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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Funding Collections and Services in the Public Interest

Do you ever worry about funding for your library? Have you ever thought about how to get a grant to help your library? Do you wonder about how you might attract grant funding to a library in the age of Google and the Web?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I recommend the article Digital Infrastructure and Public Interest by Vince Stehle, in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Fall 2008.

(I posted a link to this article a few days ago but, after John referred to it in his 66 Days to Government Information Liberation post, I wanted to follow up a bit and mention why I think the Stehle article is important for libraries. This also gives me an opportunity to contribute some more to the excellent discussion that John is facilitating about Government Information Liberation.)

Stehle is a program director at the Surdna Foundation, which makes grants in the areas of environment, community revitalization, effective citizenry, the arts, and the nonprofit sector, and he was writing for Grantmakers in the Arts Reader. In addressing his audience of grantmakers, foundations, and people who support non-profits he says that there is an opportunity and even “an imperative” for foundations to support non-commercial work and help build “a public interest infrastructure” that will “promote the free exchange of knowledge over the Internet.”

In specifically emphasizing the need for non-commercial support he says that we cannot rely on the private sector to operate in the broad public interest except as that interest translates into profit:

“While there are billions of dollars in Silicon Valley venture firms seeking to invest in the next Google, Facebook, or YouTube, there is no equivalent capital pool available for investment in the expansion of social enterprises operating in the public interest.”

We often make that point here at FGI and extend it to those in government who see their information content as an “asset” and a source of needed dollars and not as a public good that should be in the public domain, freely and openly available for use and reuse. As Stehle says:

“So the real challenge is for grantmakers to figure out how to effectively identify, vet, and support promising new media and information services that put the public interest before commercial profits.” [emphasis added]

I believe we in libraries should listen to Stehle’s message and think about what it means for grant support for libraries. After all, most (all?) libraries are non-profits, and so many of our best libraries (and certainly our FDLP libraries) explicitly support the public interest, and libraries need funding to do their work.

To put this in a library context, I think we need to think about what libraries have to offer that other institutions and grant seekers do not. As I mentioned in an earlier post, libraries — because of their values of free, equitable, open public access to information — are better positioned than anyone else to seek and get funding for those very kinds of activities that Stehle describes.

But, how do we differentiate libraries from others? What are our unique roles? Many libraries are struggling to define their roles and purposes in society. John picks up on this and says that Stehle is one of those who “argue from the perspective, the library/web morphing together into some kind of global resource is a done deal.” (I disagree with John on this; I don’t see where Stehle says this or anything like it.)

John seems to be saying (correct me if I am wrong) that the center of libraries’ responsibilities has shifted because there are new distribution mechanisms and because we have new abilities to make better use of information. He says that it (the role of libraries?) “is something no longer centered on possession and/or control….”

I think this is a grave mistake. While I agree strongly with John that libraries can and should use technology to “knit together the medium of governance (politics, policy, law, and programs) with how our communities use the civic message to inform their daily lives,” I also believe that possession and control of information is an essential, primary role for libraries. If we do not possess copies of information and control where it is and control its very existence (keep it from disappearing or being altered or lost), we cannot do the exciting mashups that we want to do.

I also think that, while libraries can and should use technology to “knit” and “weave” information from a lot of different sources (see: collections, services, and “mini-libarians”), I don’t think that this is a unique role for libraries — nor should it be. What libraries can do that is unique, though, is select, acquire, organize, and preserve information and ensure that our services for that information make it possible for others to do their own “knitting and weaving.”

In short, libraries can make the case that one of their roles in society is to maintain digital collections that others can use and reuse and mix and mashup. We can make the case that society will lose information if it relies only on information-producers to preserve information for the long term and we can argue that society will lose free, open access if we rely on those who see their “content” as an “asset.” We can make the case that libraries are non-profit, public-interest organizations that will guarantee long term preservation and free access to information. We can argue that if the information is not preserved, there will be nothing to share and knit and mash-up. We can argue that libraries facilitate information use and reuse.

But, don’t take my word for it. Re-read the excellent article Managing Digital Assets in Higher Education: An Overview of Strategic Issues by Donald J. Waters from 2005 (or my brief summary and comment of it). Or read the paper that Stehle refers to, Sustainable Public Media Infrastructure which describes non-profit organizations that are creating permanent, sustainable public knowledge and communications infrastructure that is designed for public benefit. Then reflect on the primary, central importance of permanent digital collections in libraries.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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