Research Service, but for everybody else, instead, because we don’t provide research for Congress and do provide it for all other parts of the federal government.

Eric White And so can you lay out a little bit for me? I know you said federal agencies, but it’s my understanding that you also provide services to other entities. Can you tell me a little bit about how those arrangements are conducted?

Annie Rorem Yes. So any organization that’s within the District of Columbia or is “an authorized federal contractor,” any of those groups that receive appropriations either on a one hop, so either direct appropriations or on a two hop, so are contracted to provide some type of service on behalf of an appropriated entity and work with us through an interagency agreement to send those funds back to us at the library to provide research services for them. So it’s all part of the same financial structure. It’s an interagency agreement, and it’s a little bit less common for us to do work for those types of groups. The vast majority of our business is for the federal government, and that includes components within the Library of Congress as well.

Eric White And what and I know that it’s probably all over the place, but when you say research, can you just give me a few examples of the types of research that you all are doing for said federal agencies when they request your help?

Annie Rorem Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, it is all over the place. We’re a group of generalists and we love when folks come to us with thorny questions or unusual requests. We can produce a lot of different types of things for federal agencies or our other clients. So when you hear research, you might think desk research or a written product. And it’s true that we do a lot of that, a lot of literature reviews, a lot of organizational histories, a lot of things that require us to use the library’s vast and amazing collection of resources to read and analyze and synthesize and write. But we also do other really interesting things, like data visualization and data analysis. So we recently put together an interactive map on behalf of a library component, and that map allows people to click around and look at the array of federal libraries across the United States and learn a little bit more about each of those libraries. We also conducted data analysis on behalf of the Department of Defense, where we go into U.S.A. spending data and do an analysis of contracts that go out to counties all across the country to determine which counties are receiving how much in Defense Department contracts. So we’ve got a lot of skilled folks on staff ranging from economists to librarians to evaluators to data scientists. And we can do research of all stripes across the board. I’ll mention one more thing, which is that we’re building our capacity to do operations and business research. So some folks will come to us and say, “we’re really interested in learning a little bit more about, for instance, how federal agencies that look like us make sure that they’re executing their budget efficiently year over year. What types of tools are they using? What types of models do they have in place?” And we will go out and benchmark those federal agencies, conduct interviews, learn about the tools in place, and help agencies or library sub-components learn about those business operations. So it’s it’s absolutely research and analysis, but it is a specific type in the form of operations research.

Eric White We’re speaking with Annie Rorem, chief of the Federal Research Division within the Library of Congress. And I know you talked about there was a little bit of a name change from the early days, but 75 years of the Federal Research Division. Has the role stayed the same or has there been an evolution, not just within the different kinds of research you all are doing, has it mostly been the role that you all are filling now in helping federal agencies?

Annie Rorem Yes, I would say there are two major evolutions, but there’s been a through line of research and analysis support. So the two major evolutions are, as you’ve alluded to, an expansion in our client base. So we were established to provide that research support for the U.S. Air Force. We later worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Then we provided services to the entire Department of Defense, and then the mandate expanded again to include all of the federal government. And as I mentioned, we also support the District of Columbia and authorized federal contractors. But the other thing that has changed over time is what people are looking for, and that changes year over year really, Eric. I mean, we’ve got people now coming to us with questions about evaluation because of the Evidence Act. So there’s a large push across the federal government now to really look at the data in terms of how policies and programs are performing in order to ensure that they’re performing as planned, efficiently and effectively. So while at a time 50 years ago, we were mostly doing, like I said, desk research, we have really expanded our offerings to do a lot more on the data front. I should also mention, of course, that in 1948 there was no Internet. So the ways that we’re conducting research and the types of products we can offer in this Internet age are really quite different than they were in 1948.

Eric White Makes sense. And you touched on it a little bit beforehand of who makes up the team at the Federal Research Division. I was wondering if you could expand a little bit about the background of the kind of people who work here and a little bit about your road to getting to lead the division itself.

Annie Rorem Oh, I’d be happy to talk about my very talented team. They are truly a really fantastic group of generalists, as I mentioned. We have folks on staff who are librarians. They do have master’s in library science, but the majority of our staff have degrees outside of library science. So we have folks with PhDs in education or history. We have lots of folks with master’s degrees in public policy. We have folks who speak all different kinds of languages. And I would say the most important commonality across my really talented team is an interest in anything. People that succeed at the Federal Research Division are those who are curious and get excited by the idea of diving into research and making the product useful for our client. So we appreciate people who can tackle a steep learning curve. I just charging up that hill and people who really care about getting clients what they want. As for me, I’ve been the chief of the division formally since November of 2021. I joined the division in the height of that first pandemic summer, July of 2020, as a project manager. I shortly thereafter became a section head and then acting chief and chief in 2021. Prior to joining the division, I was actually a client of the divisions, and that’s how I found out about FRD when I worked for the National Women’s Business Council back in 2017, part of my job in that role, which is – I should mention National Women’s Business Council is part of the Small Business Administration. Part of my job in that role was to find folks to conduct research on women’s business ownership. And I learned about the Federal Research Division and signed an interagency agreement with FDA back in 2017. When I left the council, I became the deputy director of research at a federal commission, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, which was a really fantastic job, but one that had an expiration date. So I knew that by summer of 2020 that commission would be sunsetting. So I thought back fondly to the work that the Federal Research Division had conducted for me back in 2017. And I reached out to some folks here and asked if maybe they would be interested in having me join the team. And they were. And I did. So I can really speak to the client experience here at the Federal Research Division, as well as, of course, the researcher and management role.

Eric White All right. And here’s to 75 more years, right?

Annie Rorem Indeed. And that’s our goal here, is to make sure that people know about us so that we can stay in business, stay providing those high quality services to the federal government for 75, 175 more years. And I should mention, Eric, we are hosting an event coming up on Tuesday, June 13th. I will be moderating a panel of five research users and researchers in different roles across the federal government. Really talented, exciting folks. And we’ll be having an hour long conversation about why it’s really important to have good quality research to inform federal policy. So anyone who’s interested in joining us and virtually can find the link to RSVP to that 10:30 June 13th event on our website, which is


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