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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 1

And so, Team Obama greets the first day of Government Information Liberation with, among many other things, the recision of G.W. Bush’s infamous Presidential Records Executive Order. But a closer reading of the press release and the order itself proves to be more nuanced. As it states in the news release about the new executive order:

“This order ends the practice of having others besides the President assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the President will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the Attorney General and the White House Counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution.”

So the new order consolidates the power of review back into the current White House, which we all hope is much more enlightened than other political powers. Is it a true revocation of the early Bush doctrine? Maybe yes, maybe no. It would be much better to have statutory language that makes clear which records are reviewable and which are not, otherwise each administration can change the intent of the law according to its own political whim.
Perhaps only a new law, such as the Presidential Records Act of 2009 can take this descision making power from the politics of executive and/or legislative will.

On another front, it will be very interesting to see how the policies and programs of Obama will be distinguished from those of Bush. Web pages may change, as demonstrated by the Obama White House web site; but so many other Bush decisions and laws he signed while in office will remain in effect that swapping out Secretaries or Cabinet level officers won’t necessarily lift the yoke of Bush doctrine completely.

This will be a very, very good season to be a government information librarian.

As a reminder — with government information liberation day now in the rear view mirror, I am shifting my focus on the next few months, calling these daily blog entries, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in honor of the wonderful 1971 song by the band The Who. We are in time frame of a few months when a series of critical discussions will take place at various national level librarian conferences. It starts with the ALA midwinter confab in Denver at the end of this week. followed by at least three other meetings before the gathering during July in Chicago for ALA’s annual gig.

To this end, I am resetting (and renaming) the discussion time clock. 140 days to consensus on the future role of libraries in the fabric of our civic information exchange.

See you on Day 2.

Librarians without Libraries?

In his continuing series about Government Information Liberation, John Shuler considers the role of collections in libraries. One particularly revealing moment in his discussion is his day 60 post in which he describes a series of questions that he poses to his graduate students to get at the “fundamental things we do.”

The Question and Conclusions

Can doctor still be a doctor without a hospital? They usually answer — of course. Can you be a lawyer with out a courthouse? Again — affirmative. Now the money shot — Can you be a librarian without a library? Dead silence.

One would hope that the questions prompt a discussion and don’t just end in “dead silence.” Although John doesn’t tell us what the discussion, if any, was, he does give us his conclusions: possession of “material” might have once been central to the purpose of libraries but, in the digital age, possession is much less important part of what libraries do.

Even though John qualifies his conclusions to allow for some limited role of collections for some libraries, he overwhelms his caveats with assertions that collections begin and end with the physical ownership of “material” and that “we will not own (possess) much of the material.” He even coins the phrase “Gutenberg Librarians” to deprecate “possession and/or control” (66) of information by libraries.

So, John’s essential, bottom-line conclusion, regardless of his caveats, comes across clearly: The net, John says, has brought on “the beginning of the end” of library collections (35).

I think his conclusion is wrong and the question he asks is misleading. You can see how misleading the question is by turning it around and realizing that the professions/institutions he uses are not parallel:

  • Do doctors build hospitals? (No)
  • Do lawyers build courthouses? (No)
  • Do librarians build libraries? (Yes)

But the real problem is that the question implies a shared understanding of what a library is — a shared understanding that I think we need to articulate explicitly. I think that, before one asks “Can you be a librarian without a library?” one should ask “What is the role of the library is in the digital age?” John has been outlining what he thinks the role of librarians should be and he apparently wants to separate the role of librarians from the role of libraries. Very well: let’s examine the roles of both with some discussion, not dead silence.


I think John is implying is his series of posts that librarianship in the digital age will be about helping people navigate a complex, networked maze of shifting, changing information. Librarians will help users “connect the dots” and find connections that are not otherwise explicit (47). While there is nothing wrong with this view, and there is much to recommend it, it doesn’t go far enough and it misses a key role for libraries.

As John portrays it, this view accepts that libraries will be less about selecting and preserving information and building digital collections and more about providing services for information over which librarians have no control. Librarians, in this view, are valuable precisely because they have no control over information.

This view accepts that information will be tightly controlled by producers and distributors. What is available, who can use it, under what conditions it may be used, and when it becomes no longer available will all be controlled by government agencies, publishers, individuals, organizations, and other “content” producers.

John also proposes that “librarianship” will be more important than “libraries.” To me, this sounds like librarians will be analogous to travel agents who, because they deal every day with the complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected systems, are better able than the traveller to navigate these systems and find the best flight at the best price. So librarians, in this view, will help casual information users navigate a variety of complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected, public-freely-available and proprietary-and-licensed information systems. Just as travel agents have no control over what flights or trips are available or what they cost or what restrictions are placed on them, so librarians will have no control over what information is available or what it costs or what restrictions are placed on its use.

In this view, librarians will not manage collections but will license the right to read from those who control information. Whether the license comes in the form of payment of dollars to a commercial vendor and a written contract that licenses access, or an FDLP designation, or a contractual “partnership” with GPO, or the anointing of permission by Google Books legal department, the result is the same. As a recent article in Library Hi Tech says, “In future, librarians will no longer manage media, they will manage rights” (Böhner, Dörte. Digital rights description as part of digital rights management: a challenge for libraries. Library Hi Tech 26, no. 4 (2008): 598-605). This view reshapes the role of librarians from information providers to information gatekeepers; from information curators to business-officers who sign contracts and pay bills.

Who would want to go into that field?


John hasn’t said much about the role of libraries except to assert that, for many people, the digital environment is now the “default library” [emphasis added] that supports broad access to a “collection” of government information (51).

But, shouldn’t we be asking about the future, not just describing the present?

Shouldn’t we be asking about the relationships between doctors and lawyers and information? Certainly doctors and lawyers need a body of literature to practice their professions. Instead of asserting that users have access today, shouldn’t we be asking, “Who will build and manage and preserve those collections and ensure long-term, free access to them?”

Shouldn’t we be asking what guarantees we have that the information we want today will be available if we want it tomorrow? Shouldn’t we be asking who controls access to that information and what are their reasons for providing access? Shouldn’t we be asking who will pay for long-term preservation and access?

Just because users who are not familiar with information policy, information economics, or information technologies are happy with current access to information does not mean that they will be happy with the access (or lack of it!) tomorrow or in ten years or a hundred years. Providing easy access at one point in time does not guarantee easy access at a future point in time and can actually mask problems of long-term access.

It is one of the roles of librarians to think beyond today and one of the roles of libraries to guarantee access for tomorrow. We need to think about the long-term. Using short-term convenience as a reason for avoiding that kind of thought is evading one of the key roles of librarianship. And assuming that producers and distributors will have the same values and ethics and practices as librarians is to confuse the role of producers with the role of currators.

Maybe the real questions we should be asking are:

  • Can lawyers practice without libraries?
  • Can doctors practice without libraries?
  • Can libraries exist without librarians?

The word “library” does not mean “I have some information.” If it did, bookstores would be libraries and publishers would be librarians. We need libraries in addition to publishers and bookstores (and government agencies that distribute information as a by-product of another, primary, mission).

It is all about control

Let’s be clear, then. Even in the paper and ink world, libraries and their collections were about wresting control of information from producers and distributors and granting control to local communities and information users. A publisher could take a book out of print, but a library could keep it available. A user could purchase a book and pay for magazine subscriptions, but could use the information for free at the library. Libraries leveraged economies of scale for the benefit of the community, enabling every community member to have benefits of access to information that no individual could possibly afford.

The need for wresting control of information away from those who wish to control the access to and the use of information has not changed in the digital world. But the battle lines have shifted and we need librarians in the fight to keep free, open, usable access.

“Content providers” want to replace copyright with license agreements. Producers want to charge for every single use and dictate who can use information, under what conditions, and in what way. Governments want to be able to alter and even withdraw information after it has been released. And the proliferation of requirements to register to read or use information portends a world in which people will not have the right of privacy when reading.

It is ironic that, given technologies that enable almost unlimited use and re-use of information and that enable information to be distributed and used and re-used almost without cost, we face a horde of stakeholders who want to limit access, charge for every use, restrict re-use, and look over your shoulder to see what you’re reading.

More inaccurate conclusions

As noted above, John hedges his conclusion a bit. His wording is that “possession is much less exclusive or destiny for any one institution” and preserving and organizing the information sources “will remain important — but is no longer our exclusive responsibility” (66). He expands on that idea:

  • [G]overnments are taking back their possession of information sources. (60)
  • [M]any other web sites [are] capturing the lost or deleted pages. (60)

And from these, he draws conclusions:

  • [Information will] remain with the producers or be delivered directly to the users by the producers. (50)
  • [W]e will not own (possess) much of the material we mediate on behalf of our user communities. (51)
  • Possession … is no longer a social good that is dominated [by] the dominion of libraries. (60)

To me, these summarize one possible scenario out of many. And, IMHO, this scenario is not one librarians should be content to accept or embrace. Why? Because it almost certainly guarantees that a lot of bad things will happen: loss of access, loss of free access, licensing constraints, DRM constraints, loss of information, loss of usability of information, and more.

Different Questions, A Different Answers

In a separate post, I will examine those issues in more detail, but I’ll close this post with some assumptions and a couple of final rhetorical questions as a way of addressing John’s question, “Can you be a librarian without a library?” The assumptions:

Society needs: organizations that select that information that deserves preserving from the plethora of information that surrounds us; organizations that then acquire, organize, and preserve that information; organizations that provide trusted, free, private, secure access to and service for that information.

Society needs organizations that have the complete mix of all of these roles as their primary mission (not a secondary mission or a by-product of publishing, or dissemination, or making money). In the case of government information in a participatory democracy it is particularly important, even essential, that society has such organizations.

Reliance on those who have some, but not all, of these roles will ensure that some of these roles will go unfulfilled. Reliance on organizations that have some or all of these roles as a secondary mission or by-product of another mission will endanger free access to information, preservation and integrity of information, and the privacy of readers, and will increase the risk of the loss of information.

The rhetorical questions:

  • What would you call an organization that fulfills all the roles listed above but “The Library”?
  • Why would libraries want to abandon these roles to organizations that do not have these roles as their primary mission?
  • If libraries do abandon these roles, what is the risk that society will lose free, open, access to its essential information?

I think those questions lead us to conclusions that are very different from the the ones John reaches. I will examine this in more detail in another post.

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

56 to 52 Days to Government Information Liberation

When I started this conversation back in early November I failed to account for the Thanksgiving holiday. Being on the grid blogging about the liberation of government information, as my loved ones made clear to me, is not on the menu. I did point out, as a good and loyal information marine, such sacrifices must be taken into account (“there is no I in team” I say proudly, channeling my old wrestling coach’s visage.) My stoic pose met with flinty silence. Any self-respecting information marine recognizes a superior show of strength and falls back on valor of discretion and strategic repositioning.

Since I won’t be blogging until December 1, here are the next five installments in one transmission — in the spirit of NPR’s This American Life. This is just a shameless cop out, but I think irony and deprecating self-regard are easy sacrificial lambs during these days of national reflection and thanks.

Needless to say, I am getting a jump on Christmas and New Years with this new awareness of opposition to my professional missions.

Day 56
On this day I still argue for some kind of coordinated national campaign to get libraries of all types to Talk Back To Democracy! (I know, it is kind of lame, but if any other enthusiasts out there want to pitch in, we can build a better slogan.) All the media buzz and pundit profundity about the recent historic electoral events offers government information librarians a chance to interact with their communities in very direct and deliberative ways. Here are few suggestions:
• Obama’s picks for his staff and political appointees and the wonderful opportunity this creates to talk about how our government works;
• daily revelations of how the Federal government will save us from the unfolding economic failure; who is going to keep track of the billions of dollars?
• countless stories of how local and state authorities are wallowing in these rough economic waters; no end of opportunity to talk to communities about impending state and local issues that will come up during the hundreds of discussions about budgets for the next two or three years;
• the possibility of engaging foreign countries and cultures through the lens of cooperation rather than declarations of war;
• global warming and other impending environmental issues that are literally life threatening;
• education, health care, retirement and social security; explaining current programs, talking about future changes
• national security and constitutional protections of civil rights; instead of just talking about banned books once year, why not a weekly conversation about freedom of information and the importance of transparency in government deliberations.
• 2010 Census (my favorite)
• Getting ready for the congressional 2010 elections (never to early to start thinking)
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals are great ways to imagine how we can pull this off (or my favorite, which even has a government element to it – White Christmas). We can compose the music, write the lyrics, build the stage, put on the show, and reap the rewards.

Day 55
On this day, overloaded with too much food and too many memories – I understand why a family might scatter itself across the globe (the line from the country song – “how can I miss you if you won’t go away?” brings a poignant edge to the conversations around a food laden table) – I imagine getting back to institutional purposes as I courageously outline how various library associations might pull together during these days before information liberation (and after.) I call out to them in my mind … rally around some kind of common vision, or agreed on set of principles, on behalf of the Federal Depository Library Program. Don’t fight over which vision of the program is better; agree to disagree on some of the legislative or organizational aspects, but join hands and support the program before new executive and legislative powers. To the library directors, I send out a mental plea to talk to your staff responsible for government information, try to grasp how they struggle to serve your community in a world where the distribution and access to government information is at least democratizing, if not in a very organized fashion. To the government information librarians, I say take your library director out for a coffee, tell him or her how excited you are by all the opportunities delivering government information services now abound, but express sympathy that it is lonely at the top, and how you understand difficult economic choices must be made. Emphasize how approaching government information in innovative and surprising ways (did someone shout out Talk back to Democracy?) can meet the mission of the library, but not cost much money in the long run.

Day 54
Slog day one. Black Friday is gone. We are reminded of how much money we don’t have to enjoy shopping. Notes from other librarians trickle in, admonishing me that they have neither the time nor resources to participate in a Talk Back to Democracy event. I roll my eyes, channel Judy and Andy, and look these wavering librarians square in the eye (metaphorically speaking) and say — Yes you can.

Day 53
Slog day two. Running out of things to talk about with the loved ones; suddenly — the importance of government information strikes me as the most important thing to give thanks for. I contemplate a stealth run at the computer, get back on the grid, but my beloveds realize my impending surrender and launch an intervention. We go out to see a movie – about animated animals on some kind of slap-stick journey of return and renewal, not a lick of public policy or government information associated with the tale.
But it does give me ideas – forget the library action figure – we need and slick and cute creature to champion Talk Back to Democracy!

Day 52
Work looms over tomorrow’s horizon. As the holiday leftovers calcify or liquefy into new food groups — suddenly, the likely playoff fates of several professional football teams matter more than if we ever get to Talk Back to Democracy! Even if we do use cute animals! I know the other librarians will be there on December 1, ready to take up the cause again. Let’s put them off one more day. Go Brett Go! Let’s cheer of the power of brotherly skill found in the Mannings! Yes we can! Let us root for the home team (as if they deserve it!) Go Bears!

See you on Day 51

What to teach to future government information librarians: Escape from the Blackboard Jungle


Aimee, Daniel, Kathy, Jim, Anne, Debbie:

Thank you much for each of your thoughtful remarks (and I hope others contribute their own bricks and mortar to this curricular barn raising!)

It has been a week since I posted — after about 15 hours with the Govt. Information studnets, and another six with my other class, I can say with some confidence they grasp all of our collective point — goverrnment information and libraries rapidly change with each successive generation of technology, political and economic upheavals, as well as the dynamics of how our global society defines both traditional and civic literacies.

The take away from the first weekend, I hope the students got anyway, is the following:

— you must understand how government works before you can understand the information products that these civic processes create. (I suppose this is why completing an extended legislative history on a particular law at the federal level remains a cornerstone of my teaching; even though it feels so "old school" to me.)

— the formats or forums where these govenment information objects might appear (or distributed) has become less important to me. As I told the students — I am going to try to teach them how to be the best librarians who can find government information, not the best government information librarians. Seems to me with the consolidations, reorganizations, and reconsiderations many libraries (academic, public, special) now put their traditional documents departments through — I am convinced the next generation of government information librarians will come to professional maturity in library organizations that do not give government information services or collections any special consideration.

— that this is essentially hard and difficult work. The traditional bibliographic tools (if not perspectives) no longer work in a variegated world of digital, tangible, and print formats. Government information is where you find it (another way of expressing the ideas of the previous point). I think the relevance of government information for our users will evolve through how we structure our public interactions with them, and how we build a sustainable knowledgebase of this interactions over time and among communities. In other words we are moving from a form of librarianship based on formats (with all its attendant organizational schemes and theoritical controls) to a much more rough and ready form of librarianship focused on singular and collective service to our communities.

One other takeaway I got from this conversation so far is the reminder of how much of our storehouse of government information "best practices" remains scatterred across our professional and digital landscapes.  In the eight comments over the past week there was mention of

GODORT Handout Exchange at http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/Exchange
Webjunction. The Government Information section at http://webjunction.org/do/Navigation?category=14562
Individuals in particular areas who contribute to our students’ learning by bringing their experience with "best practices" into the classroom

Perhaps through the library associations, the association of Library and Information schools, and other integrating collaborative entities can begin to work bring these strands together into a stronger fabric. I am on the GODORT Education Committee (www.ala.org/ala/godort/godortcommittees/godorteducation/index.htm) and know we are discussing aspects of this issue — focusing in particular on the compentencies for government information professionals.

That’s enough from here for the moment — got to get some notes prepared for the next class.

I appreciate the discussion so far — and am anxious to hear more people join!


From the 1-18-08 post:

I am about to spend my first weekend teaching Government Information Resources for the Spring semester at Dominican University. I have been teaching such a course here in Illinois and other places for the last 17 years. What I wonder is – for those of you who use government information resources out there – what would be your take-away for library students interested in the future of the government information resources and our bibliographic institutions. In other words, given the number of weeks and hours we will spend together over the next three months, what words of wisdom would you like to see them walk away with?

Is it the technologies of egovernment and how they shape the paths of public information distribution?

Is it the shifting fortunes of civil liberties that threaten aspects of a open and transparent government?

Is it the changing nature of our library institutions, and by the same token, their shifting responsibility of libraries to keep and preserve government information?


Or is it all the above?

Obviously I am not looking for yes or no answers here. Just trying to get a sense of how my colleagues are dealing with these problems in the communities of practice.

Looking forward to your responses.