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50 Days to Government Information Liberation

When I started this long conversational march towards liberation, I thought libraries as institutions would be the first of those Gutenberg artifacts to be thrown onto our bonfire of change.

But I now realize that this rush towards bibliographic revolution was just too glib. The exchange over the last two weeks — here, here, and here — reminds me again just how much of the intrinsic conflict between services and collections (as James puts it, is a false dichotomy) still frames our very foundations as professionals, even in a digital environment.

I want to push this just a bit more. I fully recognize that a library world without collections is still very much in the distance of our professional perspective (much like the Pilgrim’s “city on the hill”; something only realized by the approaching, never by the arrival.) And I fully recognize James’ arguments for a collective bonding of local activism and global responsibility, or as he puts it so well,

The networked environment means that for all intents and purposes, the local IS the global. Networked technologies like P2P, cheap servers, ever better indexing/search, metadata standards, harvesting and preservation infrastructures etc means that all libraries can have locally-important digital collections (and both human and networked services!!) that are globally accessible and able to be shared/reconfigured/repurposed with other local digital collections

But this same networked ecosystem of digital political, social, cultural, economic and civic information ecosystems, in my opinion, does not automatically bestow the same kind of “authority” on these digital collections as they do (or might) on traditional repositories of paper and print civic information — be they digital archives, libraries, institutes, centers, cooperatives, etc. I see governments at all levels binding their services and information sources more tightly together through the deployment of electronic government.

The bibliographic gap created in the distribution chain of print and paper allowed many traditional libraries to grow their own local collections of government information that met the purposes of their users, and also allowed them to become ad hoc service providers either officially (picture patent and trademark libraries here) or unofficially (picture tax forms, explanations of medicare provisions, regulatory and legislative research.)

In the digital world, this gap is eliminated. What is left is explanation, mediation, and organization of information sources that might be created by thousands of public and non-public institutions — but for the most part will either remain with the producers or be delivered directly to the users by the producers (or a variety of third parties — including libraries.) This is the kind of competitive information world (or the city on the hill) I see.

I am not arguing for an either/or choice (we had this zero sum discussion earlier.) I am talking about how librarians deploy their limited capital, social and labor, within this evolving information ecology coming out of electronic government. It is about choices, yes. And one of those choices will be how much emphasis we should put on collections and how much on services.

This new competitive environment among all these institutions, I argue, demands a different kind of government information librarianship.

We said we will never win each other over — but let our sparks of difference better illuminate our path as we slog our way towards that distant civic prominotory.

This is fun.

See you on Day 49

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