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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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4 Comments

  1. dcornwall says:

    Hi John,

    I’m not sure what comments about Public Printers have to do with creating a consensus among the documents community, but I thought I’d comment on this entry anyway.

    When you say

    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.

    It makes it sound like you may feel that the selection of a new Public Printer is premature.

    While Robert Tapella has done good work in bringing FDSys from concept to beginning reality, it is true that he is a lame duck now that there is a new President. It’s part of the transition. Clinton era Public Printer Michael DiMario understood that in 2001, according to GPO’s Administrative Notes for September 10, 2001:

    Michael DiMario started by saying that he is a “holdover” awaiting word from the White House. According to an agreement between the White House and the new President’s transition team, agencies headed by a statutory appointee can keep at least one such appointee until a new appointee is nominated, confirmed, and appointed. DiMario has no idea of the timeframe.

    As President Bush got to appoint Bruce James and later Robert Tapella, now President Obama gets to have his choice. With his Administration’s stated goal of getting as much data on to the web in a standard, reusable, mashable, format, it’s hard to see a better candidate than Carl Malamud.

    It would be interesting to see how Carl would handle the GPO Sales Program, which is just as much a part of Title 44 as the Depository Program is. Perhaps the people who want significant revisions to Title 44 would get their wish if “Public Printer Carl Malamud” decided GPO needed Congress to legislate the program away. I have no idea if that is his position — I’m just speculating.

    The other thing that intrigued me in this posting was your comments on “America’s Operating System.” In your comments you did not reference Carl Malamud’s definition. His definition can be found in several places, including his plan to reform the Federal Register:

    A large stream of other documents come from the legislative branch and judiciary, forming a collection of primary legal materials that make up “America’s Operating System,” the rules that govern our society.

    If we turn to the how the real world term “operating system” is defined, we find:

    An operating system (commonly abbreviated to either OS or O/S) is an interface between hardware and applications; it is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the limited resources of the computer. The operating system acts as a host for applications that are run on the machine. As a host, one of the purposes of an operating system is to handle the details of the operation of the hardware. This relieves application programs from having to manage these details and makes it easier to write applications.

    Source: Wikipedia, but it looks like other definitions I’ve seen in printed computer dictionaries.

    This sounds like budgets, laws, and regulations to me. They set up the environment in which government functions and shares out the limited resources of the nation. It handles (ideally) the details of the operations of the government. This seems like a useful concept to me.

    And Carl Malamud’s promise to make “America’s Operating System” open source seems clear and concrete in this instance and I wish him well.

    ————————————

    "And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them." — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

  2. dcornwall says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment. I now feel I understand why you included discussion of the Public Printer in your “Won’t be fooled again” series on building consensus in the documents community.

    The Public Printer is important to the FDLP for the reasons you say, but I don’t think that he (or she) belongs in a discussion on building consensus in the documents community.

    I believe I view this consensus building exercise ideally cumulating in a series of priorities along with a set of concrete actions that most depository libraries and their allies are willing to take. I feel we need to focus on things under our control. Undertaking projects like Government Information Online, USDOCS PLN, Govdoc Kids, Gov4U, DOSFAN and the 2008 web transition spidering are under our control. Forging common advocacy positions through GODORT, AALL and other such organizations is under our control. But selecting a Public Printer is not under our control as much as I’d like it to be.

    Certainly we could try to do a straw poll of docs librarians or get our professional associations to make a recommendation for Public Printer, but I think we’re better off focusing on the things we can do regardless of who is Public Printer. Then we’ll be clear on when we can work together with the Public Printer and when we have to offer constructive criticism.

    Just my two cents.

    ————————————

    "And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them." — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote.

  3. shuler says:

    Daniel: thanks for your thoughtful response. I would say the emphasis is on history and continuity, not premature. When you say —

    I’m not sure what comments about Public Printers have to do with creating a consensus among the documents community, but I thought I’d comment on this entry anyway.

    The Public Printer is responsible for the federal depository library program and supervises the Superintendent of Documents. Current and future people who serve in this office, their qualifications, policies, and experience, are foundational to the success of the depository library program’s future. With the potential of Obama making his own choice for Public Printer, encouraging discussion and consensus among librarians who serve the depository library community is crucial to this process.

  4. jrjacobs says:

    Yes the public printer is an extremely important position. Unfortunately, at least in my memory, they have not all been consensus-seeking individuals who see the continuing need for the FDLP. Malamud, on the other hand — as a technologist, author, internet pioneer, and public domain advocate — has a long and active history of working with govt entities (and against them :-) ) and working with consensus-driven technology communities to get “documents to the people.” His 7-point plan jibes pretty closely with John’s 4-point elevator pitch and takes into account the public/democratic need for better access to and preservation of government information in all formats and the importance of highly skilled librarians and the GPO workforce in that process. It is for these reasons that we’re excited about the possibility that he could be the next public printer of the US.

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