Month of September, 2007
The folks that brought us usa.gov have established a blog of their own over at http://blog.usa.gov/roller/. The blog is called Gov Gab and is maintained by "a team of five bloggers with different backgrounds and interests, all experts on government information via their jobs at USA.gov, Pueblo.gsa.gov, or 1 (800) FED-INFO."
The blog is a week old and so far have had conversational, user-friendly postings on photo resources, gov't travel sites, apartment hunting and organic foods. If you're familar with Lori Smith's blog on MySpace, you have a sense of the tone of this blog. The sites featured are taken from federal, state and local web resources. If this week is an indicator of the quality, this will be a great resource. I hope it gets maximum promotion from librarians and other interested parts.
The blog accepts comments according to this reasonable sounding policy:
We welcome your comments and expect that our conversation will follow the general rules of respectful civil discourse. This is a moderated blog, and we will only post comments from bloggers over 12 years of age that relate to topics on Gov Gab: Your U.S. Government Blog. We will review comments for posting within one business day. You are fully responsible for everything that you submit in your comments, and all posted comments are in the public domain. We do not discriminate against any views, but we reserve the right not to post comments.
According to a reply to a comment I saw, the blogging team is very open to suggestions for future topics:
We would love to get ideas for future blog topics! You can email any of us by clicking our name above our posts and sending us a message.
Spread the word! The more the merrier around here.
Consider the word spread. Thanks much to Ray Matthews of the Utah State Library for pointing out this new blog to me. Now go and do the same for others!
Anyone who has ever had to teach about federal regulations is always thrilled to have good, hopefully entertaining, examples for this topic. And now that instructors have access to the Reg Map, we can actually give a step by step explanation of this once murky process (thank you, General Services Administration). As is the case with legislative process, our students' first question is frequently "How do regulations come about?" We reassuringly tell them that executive agencies produce regulations, frequently due to statutory mandate, and that the regs are published first in the Federal Reqister, now Regulations.gov as well, before being codified in the CFR. From the Reg Map, we learn that that there are other Initiating Events besides legislative mandate: such as recommendation from an external group.
Well, a recent news article offers a fine example of an external group directly petitioning the federal Executive Branch: environmental organizations are asking both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to more tightly regulate air fresheners. The groups don't need to approach Congress; they can go directly to those agencies whose mission it is to keep us safe. And since the air freshener industry, a $1.72 billion annual sales concern, is cranking out "sprays, gels and plug-in fresheners offer[ing] no public health benefits" but potentially causing "breathing difficulties, developmental problems in babies, and cancer in laboratory animals," I am glad the groups are taking action. The groups are asking for labeling of all ingredients in air fresheners and a banning of allergens or items appearing on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals. Here's a report from the National Resources Defense Council, one of the groups involved.
The "right to read" is essential in a democracy and is abridged when citizens can get "authentic" government information only from government-controlled
Stories such as the following two make us even more concerned about privacy and the right to read because they show the lengths to which the government will go when it has any access to information about the reading habits of citizens.
It is particularly revealing that these articles show that the government defends its right to do this by saying that some materials are acceptable and some are not. A DHS spokesman says, "We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading" but the book "Drugs and Your Rights" fell into the category of an item that "leads the inspection officer to conclude there could be a possible violation of the law."
This is precisely the problem. Under these conditions, citizens may fear reading things that they think a low level bureaucrat might find suspicious -- and thus the right to read is abridged.
- U.S. Airport Screeners Are Watching What You Read, by Ryan Singel, WIRED (09.20.07)
- Collecting of Details on Travelers Documented; U.S. Effort More Extensive Than Previously Known by Ellen Nakashima Washington Post (September 22, 2007)
Carl Malamud, FGI's open govt hero, has done it again! In a recent letter to Marybeth Peters, the United States Register of Copyrights, Malamud and others have asked Peters to provide bulk access to a "vital public database" -- the copyright catalog of monographs, documents, and serials.
The letter recognizes that "sales of the database may be a significant source of revenue for the Copyright Office" and that "budgetary requirements or the assent of congressional oversight committees" might make it difficult to make the data available right away and offers an short term alternative of "...we would like to offer to set up a collective fund for purchase of a single copy of the database, making it available for anyone to use. This would provide a public distribution channel...." The letter also says, "We ask only that you help us clarify that there is no copyright on the database so that we may freely redistribute it."
The letter was signed by the Digital Library Federation, Harvard University Library, Public Knowledge, Stanford University Library, the Association of Research Libraries, the Internet Archive and others. For more see:
The copyright catalog of monographs, documents, and serials is not a product, it is fuel that makes the copyright system work. Anybody should be able to download the entire database to their desktop, write a better search application, or use this public domain information to research copyright questions.
A price tag of $86,625 places this database beyond the reach of university libraries, small businesses that wish to provide a better copyright search service, and academics or citizens wishing to analyze the copyright registration process. Additionally, setting copyright restrictions on the copyright database, a â€œwork of the United States Government,â€ runs directly counter to the well-established principle that such works shall be in the public domain.
I hope LC and the Copyright Office take this letter seriously and releases the database to the original owner, the public. However, I am not sure whether Ms. Peters will be amenable considering the post about her on BoingBoing a few days ago.
Have you ever tried to open a WordPerfect document when all you have is Microsoft Word? Or maybe you've received a Microsoft Works document and found that your version of Word won't open it. If you've been around documents for a while, perhaps you've tried to open some of the spreadsheets that agencies distributed in Lotus format and found that you couldn't open the files If so, you've experienced first-hand the problem that Aliya Sternstein describes in an article about the importance of open formats for government information:
- The Risks Of Software Choice In E-Government, by Aliya Sternstein, National Journal's Technology Daily, (Sept. 20, 2007 pm edition)
One of the big technological battles going on now is between the truly open ODF format and Microsoft's so-called open format, OOXML. Sternstein writes "Microsoft and its supporters maintain that having a choice between any and all open file formats would be advantageous for governments" but that "[g]iving U.S. agencies a choice in file formats could be bad for record-keeping because down the road, records might be saved in different, non-compatible formats or agencies might be held hostage by one company's product line."
Will Rodger, public policy director with the Computer and Communications Industry Association, says:
"It is hugely ironic that promoters of OOXML and critics of ODF say you need to look at what their technologies do. As far as we can tell, the greatest impetus for the development of OOXML is to create technologies that perpetuate the proprietary lock-in [that] governments were trying to eliminate in the first place."
(See also: Government Information in Legacy Formats: Scaling a Pilot Project to Enable Long-Term Access, by Gretchen Gano and Julie Linden, D-Lib Magazine (July/August 2007) Volume 13 Number 7/8, and a project a colleague of mine, Doug Tower, worked on several years ago, the UCSD GPO Data Migration Project and the page that describes some of the processing for that project, Processing and Quality Control. Also see: Microsoft vs. Open Formats.)
Many of us who are drawn to U.S. federal publications end up traveling to our Nation's capitol fairly regularly, if we don't live there already. Over time, we develop constellations of memories about "the first time I did" this or that in Washington DC. We attend GPO-sponsored events like the formative Interagency Depository Seminar (alumna, class of 1993) or the Depository Library Conference & Council meetings; we tour famous sites and museums; we recall our first time on the Mall, seeing cherry blossoms, and riding the Metro. Special people in our lives are willing to show us "their" Washington DC, and their perspectives further enrich our understanding of all the secrets within the Beltway.
There are also special Washington DC people we visit -- our family or friends -- who are completely outside the govdocs realm. For fifteen years, I've had a standing date (always dinner and a walk) with a reference librarian from the Library of Congress, Art Emerson. Art served as the Library of Congress subject expert for Australia and New Zealand. He was a contemporary of mine from the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies (its old name). Art and I would look forward to our annual time together: what new memorial would we see? What museum just opened? What ethnic restaurant was fabulous and as yet undiscovered by the hordes? I'll never forget the night he took this small town girl on a no-holds-barred tour of the Metro's steepest escalators, because he knew what fear and excitement these inspired in me. He took special pride in my teary-eyed first glimpse of the LC Main Reading Room and the restored Jefferson Building. When he visited the Northwest this past year, we took him to see Seattle's favorite Australian import, Lauren Jackson, play a mean game of basketball.
My friends and I were shocked to learn that Art Emerson died last week. A health problem had been building, stealthily, for some time, until it finally manifested itself and ended his life. He was 51. He had spent a glorious year at the State Library of New South Wales. He helped people all over the world discover treasures of one of the greatest libraries on Earth, and a federal library at that. He was still planning his next trip to Australia, perhaps planning his next book project after his Historical Dictionary of Sydney. He had a wicked sense of humor and a mind that would be the envy of any scholar. With the serendipity that always seems to happen around a death, I turned over a scrap of paper on my guest room floor last night to find that it was a card for Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant and Mongolian Barbeque, the last restaurant I visited with Art. I'm too sad to eulogize him further right now, and FGI is not the place to do so. But I thought in Art's memory, I would ask the FGI readership: what are some of your favorite secret spots in Washington DC? What special person introduced you to these? How has Washington DC changed who you are as an information lover?
What happens to the record of congress, public input, even roll-call votes when members of congress are given 15 minutes to object to a bill being automatically approved? Roll Call has the story:
- 'Hotlined' Bills Spark Concern, by John Stanton, Roll Call, September 17, 2007 [subscription required, but a copy is freely available here]
Senate conservatives are upset that the leaders of both parties in the chamber have in recent years increasingly used a practice known as "hotlining" bills -- previously used to quickly move noncontroversial bills or simple procedural motions -- to pass complex and often costly legislation, in some cases with little or no public debate.
The increase was particularly noticeable just before the August recess, when leaders hotlined more than 150 bills, totaling millions of dollars in new spending, in a period of less than a week.
The practice has led to complaints from Members and watchdog groups alike that lawmakers are essentially signing off on legislation neither they nor their staff have ever read, often resulting in millions of dollars in new spending.
...According to the Library of Congress' legislative database THOMAS, of the 399 bills or resolutions passed by the Senate this year -- which range from recess adjournment resolutions to the Iraq War supplemental bill -- only 29 have been approved by a roll-call vote. The rest have been moved via unanimous consent agreements, the vast majority of which were brokered using the hotline process.
(See also, just for fun, the Stinking Badges Home Page)
Our bookmobile trip is over and we are back to our respective day jobs. However, there are still some stories we couldn't leave behind so we'll be posting a few more items over the next few days. Here's the first one:
Our visit to the Hoopa library on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation was unforgettable. We drove from Arcata to Hoopa around 8:30 in the morning. The weather was just about to turn to fall so we could feel a crispness in the air as the sun shone through the pine and cedar trees. The road (Rtes 299 and then 96) to Hoopa is incrediblly beautiful.
The library was small but well organized. Despite it being early morning, quite a few community members gathered at the library to see the bookmobile or to use the library. We could tell the community was tightly-knit because everyone knew each other and no one was a stranger to them.
One of our bookmobilista speils has been that anyone can download anay of the hundreds of thousands of books (the goal is 1 million!) free of charge; we thought that was universally a good meassge. However, Several Hoopa community members mentioned that not many people in the valley had computers and those that do have uneven internet access at best via the phone line. The library has 4 computers with DSL but the librarian mentioned that the internet connection was spotty and so she recommended that users get a magazine to read while waiting for larger files to download. As we've said previously, the digital divide is unfortunately alive in rural communities across the US. So a digital bookmobile was not the optimum solution for this community.
Regardless of their level of access to the information highway, in Hoopa the library IS at the center of their community and the community knew and cherished that -- that's the dream of every librarian! We interviewed several community members about what they thought was the role of the library in their community. Ms. Hayley Hott gave a particularly passionate response (see below).
Many librarians are struggling to know about the community that they serve, but we felt that this library was truly a success story. It might not be the largest collection or have an abundance of facilities, but it is loved and highly-used by everyone in the valley.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative has a new database of news articles and stories that are based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests:
Read more about the database and how to search it here:
- The FOIA Files: Stories that FOIA Made Possible
Countless media outlets, government watchdog groups and individual Americans have used the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain important information on how -- and how well -- their government operates, knowledge that is crucial to a well-functioning democracy.
- Systemic failures keep two million veterans & widows from benefits owed them.
- Military tells next of kin one story about combat deaths, documents tell another.
- $1.2 billion & 6 years not enough to start up anti-terror data mining.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure the government is accessible, accountable and open.