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Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 24

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.

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