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Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 35

Now that Dan, Jim, James and I are done with our latest skirmish – let’s get back to the future of government information. With people actually expressing interest — with such openness – in becoming America’s Public Printer (obviously FGI’s great hope); and with a current Public Printer still actively engaged in the job — I figure this is the best of all possible worlds — suddenly the idea of becoming Public Printer of the United States is hip and desirable.

Setting aside any of my own thoughts about what qualifies someone for the office that may differ from FGI’s leadership — here are a few points any sitting and potential Public Printer ought to keep in mind. It’s what I have said and would say to a Public Printer (I have spoken to a few of them over my 25 years as a federal depository librarian) – think of it as a four point elevator speech.

1. Technology is a wonderful thing. GPO is making great strides in several critical areas. One would hope these efforts will continue to embrace openness, standardization, preservation, authority and sustainability.

2. Libraries and librarians are wonderful things. If we tear our eyes from technology’s dazzle, I think there is a greater power to sustain a true engagement of civic culture through the retention, recruitment and collaboration with the over 1,200 existing depository libraries. Right now Library directors, governing boards, and librarians themselves want some sense from GPO about how it is going to act on this century and half cultural investment in their local institutions. We know, from long experience with earlier Public Printers, command and control (it comes from Washington and it shall be done) no longer works in this distributive age of power and access. We also know librarians and their institutions can be surprisingly nimble in their adaption of technological solutions to situations both unique to their community as well as beneficial to the rest of the system. Public agencies and libraries can deliver the data, indeed, and some power users can take that raw data and turn it into knowledge. But the will investment brought to the table is the ability of librarians and libraries to add there own social value to the raw public knowledge — through organization, preservation, community outreach, and civic advocacy to involve the community in critical civic decision points. If a Public Printer’s portfolio does not clearly take advantage of this long-standing local civic value to enliven a national system, then the depository library community needs to put it back at the top of his agenda.

3. The engaged civic aspects of the government’s intellectual property is a wonderful thing. Sustained by the intersection of GPO’s historic purpose to print and publish and the commitment of the library community. It is a collective bargain to keep the democratic discussion open, free, and at least interesting. If federal government is in the public domain, depository libraries are the information commons that thrive not because of the technology du jour, but because of the century long traditions of government information librarians, their home institutions, and the federal government. Any Public Printer worthy of the title would embrace this concept without reservation.

4. The civic operating system is a wonderful thing. Democracy’s “operating system” is not civic technology, it is not GPO, nor is it even the information infrastructure that supports the federal depository libraries. The civic operating system thrives on technology – but it is not of technology. This taps into my earlier blog entries about the comparability between power grids and information distribution. The operating system is really a combination of civic engagement and rhetoric unleashed by the Constitution. It is the electoral and civic conversation sustained between a community and the officials they elect to serve their individual and collective goals. This conversation is expressed through open meetings, robust exchange of information, accessible proceedings/decisions of public organizations that inform the public’s knowledge of services, security and justice. This aspect is further sustained by the constitutional values of a free press, freedom of assembly/petition, and the freedom of speech. What we are really talking about here is civic serendipity – the ability of people to engage their government on their terms and time. As the federal government develops web sites like recovery.gov to explain itself and its complicated policies, librarians must push back against displacement and they need to demonstrate how they can continue to keep people connected to their government.

As we debate, discuss, and move the depository program deeper into America’s 21st century digital age — I hope once and future Public Printers will continue to embrace the indigenous civic culture already thriving throughout the depository library program. At the same time, I hope the depository library community can move beyond its own institutional divisions (academic, public, law, special, government) and reach some kind of national consensus on the program’s future and work with the current GPO administration to get the job done, finish the strategic plan, and start making the necessary changes any future depository librarians and public printers would welcome.

See you on Day 36.

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