2. Seek to establish the most effective techniques individual bibliographic institutions can contribute to a national system of government information access, preservation and organization.
Ah, the 1990s….the last decade of the 20th century began with the collapse of the cold war and closed with first hints of the next global struggle (i.e. the war on terrorism.) In between we had political revolutions at home and abroad; economic boom and bust; technological upheavals; and the beginning of the end of what I call Gutenberg Librarianship.
If there were just three themes that bound the decade’s narrative together, they would have to be —
1. Political shifts: the last bastions of the Lyndon Johnson inspired “Great Society” finally disappeared after nearly fifteen years of “government is the problem, not the solution” drumbeat by conservative pundits and elected officials. By mid-decade, with the Republican take over of the congress, the last years of the Clinton administration would reinvent this mantra into something called “reinventing government” — better technology will deliver public programs and services more efficiently and smaller government will be “ok”. Librarians and their associations would spend much of this decade debating how their bibliographic institutions will fit into the rapidly evolving “national information infrastructure.” Unlike the comparable discussions of the late 1970s which led to enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (primarily fostered by the many reports of the Commission on Federal Paperwork) — the government reform efforts of the 1990s had the technology readily at had to match their ambitions — the early grid of what was called the “information superhighway”.
2. Technological and regulatory shifts: for the first time in nearly a century the old public service monopoly that bound the telecommunications industry would be overturned by, first, technology and then by changes in public oversight. Just as reinventing government imagined a leaner and more agile public administration culture, so to did the possibilities of a more interactive and consumer-driven model of telecommunication began to take shape — largely because of the growing world wide web, the rapidly falling prices of expensive computing power, and the interoperability of certain software tools that shifted the communication from textual to graphical interfaces. The late 1990’s federal laws governing telecommunications were rewritten and the “public monopoly” granted the telephone and telegraph companies almost 90 years before was lifted. Note too, with two years of these major rewrites, Congress and the President rewrote the laws governing public welfare…
3. Social and economic shifts — at some point during the decade everyone suddenly felt much less poor, and more able to access, if not demand, many material goods and services once only available to the most affluent just a few short decades ago. Less regulation and government oversight translated into more consumer choices — in bigger cars, bigger homes, more opportunities to participate in the digital economy through a robust information infrastructure. Public institutions such as libraries, universities, transportation authorities, health care providers, etc. now “had” to compete with an organizational model that presumed the best approach was one that relied on two purposes: it must be driven by the user and must make money or it must be the most cost-effective approach.
Against this backdrop of larger social, political and economic developments government information librarians came out of the 1980s talking, debating, thinking, pontificating about how public electronic data products were going to change the way they do business. Rhetorical focus would shift from the culture wars fought over secrecy and privatization of government information to cybercommunities, digital democracy, “keeping the information superhighway free and open to all, and not digital toll roads.” One of my favorite conference themes during this time was one that focused on how to keep libraries from being road kill on the information superhighway. Remember — between the early and late 1990s digital problems for most libraries revolved around the capacity and speed of computers used in their institutions, the used of new fangled media such as CD-ROMs, and how to perform increasingly sophisticated mediated searches using expensive databases such as DIALOG. I many ways, government information librarians were at the bleeding edge of innovation when the Clinton administration decided to embrace the graphical interfaces of the world wide web in late 1995.
How the government information librarians reacted to all this change we will leave for tomorrow.
See you on Day 34.
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