As government information librarians, we need to start getting serious about our contributions to thinking about our future roles as cogs in the civic machinery. I mean, if the computer folk can weigh in on the topic of "open government" with a response the blends a number of professional perspectives into a structured and coherent document -- can librarians of government information stripes do no less?
I know I might sound like a broken record here, but several of national professional associations are trying to rally the troops through specific discussions, white papers, and organized discussions. These include (but not limited to) --
the Federal Depository Library Council
the Association of Research Libraries
the American Library Association
Much of the focus of these groups is on the future shape of the federal depository library system. Points to be considered include --
How and what will libraries collect
What are the new models of public service
What roles can libraries play in the preservation of government information
What can we do with other levels of government: local, regional, national, international.
What are the new models of organization for effective government information service in our libraries?
Respond to my daily posts. Submit your own posts. Write white papers. Contribute to the discussion. Our future roles and effectiveness are ours to lose.
The Obama administration is well into the civic wilderness of administration at the national level. Several nominations have faltered and failed. The extremely critical , and massive, economic recovery legislation is wallowing in the half-century
long trench philosophical warfare between democrats and republicans. Obama attempts to include the republicans in the discussion, they continue to hold their approval. So far the age of bipartisan tranquility is still aborning. Though the election in November clearly pointed the way to a desired change, our political parties do not want to follow the suggestion.
While the quick cannon shot of opportunity fades with time, the Government Printing Office announced today the first public release of FDsys. Described as
"a one-stop site to authentic, published government information. FDsys allows GPO to receive information from federal agencies in all three branches of government and create a repository for permanent, public access. More than 154,000 documents are currently accessible, with additional documents being added daily. FDsys offers incredible search capabilities for users such as: searching by Congressional Committee, a Member of Congress, keyword and date. FDsys will replace GPOAccess in mid-2009 and releases with additional functionality will occur throughout the next several years."
The upshot for this small milestone on the journey to ALA's summer conference -- the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have our work cut out for us. While the GPO continues to evolve in many good ways, and while we have a President whose rhetoric and policy perspective mirrors our own civic sensibilities, we should not be too surprised by the staying power of partisan muck to gum up the civic machinery of hope and change.
See you on Day 15.
Almost two weeks gone since Liberation Day. I got to say the signs are still thumbs up for the optimists who believe government, and its information infrastructure, can be a positive force in our country. Obama talks of upgrading the digital aspects of the health care system; parts of the economic recovery legislation moving through Congress want to throw billions of dollars at securing broadband access to areas and communities now without any easy access to the web. And the debacle regarding the switch to digital television by February 17 might be mitigated by a four month extension.
So librarians, and their allies, still have reason to hope -- but there are some cautionary tales out there. In Slate magazine there is an article about the digital poverty in the National Archives. And the New York Times throws cold cautionary water on the hot possibilities the stimulus package would level the digital playing field. It is the old "if we build it they will come" debate. What I find more interesting is the intersection between this story and the delay in digital television switch over. The ostensible reason the broadcast TV grid is going digital is provide more of the public's broadcast spectrum to other information streams, like accessing the internet. So where are the dots connected here? Here is an interesting article that touches upon these nuances -- Broadband access for all: The economic and political implications of municipal wireless networks.
See you on Day 14.
I was talking to a colleague of mine today, he is an urban planner professor, and he was telling me what a wonderful time it was for his area of study. Suddenly, he told his students, everyone is talking about strategy and making plans to fix things, repair long-standing problems, stimulate that, and direct this. Clearly, after nearly thirty years of suffering from those political and cultural elites who belittled any support of organized government intervention to mitigate the more savage aspects of a free market, he sounded like a man who suddenly woke up speaking in a language others understood.
Is it not so for libraries and librarians? For years we argued of the rightful place that our institutions serve to our communities. But we seemed to be out of touch with the political imagination of most of our elected officials (at all levels of government.) Traditional and new economic players (from national bookstore chains to Google)were beating us in our own arena of expertise -- getting information to people. But economic dislocation creates chaos and opportunity. Might one argue that this kind of turmoil invites a new conversation on how we sustain our institutions in this environment for the long haul? As I pointed out several times during the last few weeks, many of our professional associations, along with the Government Printing Office, are seeking ways to pull together to discuss these changes. There are many opportunities to contribute, if not think, to these changes.
One of the better overviews of the coming economic/policy revolution was published in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, and here is a relevant section --
"ONE GOOD WAY TO UNDERSTAND the current growth slowdown is to think of the debt-fueled consumer-spending spree of the past 20 years as a symbol of an even larger problem. As a country we have been spending too much on the present and not enough on the future. We have been consuming rather than investing. We’re suffering from investment-deficit disorder.
You can find examples of this disorder in just about any realm of American life. Walk into a doctor’s office and you will be asked to fill out a long form with the most basic kinds of information that you have provided dozens of times before. Walk into a doctor’s office in many other rich countries and that information — as well as your medical history — will be stored in computers. These electronic records not only reduce hassle; they also reduce medical errors. Americans cannot avail themselves of this innovation despite the fact that the United States spends far more on health care, per person, than any other country. We are spending our money to consume medical treatments, many of which have only marginal health benefits, rather than to invest it in ways that would eventually have far broader benefits.
Along similar lines, Americans are indefatigable buyers of consumer electronics, yet a smaller share of households in the United States has broadband Internet service than in Canada, Japan, Britain, South Korea and about a dozen other countries. Then there’s education: this country once led the world in educational attainment by a wide margin. It no longer does. And transportation: a trip from Boston to Washington, on the fastest train in this country, takes six-and-a-half hours. A trip from Paris to Marseilles, roughly the same distance, takes three hours — a result of the French government’s commitment to infrastructure.
These are only a few examples. Tucked away in the many statistical tables at the Commerce Department are numbers on how much the government and the private sector spend on investment and research — on highways, software, medical research and other things likely to yield future benefits. Spending by the private sector hasn’t changed much over time. It was equal to 17 percent of G.D.P. 50 years ago, and it is about 17 percent now. But spending by the government — federal, state and local — has changed. It has dropped from about 7 percent of G.D.P. in the 1950s to about 4 percent now.
Governments have a unique role to play in making investments for two main reasons. Some activities, like mass transportation and pollution reduction, have societal benefits but not necessarily financial ones, and the private sector simply won’t undertake them. And while many other kinds of investments do bring big financial returns, only a fraction of those returns go to the original investor. This makes the private sector reluctant to jump in. As a result, economists say that the private sector tends to spend less on research and investment than is economically ideal.
Historically, the government has stepped into the void. It helped create new industries with its investments. Economic growth has many causes, including demographics and some forces that economists admit they don’t understand. But government investment seems to have one of the best track records of lifting growth. In the 1950s and ’60s, the G.I. Bill created a generation of college graduates, while the Interstate System of highways made the entire economy more productive. Later, the Defense Department developed the Internet, which spawned AOL, Google and the rest. The late ’90s Internet boom was the only sustained period in the last 35 years when the economy grew at 4 percent a year. It was also the only time in the past 35 years when the incomes of the poor and the middle class rose at a healthy pace. Growth doesn’t ensure rising living standards for everyone, but it sure helps."
If Washington is going to be the center of our economic future, its outliers will be government information. An opportunity for government information librarians to get themselves back in the frame.
See you on Day 13.
Another indication that we might have crossed a threshold in our civic and political discourse. Today's Washington Post has a long article about Obama's week old presidency trying to redefine the debate among the political parties. In one particular passage, there is the hope that he shares with many government information librarians that the fullness of the debate, and difference of view, are more important to a democracy then scoring political points. Here is the relevant passage:
"The uncertainty over just how the new president defines bipartisanship traces back to the campaign trail. When Obama called for an end to "broken and divided politics," his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.
But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing "broken politics" is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama waxes nostalgic about the fellowship and vigorous debate of Congress's halcyon days in the mid-20th century more than about the centrist deals the era produced.
Obama's bipartisanship "was as much about style, collegiality and civilness as it was actual movement on issues," said state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, who was Obama's closest Republican ally in the Illinois legislature. Obama did compromise on major bills on ethics and the death penalty as a state senator, but there were limits, Dillard said: "He always listened to the other side and would move to some degree, but his bipartisanship was clearly about the tone and the way you treat one another . . . and trying to understand the other side -- and not necessarily all about caving in.""
If he can eject even a smidgen of civility back into the discourse...that would be a good thing.
See you Day 12
The political and social mix continues to churn across our layers of government. Impeachment of a sitting governor in Illinois (the first in the land of Lincoln in over a century); budget crisis in California forcing unpaid furloughs of government workers and loss of funding for critical medical, social, and education programs. Not to mention the further widespread layoffs throughout all sectors of the economy.
Library opportunities for civic engagement abound -- if we can just organize ourselves and our institutions to do so. Though, I well know from experience, the pressures bearing down outside the library are wreaking their own pressures on our own bibliographic decisions. This internal tension may suggest that we duck and cover during the storm. I would suggest that, in a profoundly contrary way, it may be the best time to reach out to our communities and engage them. I am sure there are hundreds of examples out there where special, public and academic libraries alike are reaching out to their communities in specific ways to help deal with the cascading social, economic and political turmoil. Here is one instance, from the Oak Park Library, that speaks to this -- watch the videos here and here. And this rather well designed web page about the event here. Note the emphasis on access to demographic and census information.
See you on Day 11.
One of the future problems for a proactive system of depository libraries is to wrestle with the shift from a model based passive receipt of material sent from a central public authority (regardless of the format)to one where the art of collections and service are more directed and determined by a deliberative plan by the local institution.
It always struck me that the model the depository library program should consider is one that uses a coordinated approach and use of the Freedom of Information Act to pry information from the federal government (or the various state governments, for that matter.) In one of my thought experiments I try to imagine a depository library program based on this mechanism of information release -- how would it be different from the century old traditions of our current depository program?
The National Security Archives release of its basic FOIA handbook just might move this speculation to reality...if a few libraries are will to pull together.
See you on Day 10
With the House voting on the Obama's economic recovery today, and the Senate taking up its consideration in the coming two week, I go back to my earlier themes about Talking Back to Democracy.
Somehow, someway -- if libraries want to maintain any kind of relevance in this whitewater churn of rapid economic and political change -- we are going to have to embrace some kind of proactive stance to put the importance of government information in front of our communities every day, week, month. Not enough institutions are "connecting the dots" for people out there....libraries (and especially government information librarians) do this.
See you on Day 9.
There is something bracing about a Congress, or a congressional committee, that embraces its oversight and investigatory powers with a kind of constitutional "old testament" righteousness. Our constitutional founders created a divided government for very good reasons -- and even though this model of shared governance amongst three co-equal branches is messy, inefficient, and at times politically distasteful -- when the pendulum of "checks and balances" gains a particular civic rhythm, the insights and research unleashed are extremely satisfying.
Exhibit A in this democratic discourse is the House Judiciary Committee report: REINING IN THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY: Lessons and Recommendations Relating to
the Presidency of George W. Bush. This 487 page report details many of the long-standing objections about how President Bush chose to exercise his authority -- often at the expense of the people and other branches of government. That is not to say, obviously, that the other branches were innocent bystanders in this constitutional encroachment. When the Congress was under the thumb of either republicans or democrats, our legislative leaders showed little constitutional backbone to push back against the presidents power grab. Only the supreme court demonstrated some sense of the limitations on Bush's treatment of the war prisoners.
Of particular interest to this community is the report's Section 5: Government in the Shadows: Executive Privilege, Secrecy, and the Manipulation of Intelligence and Section 4 – Misuse of Executive Branch Authority. As we enter a new political season that attempts to walk back the cat on many of these policies and programs, I can think of no better primer that enables any engaged citizen/librarian on what went wrong and how to get back to a more reasonable constitutional ecosystem.
See you on Day 8.
I got to thinking about all the changes and initiatives launched by the Obama Administration during its first week in power -- which sources of information should transcend the political elections? In other words, as librarians shouldn't we argue that certain categories of federal government information should remain consistent and accessible regardless of which political party rules the White House or in the halls of Congress. For instance, shouldn't there be a standard and predictable form for a press briefing transcript? Compare how the White House handles this with the approach of the State Department. With the State Department the form of the briefing as an actual transcript remains the same from Secretary of State to another. With the Obama press briefings, we get summaries (blog posts) rather than actual transcripts (which were more common with the Bush and Clinton administrations.)
Preservation of individual web sites is important. Continuity of essential civic information from one political change to another is equally important.
See you on day 7.