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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 18

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.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Day 10

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.

42 Days to Government Information Liberation

1. Recognize the importance of librarians and their institutions in the sustainability of a dynamic civic culture.

One simple question to pose tonight — is it possible for federal depository libraries to tap into the critical relationship they share with either their designated congressional districts or senate sponsors? Much of our tradition and practice aims to serve the communities defined by our depository’s host institutions — academic, public, special or law libraries.

But, in this time of digital democratic transition and transparency, what if a major new goal for the federal depository library program was to shift the depository library obligation from our bibliographic institutions? What if we were to focus our energies on the civic and democratic communities represented by the districts and states they serve? For instance, imagine all the depositories in the Chicago metropolitan area collaborating with each other and through their respective House of Representative districts. This could involve using not only physical collections, but innovative digital tools to reach out to the constituents and local neighborhoods through the congressional district offices. Imagine reference tools designed to meet the particular social, economic, and cultural needs of these communities.

In the case of the Seventh Congressional District in Illinois, these communities could be as varied as part of Chicago’s Gold Coast along Lake Michigan through the impoverished streets of the Austin neighborhood to the west, and along the inner suburbs of both the upper and middle classes found in River Forest and Oak Park.

In rural areas, where many of the congressional districts must somehow overcome both geography and infrastructure issues, imagine how the designated depository libraries might work together, hand in hand, with the congressional district offices to assure that the citizens and communities are kept informed in an affirmative fashion through technology and inter-library cooperation. This kind of civic renewal, I think, is a better way to strike at the “digital divide” issue.

If our discussions about the program’s future began from these kinds of assumptions, rather than focusing on how much paper and how digital we should keep, I think the community of government information librarians will be in a much better place to take advantage of the civic possibilities made apparent during these days of liberation.

After all, its about documents to the people, not documents to the libraries.

Something to think about.

See you on Day 41.

43 Days to Government Information Liberation

1. Recognize the importance of librarians and their institutions in the sustainability of a dynamic civic culture.

Good of McKnelly and Hoduski to post their thoughts on the future of regional libraries in the Federal Depository Library Program. After I have had a chance to review and consider their analysis, I will offer my own thoughts on this important issue. I encourage everyone to chime in — this topic is going to be at the top of the agenda for the Public Printer’s Depository Library Council.

For today’s post, I want to follow-up on the theme of the enduring values shared by journalism and libraries as mediators between the community and their civic machinery. The seizure and forced federal court appearance of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich and his Chief of Staff John Harris on corruption charges represents again where librarians and other media are in a race to get “government information” sources out to the public.

I first got a blip of the arrest through a Chicago Tribune email alert at around 8:30am on Tuesday. One or two people posted the information on University wide email lists shortly after. I went into the web pages for the Northern District of Illinois District Attorney, and found the 12 page news release about an hour later and posted it to email lists of the University. About an hour later, I located and posted the link to the seventy-six page complaint. By 11am central name, most of the major news sources were linking to the same sources.

After 1pm central time, there was no contest — the web and other mass media sources were swamping the internet with stories, analyses, links to relevant documents and web pages. Though a bit rushed and breathless at first, much of the reporting by early evening had begun to place the charges in the larger context of corrupt Illinois politics in general (for instance, the number of sitting Illinois governors either been charged or sent to prison in last 50 years).

So, my observation that it would be most difficult for government information librarians to match the revelations unleashed in some kind of hopeless race with a reporters engaged in a feeding frenzy. Rather, they should take a step back from the “breaking news” and begin to craft web resources and links that direct users to specific sources and contexts that discuss the history of corruption in Illinois, constitutional succession in Illinois state government, impeachment processes in Illinois, who can and can not be seated in the U.S. Senate, implications of a powerful federal attorney taking on the powers (and corruptions) of local and state government….

You get the idea. I think digital government information librarians will play for the middle and long game, rather than the short chip shots of the daily media, preparing their users for greater understanding of what are, frankly, quite stunning events.

See you on Day 42

44 Days to Government Information Liberation

1. Recognize the importance of librarians and their institutions in the sustainability of a dynamic civic culture.

Recent posts talk about how to render America’s federal civic machinery transparent, accessible, and permanent (here, here and here). Each of these posts indicate some kind of “positive” authority either inherent or assumed by the national government in order to keep the civic machinery as open and accessible as possible.

This is good — and something I want to add to the mix is the critical role various organizations, especially library organizations, might play in shaping the future of one critical player in the mix — the Government Printing Office. Let me be more specific. I think there is going to be more than a few opportunities to discuss and debate the future of the Government Printing Office in general — (after all, Obama gets to nominate a Public Printer and Superintendent of Documents for Senate consideration and approval — these two appointments alone will kick up the dust and debate in the near future) — and the depository library program in particular.

In regards to the program, the last two years have been dominated by discussions of
* a strategic plan;
* a draft report on the future of regional libraries in the program;
* several demonstrations and rollouts of a proposed new system to replace GPOaccess ;
* a growing number of innovative and positive partnerships with depositories that show how these libraries and GPO work together redefine the traditional boundaries of “depository library” obligations. Each of these partnerships represent a mutual amount of self-interest and collaboration. Included on this list, in particular, are several partnerships that capture many of the qualities sought in earlier FGI blog posts — permanence, transparency, and distribution —
@Historic Government Publications from World War Two
@Historical Publications of the United States Commission on Civil Rights
* what’s more, GPO is working with depository libraries on test beds and applications that seek to establish protocols for authenticity, digital distributive storage and preservation, and web harvesting

So, while we sharpen our rhetorical arguments for an open government that is both well preserved and accessible and seek to influence the incoming powers that be with position papers and agendas, let’s not forget how much progress has already been made in the last two years. We should continue to build on this efforts, with the clear recognition that same may not meet our far-reaching expectations.

See you on Day 43.