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We’ve nominated Aaron Swartz for the ALA James Madison award and you should too!

Even before we learned of Aaron Swartz’s passing last friday, several colleagues and I were in the midst of writing letters nominating Aaron for the ALA James Madison Award which was established by the ALA in 1986 to “honor individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s “right to know” on the national level.”

We write now to ask all of our readers to also submit letters in support. The deadline for letter submission is January 16, 2013, so get a move on!

Send e-mail nominations to Jessica McGilvray, Assistant Director for the ALA Office of Government Relations, at [email protected] Submissions can also be mailed to:

James Madison Award / Eileen Cooke Award
American Library Association
Washington Office
1615 New Hampshire Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009-2520

To help you in your letter writing, below are the nominating and seconding letters we submitted. Feel free to copy/paste for your own letter of support.

Many thanks go to Bruce Sanders, librarian at DePauw University, and Kelsey Kauffman, the mother of Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, for putting the idea of nominating Aaron for the Madison Award out in the universe and doing much of the work that went into the nomination.

To: Jessica McGilvray
Re: Nomination of Aaron Swartz for ALA James Madison Award

Dear Ms. McGilvray:

I am writing to nominate Aaron Swartz for the 2013 American Library Association James Madison Award. Aaron was the computer programmer who in 2008 downloaded nearly 20 million pages of text from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records System (PACER), and then donated the pages of public domain US Court documents to public.resource.org in order to make those documents truly open access. This act was the epitome of promoting open access of government documents.

Like many earlier Madison honorees, Aaron has been an outspoken advocate and practitioner of open access. In fact, it is fair to say that much of his life was devoted to open access. Through his online organization DemandProgress.org, now a million members strong, Aaron educated a large segment of the population about the dangers of PIPA and SOPA and led highly effective campaigns in opposition. As a result, he engaged millions of ordinary citizens in the political process and put Congress on notice that Internet censorship will be vigorously opposed by large swaths of the voting (and soon-to-be-voting) public. In 2007, at the age of 20, he founded Open Library, an ongoing project to provide information free-of-charge on every book ever published. In 2008 he penned “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.”

Aaron also conducted a study on “Who Writes Wikipedia” that exploded the myth that a small core of Wikipedians is responsible for most of the content (though they are responsible for most of the edits). The reality — that Wikipedia is, in fact, the creation of millions of mostly one-time contributors — has provided us with one of the best examples of the power and quality of open source collaboration.

Past recipients of the Madison Award, such as Senator Patrick Leahy, Steven Garfinkel, Thomas Susman and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, have usually been established and highly effective advocates either within government or organizations close to seats of power. But in many ways the driving force today behind the open access movement is a younger generation raised with the understanding that knowledge can and should be shared not just nationally, but also globally, and without paywalls.

Aaron Swartz embodied this younger generation’s passionate commitment to open government, free and universal access to knowledge, and an informed civil society. He is truly deserving of receiving this award posthumously.

Respectfully submitted,

Bruce Sanders
Head of Cataloging and Processing
Roy O. West Library
DePauw University

Seconding letter:

To: Jessica McGilvray
Re: Nomination of Aaron Swartz for ALA James Madison Award

Dear Ms McGilvray,

The nominating letter by our colleague Bruce Sanders discusses reasons why Aaron Swartz should be nominated for the 2013 James Madison Award for his articulate and passionate leadership against SOPA and for devoting his life to promoting open access to scholarly and government information. As the New York Times described him in a 2011 front-page article, Aaron was “an Internet folk hero … a civil liberties activist who crusades for open access to data.” Aaron, in the spirit of the ALA Library Bill of Rights, believed that academic work and government information should not be commodified but instead distributed freely. He devoted his short but unimaginably prodigious life to his ideals. We wholeheartedly second Aaron’s posthumous nomination.

As noted in the nominating letter, Aaron was a pioneer in the new academic research methods of large-scale data collection and analysis. Aaron had extensive experience downloading and analyzing massive data sets, and in the process greatly enhanced our understanding of who controls access to knowledge—from correcting erroneous assumptions about who in fact authors most material on Wikipedia to raising alarms about undue corporate influence over legal scholarship. Aaron was studying the corrupting influence of money on a wide range of institutions including academia and government when his JSTOR troubles began.

His act of downloading articles from JSTOR for intellectual pursuit should have been encouraged and supported. Instead, it led the US government to indict and threaten him with 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine for wire- and computer fraud even after JSTOR refused to pursue criminal charges. Yet, until the end, Aaron never wavered from his ideals nor gave up his integrity.

The world and Libraries need more Aaron Swartz’s. We hope that the ALA will join us in honoring Aaron’s leadership in protecting the Internet from censorship and corporate interests and his life-long commitment to open access to scholarship and government information for every person on the planet. Aaron’s passing this week has motivated many people around the world to carry on his torch by uploading and freely sharing their writings on the Internet in his memory. We hope that ALA will honor Aaron by not only giving him the 2013 Madison Award, but also fostering his ideals and forwarding his work.

Respectfully submitted,

Shinjoung Yeo
PhD candidate and co-founder of Radical Reference and Free government Information

James Jacobs
Government Information Librarian and co-founder of Radical Reference and Free government Information

Brief Biography of Aaron Swartz:

Aaron Swartz’s, brief biography:
• Born 1986, Chicago, Illinois
• 1999 at the age of 13 creates a program for an open source encyclopedia, theinfo.org
• 2000 co-authored the RSS 1.0 standard for news aggregation
• 2001
o joined the founding team of Creative Commons and developed their metadata system
o joined the RDF Core Working Group, the standards body for the Web
o worked on the semantic web writing popular guides as well as specifications and co-wrote the article, “The Semantic Web: a Network of Content for the Digital City,” Proceedings Second Annual Digital Cities Workshop, Kyoto, Japan, October, 2001.
• 2002 wrote, “MusicBrainz: a Semantic Web Service,” IEEE Intelligent Systems, Jan./Feb., 2002 pp. 76-77.
• 2004 attended Stanford University for one year.
• 2005-2006 works for Reddit and develops the Python web framework, web.py, and releases it as an open-source project and also conducts study “Who Writes Wikipedia”
• 2007 developed Open Library, an open access project to collect metadata about every book ever published
• 2008 downloaded 20 million pages from PACER and made them truly public access
• 2010
o founds Demand Progress and begins activism that eventually defeats COICA, SOPA and PIPA bills
o fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
o charged for crimes in relation to downloading 4 million JSTOR articles
• Dies January 2013

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  1. Ms. McGilivray,

    I deeply regret that I did not send this letter prior to Aaron Swartz’s death, so that it now becomes a request for his posthumous recognition by the American Library Association’s “James Madison Award”. Nevertheless, this letter expresses the respect and admiration that I felt for him during his life, and that merit his recognition by the American Library Association.

    As a long-time member of ALA, I have always been particularly inspired by the thoughtful awards made to those who further access to information and knowledge in all its forms. Aaron Swartz perfectly exemplifies those who have worked tirelessly to ensure the furtherance of librarian values. His first accomplishment, working to release court documents for public access via RECAP, would by itself be sufficient to merit this recognition. But Swartz went on to work in this struggle in so many other ways: From leading the movement to defeat SOPA/PIPA, to helping to establish the Open Library project, to contributing personal knowledge as a team member of numerous crowd-sourcing knowledge applications like Wikipedia — Swartz contributed his intellect, his creativity, and his passion, to this struggle.

    Some have suggested that the criminal charges being pursued against him by the US Department of Justice call into question his moral character or cast a pall on his activist history. I disagree most strongly, and hope that the American Library Association resists the simple equivocations that “accused” means “guilty”, which means “immoral”.

    Let us set aside the non-trivial objection that Swartz was innocent until proven guilty. I would prefer to focus on the motivations behind his actions, and the actual results of those actions. His motivations were, without question, on the side of increasing access to knowledge, an access that is now fully recognized by librarians and scholars alike to be hindered rather than helped by a historical accident of business models and laws. The open access movement is rapidly evolving to provide full access to information going forward, but Swartz rightfully identified that existing scholarship threatened to become the “orphan works” of the future. While many who agreed with his assessment may have disagreed with his tactics in the JStor hack, there can be no disagreement that his motives were the same as those of librarians everywhere: to foster greater access to information. In short, Swartz’s actions were driven by the same ethics held by librarians who have resisted censorship, civil rights activists who have engaged in civil disobedience, and activists everywhere who step across lines in order to remedy a wrong.

    As to what harms were done, JStor’s actions speak best: They dropped their charges shortly after discovering the action, concluding that Aaron Swartz had harmed neither JStor, nor its contributing authors and journals.

    The US Attorney’s office continued its case, notwithstanding the lack of an injured party. Speculation may be rife as to why — a legal policy to expand the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) (advancing a legal theory already rejected by the 9th Circuit), personal animus stemming from Swartz’s unquestionably legal release of PACER court records into a publicly accessible database, a desire to have Swartz serve as “an example” to hackers and information activists.

    Whatever their reasoning, the American Library Association needs to consider just two things: (1) Did Aaron Swartz’s work help and not hinder the causes he sought to advance — was he effective? without harm to others? and (2) Did Aaron Swartz commit his entire life to “champion, protect and promote public access to government information and the public’s ‘right to know’ on the national level”. To both these questions, the answer is unquestionably YES.

    I am pleased to nominate Aaron Swartz for the James Madison Award. I greatly regret that I never, during his life, shared with him my respect for his accomplishments and my pleasure and gratitude at his successes. It is my hope that formal recognition of his achievements by the American Library Association inspires other librarians and activists, and provides to his family and loved ones a small measure of the pleasure and pride they rightfully took in his accomplishments.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Laura Quilter, JD, MLS
    Copyright and Information Policy Librarian
    University of Massachusetts Amherst

  2. jrjacobs says:

    Thanks for sharing your letter Laura. I hope ALA receives thousands of letters like yours!

  3. Regina Kelly says:

    Second the nomination!

  4. Dale Pastor says:

    Public library staff seconds nomination.

  5. jrjacobs says:

    We were tempted to just delete this comment as it does not forward the conversation in any substantive way. As the post stated — but this anonymous commenter ignored — we were in the process of nominating Aaron *before* the news of his death came out. We’ve cited Aaron and his work on FGI since at least 2008 and hold him and his work in the highest regard. Our nomination is neither cliche nor “just plain sad.” Our hope is that this nomination will in some small way remind us all to continue Aaron’s fight for social justice and free and equitable access to information.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Nominating someone 4 their contribution after passing is so cliche…and frankly just plain sad that most ppl only bothered to recognise his efforts now

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