Vigilance and Action in Uncertain Times

January 31, 2017 by
Filed under: Commentary, Library, post 

During this past week, there were many reports about the Trump administration’s actions that appear to be either removing information, or blocking information, or filtering scientific information through a political screen before allowing that information to be released.

How concerned should government information specialists be about these developments? Very.

What can we do? First, let’s be cautious but vigilant. As librarians, we are well aware that today’s information environment bombards us with fragments of news and demonstrably false news and speculation and premature interpretation of fragmentary speculation of unverified news. We should neither panic nor dismiss all this as noise. There is so much happening in so many areas of public policy right now that no one can keep up with everything; one thing that government information specialists can do is keep up with developments about access to government information so we can keep our colleagues and communities informed with accurate information.

We also need to evaluate what is happening critically. The Trump administration has attempted to normalize last week’s actions, saying, essentially, that removal of information and control of information is a normal part of a transition. On Tuesday of last week, for example, White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed concerns about reports of censorship at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by saying “I don’t think there’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, we’re going to review the policies.” And on Wednesday, Doug Ericksen, the communications director for the President’s transition team at the EPA, said “Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA.” In short, this explanation is that the new administration is just updating and transitioning and making sure that information from agencies conforms to its new policies. This is “business as usual.” Nothing to see here; relax; move on. Even some govinfo librarians minimize the significance of what is going on.

This sounds reasonable on the surface. Indeed, since even the entire Executive Office of the President, which includes the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, has been offline since Inauguration day and a temporary page asks us to “Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov,” perhaps we should just be patient? Surely those will be back, right?

I think we need to realize that this actually is pretty odd behavior. And we need to help our communities who still need access to important policies (like OMB Circular A-130 [IA copy]) that are gone but, presumably, still in effect.

We need to be aware that this administration presents difficulties for the public in just figuring out what it is actually doing. It appears that the administration has reversed or modified some of its initial information policies or that they were incorrectly reported, and that these reversals — if they are reversals and if they are permanent — seem to have come about because of public outcry.

I think we need to take the administration’s actions seriously and let them know when they are doing something unacceptable or uninformed. We need to stand up for public access and transparency.

I suggest that it is our professional duty to address these issues. I suggest that the communities that our libraries serve expect and need us to do this. This administration is doing many troubling and controversial things and everyone cannot fight every battle. Ensuring long-term free access to government information should be a job responsibility for every government information librarian.

Actions

What can we do? What should we do? How can we best allocate our resources?

  • We need to keep our library administrators informed. We can do that by putting Government Information on committee agendas and preparing accurate and well-informed briefings that address how political changes will affect the library’s ability to provide content and service and how they will affect library users’ ability to find and get and use government information.
  • We need to talk to our user-communities. We need to provide them with accurate and well-informed information about how political changes are already affecting their ability to find and get and use government information. We need to provide alternate sources where necessary and update library guides and catalogs. We need to learn from them when they identify issues and problems and solutions.
  • We need to keep our professional colleagues informed through local library meetings, informal communication, and professional activities.
  • We can still contribute to the EOT. There are lots of things you can do.
  • We can make the case for digital collections.

    We need to realize and understand that the underlying issues of long-term free access to government information are not new and they are not limited to this administration

    • We need to remind our administrators that when we depend on pointing instead of collecting we lose information.
    • We need to remind them that even though preservation sites like obamawhitehouse.archives.gov and the 2016 EOT crawl are worthwhile and valuable, they still create the problem of link rot. We need to remind library administrators that pointing to remote collections that move is not a cheap way to provide good service. It is a time-consuming, never-ending task that is neither easier than nor as reliable as building local digital collections.

Sample of News Stories

  • Reports of Federal Government Agencies Directed Not to Communicate with the American Public
  • Trump Administration Restricts News from Federal Scientists at USDA, EPA By Dina Fine Maron (January 24, 2017)
  • Information lockdown hits Trump’s federal agencies By Andrew Restuccia, Alex Guillén and Nancy Cook (01/24/17)
  • USDA lifts gag order: report By Paulina Firozi (01/25/17)
  • How far will President Trump’s media blackout spread? The Sunlight Foundation is trying to find out By Kelly Hinchcliffe (January 25, 2017)
  • Trump officials suspend plan to delete EPA climate web pages By Robin Bravender (Jan 25, 2017)
  • USDA Calls Scientist Gag Order a “Misunderstanding” By Dina Fine Maron (January 25, 2017)
  • The USDA Says That Trump Didn’t Send Its Order Restricting Scientists
  • by Dino Grandoni (Jan. 26, 2017)

  • EPA science under scrutiny by Trump political staff
    By MICHAEL BIESECKER and SETH BORENSTEIN (Jan. 26, 2017)
  • What’s Up With the Office of Management and Budget Website? by Frank Konkel (January 27, 2017)
  • Science off to a rough start in the Trump administration (Jan 29, 2017)
  • Agencies Halt Public Releases USDA and EPA Both Go Quiet Following Orders from Trump Administration Emily Unglesbee (1/30/2017)
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