With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 now on its way to Obama for his signature, the question remains about what happens next. Word is Obama will be setting the stage for his next initiative -- a global fix on broken mortgages. Again, this demonstrates a clear set of scheduled (and unscheduled) events libraries of all types might use to promote a greater awareness about the implications of the soon to be enacted law (and subsequent policies and initiatives) for their communities. Recovery.gov is still aborning, profit and non-profit groups will offer, or do so now, there own web-enabled looks at the massive spending bill.
But, what strikes me as missing from these techno-centric transparency efforts is the inability to explain the politics (or the policy implications) behind the numbers. One small example -- when people look at Thomas' links to H.R. 1, they will find seven different versions of the bill (soon to be eight when the President makes it a public law on Tuesday.) No where in the Thomas web site is any of this explained. I am fully aware there are links to selected published guides produced by the House Clerk and Senate Secretary that explain the legislative process -- but how many times have seen the thousand yard stare displace interest in the eyes of users as you attempt to explain the treasure hunt in locating relevant information sources. I think the basic operating program of American civic engagement is not the information technology. It's these fundamental government information sources (laws, regulations, rules, court decisions, reports, studies, etc.) And the technology still can not deepen the necessary political and social contexts of how all these information sources relate to each other.
This one is for Daniel Cornwell --Imagine the possibilities if -- somehow, someway -- our several library associations were able to coordinate a national civic literacy program to enable trained and interested government information librarians to engage citizens in workshops, discussion groups, classes, and events that discuss and outline sources of information about the government's efforts to recover from the economic crises. This is the context building (and deepening) often missing from purely technological approaches.
See you Day 26.
Happy Valentines Day! Happy Stimulus Day! Late last night, the U.S. Senate signed off on the stimulus deal. Far from an object of attraction between political partisans (only three republicans (all Senators) voted in favor of the legislation) -- a significant victory for Obama and his plans to "reboot" our national political/social perspective nonetheless.
So, what will the various open government/civic information partisans do with this milestone? Perhaps it will give some hope that in spite of the lack of bipartisanship, it demonstrates a certain strength among democrats to hold their focus in face of strong republican push back. For the last fifty years, the democratic/liberal forces always seemed more receptive to the devices and desires of the free government information coalition. And the legislation itself represents a funding opportunity of a different kind, what with its millions of dollars slated for improvement in schools, universities, public libraries, and broadband infrastructure. Of course, who and when will get this federal bounty still remains to be seen.
But, again, it just one more indication that we live in a time beset by both dislocation and opportunity. And in the fog of economic turmoil it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. I go back to my call for some kind of professional unity among the library associations and groups on this important issue. At the risk of sounding like some old testament prophet wandering in from a desert to harangue a community -- a time of reckoning is upon us. The principal institutional arrangement for national access to government information -- the federal depository library system -- is in a period of strategic planning and reconsideration of its core mission. Governments are either rushing blindly, or deliberately, into the next stages of digital government. Special interest groups and other organizations are well down the road towards the articulation of an evolved new civic information structure that does not necessarily assume the necessity of libraries in the same way these ancient institutions served in earlier epochs of technology.
Participate in person, or virtually, in the upcoming Federal Depository Library council meeting in April. Note, especially, that the Public Printer is specifically asking library directors of depository institutions to come to Florida and participate. With many of these directors contemplating their future involvement in the depository program, and many more reorganizing stand-alone government information departments into mergers with other units, or out of existence all together -- you just have to know we are well past the tipping point. Change is going to come. It is just a question of how much we want to shape that change.
The Association of Research Libraries has launched a major study to consider the future structure of the federal depository library program. As the study's prospectus points out --
There is a need and opportunity to identify a sustainable framework that will provide access to and preservation of government information in the years ahead. A new framework will address financial sustainability as well as the essential components of infrastructure for collaboration among federal depository libraries and with other stakeholders. Working with consultants, ARL will identify and explore such a framework that permits flexibility in the future while ensuring enduring access and providing for the efficient management of the legacy collections to insure the broadest public access to government information. Such access has been the hallmark of the FDLP. The framework approach is proposed as an opportunity to specify one or more models for configuring collection resources, access infrastructure, and expertise that would optimally support the the interests of an informed public and the capacity of our Nation’s libraries.
When nearly 66 percent of the depository libraries are house in academic institutions, such an examination will have no small influence on many of those library directors being invited to Florida by the Public Printer.
And at this summer's annual ALA conference, the Council on Legislation will host a special session among all participating ALA chapters, divisions, and roundtables with a specific interest in the depository library program's future.
Just as Congress and the President struggle to work together in very difficult circumstances that challenge their constitutional prerogatives, especially steeped in the partisan bitterness that lingers from the last several national elections, so to will librarians and their allies need to come to terms and work together to build next century's civic information infrastructure. As a librarian with twenty-five years experience I really, really want my beloved institution to be part of that great project. As a student of our country's long running political and social conflicts, I know that what I want and what will happen is often determined by how much I am willing to join the discussion and the struggle in an effort to make that crucial difference. These next five months offer any number of opportunities to contribute. As I said in yesterday's blog -- a vibrant civic exchange of public information depends more on the sustainability of critical relationships between citizens and their government, and less on the methods/technology of civic information distribution.
And just as St. Valentine represents both the romantic notion of love and faithfulness, there is a much more complicated side to this particular martyr's faith -- a defiance of authority to honor relationships. As one account puts it --
... Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
One doesn't need to be a martyr. Just get involved.
See you on Day 25.
Tapping back into the "raw power" theme, I just read the New York Times article on Carl Malamud mentioned here by Jim Jacobs. I found the article curious for the simple reason that it equates "free" access to massive amounts of court records with power, and a good form of power, or what he calls the "operating system for democracy." Though this kind of rhetoric sparks the necessary energy to get people to leave their couches and join the open government brigade at the barricade, I think it also paints a too simplistic picture of the complex arrangement of constitutional and legal traditions that favor a highly evolved civic engagement.
Missing from the newspaper article's description of what happened to the PACER pilot project and its sudden suspension is the more messy aspects of democracy that try to balance privacy with open access, free access with the necessary infrastructure (that requires money and personnel to function) to sustain long-term availability of "raw data." This balancing act depends on a series of relationships between the courts, users, the GPO and its depository libraries. Simply downloading millions of pages, as one person did in California is not a relationship, it is simply a power surge that may or may not be made useful by people on the information grid.
However, as the article points out, Malamud does demand some level of privacy protection in these court documents, he puts that responsibility squarely back on the shoulders of the courts by pointing out that is the court's duty, and heavy lifting, to make sure this private information is not made publicly available.
What I would expect to see, if indeed Malamud is interested in becoming a future Public Printer is less focus on the power aspects of the information grid, and more focus on the redistribution stations necessary to make government information understandable, accessible, and sustainable over long periods of time. Libraries have done this for several millennium, and they will continue to do so with the different technologies now being deployed. It isn't a race to see who can make the most government information available. It should be a long engaged relationship between those in power and those the power serves to assure that the knowledge, information and necessary data are understood and usable by the citizen. Power without breakers or distribution centers only overwhelms, it does not inform.
The thing that strikes me as I look through the hundreds of pages of the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" is simply this -- how is any normal human being going to deal with this mishmash of legalese, policy descriptions, and billions upon billions of dollars in budget figures?
When we speak of the power of "raw data" the positive and pragmatic benefit of government information distribution rests primarily on the ability of people to do something with it. This action can not be determined by the power's distribution mechanism (much in the same way ComEd here in Illinois can't tell me which devices in my home I can and can not turn on -- they just charge me for the overall electricity I use.) Traditional libraries (paper and print universe) functioned much the same way -- people picked and chose information or media depending on what their particular needs might be. Librarians may intervene by limiting who can use the services, how many items can be used, or help users sort out what they might want to use.
The power of text clouding, or the ability to pull out different stands of information from a large and complicated information object -- such as what ProPublica did for the stimulus bill -- moves the power relationship from one of passive distribution dominated by personal choices to passive distribution influenced by deliberative contextualizing by a third party. In other words, this third party takes the "raw data" and refines it into another kind of information by-product that might be more significant or meaningful to users. In fact, I would argue many traditional government information sources (i.e. Public Papers of the Presidents, congressional committee reports, Foreign Relations of the United States, Federal Register, or the Code of Federal Regulations) are of this type. What the web offers is the opportunity to make and distribute a wider variety of public information by-products.
See you Day 23.
The new regimes in the White House and Capitol Hill continue their complicated policy waltz to seriously address the ongoing financial failures. Waiting for the turn on the dance card, advocates for free government information must surely grasp that the revelations and revolutions so hotly anticipated after last year's elections remain just that -- anticipations. We are still in tactical mode with our federal government (and state governments) when it comes to information technology and proactive and deliberative civic information policy. Yes -- agencies use social networking tools, cloud-computing and liberation of CRS reports by non-profit groups make more information easily accessible, and the use of twitter, blogs and otheer "push technologies" by elected officials deepen the connection betwen the elected and those who sent them into public service.
But is there a strategy? Has the Obama team, or the democratic leadership in Congress for that matter, revealed any long-term plans that take advantage of technology's democratic possibilities? Not really. If free government information advocates believe it is only a matter of time, the struggle for restoring confidence in the economy is necessarily taking precedence, then one would hope to see indications of the promised innovation and strategy. But that didn't happen. The stimulus legislation is mired in political horse trading, with much of the money supposed to address information infrastructure issues gutted from the Senate version. Other commentators reflect on just how much the the president's current efforts fall far short of the electoral promise in education or the treasury proposals to shore up the banking industry.
That is not to say Obama is little better than Bush. Not at all. What I am saying is that if any progressive or deliberative effort to strategically improve the country's vastly complicated civic information infrastructure through better institutions and use of technology is going to have to come from the grassroots.
So here again is one more reason to get involved at at the local, state and national level to shape and proposed the variety of proposals from government groups, library groups and citizen groups. In November the revolution won might be characterized in this way -- we are now able to talk about government as a POSITIVE force in our society. The revolution we wage now is to move beyond the rhetoric and put into something "shovel ready" into motion.
It won't happen any other way.
See you on day 22.
In all the talk about the civic potential for digital information and local libraries, and there is much good and solid talk, the underlying economics of our institutions is often not on the agenda. With the economic crisis slowly spreading is pall over the nation, one has to wonder what the immediate future holds for any of our proposals for a more permanent and public system of access to government information.
Just here in Illinois, which is looking at a possible nine billion and the University of Illinois must consider its own financial future challenges. One is more than sure these economic choices are being made in thousands of libraries around the country.
So let me add another topic to discuss with our community -- the economics of libraries and their worth to the people they serve. Here is one insightful article about the range of funding mechanisms used throughout Illinois.
See you on Day 21
Now that the Senate is close to a vote on the stimulus bill -- and we all know what a slugfest the conference committee is going to be as the two Congressional chambers work through their differences -- I think this could be another one of those "teaching moments" for our communities, let of course by government information librarians. Blogs are good, guides are good; but how about if a collection of public libraries and academic libraries banded together to put on a one or two hour program the describes the various intricacies of the legislation and how folks can get the information from the web. This can be done, considering how much energy we put into explaining tax forms and how to find ancestors.
See you Day 20.
It is just possible that the community organizing traditions shared by many public and academic libraries will find resonance with the Obama administration. Both draw on a culture of commitment and service to specific communities. In the case of Obama, a clear promise to "change" how things are done in Washington (not unlike the promises made by every president elected since the 1950's.) In return, Obama promises to speak directly to and for those individuals who voted for him. There is much talk about the grassroots organizing potential of Obama's millions of emails that give him a direct way to reach out to local and state-wide constituents. An electoral right and power often associated with the Congress rather than the president. Indeed, it is exactly this kind of direct outreach that Obama's administration is counting on to push Congress into acceptance of the massive economic stimulus package.
However, to judge by the track record of the federal depository library system, most librarians share a far different relationship with their communities. We tend to think of them less as individuals who "get us into office." There is only a very shallow tradition of working closely with the congressional districts of House members or Senators to coordinate the collection and service of federal documents. In most cases, academic and public libraries identify their immediate communities as the student and faculty of their respective institutions, or the set of voters that approve their budgets (usually a local government or public body.)
Where am I going with this? The suggestion, which I will develop more fully in subsequent blog entries, that libraries that share a clear mission to include government information service to their communities are going to have to redefine the who, what and why of that service. Further, this service will need to expand beyond the passive collection of "public documents" and add value in such a way that mirrors what many other community organizations are doing with either public programs and/or information. For example, suppose state and national library associations came up with a coordinated program that highlights the the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office's "13 Urgent Issues" to be considered by the new administration and congress. Indeed, FGI has laid the
foundation for this kind of national service over the last couple of months by pulling together the basic bones of bibliographic guides. However, there is still too little effort to push this kind of community information organizing to the necessary level where a library's community might come to expect this kind of information service as a matter of course.
Community organizing never rests.
See you on Day 19.
If we are to think in terms of sustainability when in comes to government information, especially in the context of our library organizations, then some attention will need to be paid to two critical areas -- how government information services are organized in libraries and how we teach future librarians to deal with government information.
Both these points will be examined more carefully in subsequent posts.
See you on Day 18
I think the Obama honeymoon is over. The withdrawl of nominees due to failure to pay taxes, sharp rebukes from House and Senate republicans over the economic stimulus package, That is not say his influence as a change agent is curtailed. You don't live and survive brutal Chicago politics for very long if you fall to the ground in a faint after your opponents deliver a quick partisan jab to the ribs (or even more painfully, sometimes by your supporters.)
It would be a mistake to assume any sense of goodwill and comity will overwhelm the toxic partisanship that has flooded our political swamplands over so many decades. It is going to take a few more hits, losses, and diversions to reverse such a trend. In this way, supporters of free and open government information ought to take the long view and realize that it will take at least eight more years to undo the damage done by the Bush administrations to the nation's robust exchange of public and civic information. As I said in an earlier blog post, if Obama is still President for those two terms, we at least have an executive officer who shares our rhetoric of democratic access to government information. Whether he will be able to hold fast against the entrenched institutional interests that resist this kind of free flow of information (too expensive, to hard, too threatening, too much a security risk) remains to be seen.
To this end, any of the near future plans from our various professional association discussions and study efforts must rise above the politcal tides that flow through the civic structures every two and four years. Just as there is a concepts of a "deep environment" argues for a perspective and planning structure that anticipates long term effects and relationships, so too there could be a concept of "deep civic information" that transcends the political life cycles of our national and state elections. This lesson was brought home again here in Illinois when our barely week old new Governor, and the newly elected leadership of the General Assembly, woke up to realize that they must now deal with a 9 billion dollar budget shortfall, state institutions that are either broken, obscure, or corrupted by indifference or political influence.
If librarians are going to salvage anything from this political train wreck, it will be a way to connect the governors and those they serve with those flows of public information that matter more than the politics.
See you on Day 17.