Comment on Government Information Liberation

November 12, 2008 by
Filed under: Library, post 

John,

Thanks for this interesting thread about Government Information Liberation!

I hope I am not misreading your enthusiasm if I characterize it as part of a new optimism that so many of us are feeling after the election. I certainly feel more optimistic than I have for a long time!

I want to key in on two things you’ve mentioned in your first few posts in your thread. (I may be going off on a bit of a tangent from what you were saying, but I hope not.)

One is the idea of “weaving the political perspective with the policy perspective with the governmental structure perspective.” The other is the “values” of libraries and librarians.

First: weaving.

A few of us at FGI had a conversation this week about the intersection of government information with non-government information. We discussed how the old model of separating government documents departments and collections in libraries was probably more of a library operational convenience than anything else. We certainly did the best we could with that model and the tools we had at the time to provide the best access we could to government information, but the model of separate collections was never ideal for users.

Now, in the digital age, the model of separate (ok, I’ll even use the buzzword: “stovepipe”) collections has become less necessary and even less fruitful than it was in the paper and ink world. Projects like govtrack.us and the many projects from the Sunlight Foundation and other remixes and Insanely Useful Web Sites demonstrate how technology can help us overcome a lot of limitations we faced in the past and create tools for civic engagement.

I would really like to see libraries creating similar projects and collaborating with projects like these! We have done it before when we created gateways to GPO Access and were so successful that GPO had to stop charging for access and start cooperating with this grass-roots effort.

We also really need to come to grips with the fact that government information is on YouTube, Twitter, Qik, Facebook, etc. We need to accept that the overlap is rapidly increasing between clearly-official government information, and unofficial-but-important information (think: Hormuz incident), and grey-area political information, and public-officials-in-the-public-arena information. We need to accept that more and more government agencies are going to have publicly accessible comments from the public as agencies attempt to engage the public directly with e-government initiatives. We need to face the fact that no algorithm or group of highly-trained bibliographers is going to always succeed is accurately parsing all this and coming up with a universally agreed upon set of information that we call “government information.”

So we need ways of melding information that we get from different sources in ways that are useful and informative. And, we also need ways of selecting what to preserve and we need metadata so that users can understand provenance and make their own evaluations of authenticity, currency, and usefulness.

But I also think that libraries have a unique role to play in enabling mashups and remixes and that is the building of digital collections.

No other person or organization or group or institution is better positioned than libraries (and FDLP libraries in particular) to select, acquire, organize, and preserve digital information. No one is more committed than libraries to providing service and free access. And, let’s face it, no one else will.

Values.

So that leads me to my second point: the values that librarians and libraries bring to the table. Whether we are talking about government information in the abstract, or civic engagement, or technological change, or long-term preservation and access, or “the future of libraries,” libraries and librarians bring a unique combination of perspectives and values that transcend the interests of the many other valuable stakeholders of these issues.

Clifford Lynch made a similar point recently. Listen to his brief Summation and Closing Observations (Audio [MP3 19 min.]) at the Association of Research Libraries, Coalition for Networked Information Fall Forum, October 16-17, 2008 in Arlington, Virginia (Reinventing Science Librarianship: Models for the Future, October 2008). At around the 13-14 minute mark he begins to talk about the Values that librarians bring to the conversation.

Perhaps even more importantly, when we look at the challenges we all face under the current economic crisis, it is libraries that are better positioned than anyone else to act on these values and get them funded.

A long time ago, a faculty member told me that the library was everyone’s second priority. Everyone values the library, but everyone values their own department, grant, job, mission first. But right after their own mission, everyone wants (and needs!) some institution to take responsibility for long-term preservation and free access to information. And this requires an institution for whom this mission is a first priority — not a second priority or a secondary benefit of another priority. And, yes, I’m thinking of government agencies, including GPO. One can claim, as GPO does that “There has been a paradigm shift in preservation of depository materials” but you will look in vain in the GPO Access Act, for the words “preservation” or “long-term” or “permanent.” And, yes, I am also thinking of Google, and the entire private sector. As much as we love their products, their mission is to make money; access is a secondary by-product of that mission.

I believe that society needs someone to select, acquire, organize, and preserve information. I believe that we will lose information if we rely on information producers to preserve information for the long term and we will lose free, open access if we rely on those who see their “content” as an “asset.” I believe that we need an organization that will not just provide long term preservation and free access, but that will fight for it: fight against proprietary formats, restrictive licensing agreements, and DRM restrictions, and fight for open access, open formats, and Fair Use.

I tend to look at libraries and the FDLP this way: if someone does all of these things, what would we call that entity but “a library”?

And who is in a better position to be “a library” than … libraries?

As I said earlier:

We read so often of libraries trying to “redefine” themselves in the digital age and trying to justify their existence to people who think that google is a library, that ad-hoc solutions to preservation are good enough, and that the government will provide free access to all of its information forever for free.

For those librarians who don’t believe all those myths, here is a simple way to reinvent your library: insist on digital deposit by the government and establish your library as a digital Federal DEPOSITORY Library.

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