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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.

University of Minnesota Libraries Speaker Series So Far: Lorcan Dempsey & Paul Courant

The University of Minnesota Libraries has taken a new approach to its planning process this year to help deal with seemingly conflicting realities. On the one hand, everything said publicly by University administration indicates that the U’s financial future is Not Good. On the other, the Libraries has several projects in place that are innovative and many, many more on hold that would also be fabulous. These projects are in addition to the regular day-to-day work of a library. Something has to give somewhere, but the Libraries can’t just metaphorically throw its hands in the air and say “the heck with this, I’m out”.

So, the Libraries is hosting a speaker series with the goal of moving from lemons to lemonade. There have been two speakers so far – Lorcan Dempsey and Paul Courant. See https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries for more information – future speakers will be Jim Neal and Clifford Lynch. While online access is limited during the talks, the future speakers will be recorded and the webcasts posted soon after for all to view. And, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I believe our University Librarian’s – Wendy P. Lougee – opening remarks are also worth a listen on their own merits.

Lorcan Dempsey – “Discovery and Delivery”
Dempsey began by describing levels of rarity of library collections based on OCLC data with the suggestion that where libraries should focus their expenditures (presumably on preservation, simply having the space to hold, doing really good digitization, etc) is on the rare items. Non-rare items could reasonably be entrusted to network-level services like the Hathi Trust. He then presented a typology of library collection types sorted by rarity and current levels of stewardship. Government publications fell into high stewardship, but low rarity. Dempsey acknowledged that this was a broad characterization and that there might be rare items within a category like government publications or maps. Also, the University of Minnesota is a partner in the Hathi Trust and has sent some of its government publications collection in for digitizing, so the Libraries are already on the path he’s describing here. Caveats aside, I feel that he provides a well-reasoned and evidence-based rationale for shifting stewardship away from non-rare items and towards collections that are getting no real attention at all. This was only a tiny portion of his overall talk and I recommend going through the entire powerpoint or webcast to get the full presentation.

Presentation, Webcast, Related Readings: https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries#dempsey

Paul Courant – “Scholarly Communications and Publishing”
Courant’s talk can be best described as a reflection on just what is it that we’d like to pay for. He framed part of the problem in terms of the Parable of the Anarchist’s Annual Meeting (see http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/anarchists.pdf). In short: with coordination – either between libraries or between libraries and smaller publishers or both – we can take at least some control of the journal publishing arena. We already spend a fortune on a situation we don’t like. Surely the logical thing is to begin to spend some money on creating a situation more to our liking. This includes taking on more of a publishing role and allying ourselves with societies and small publishers (including university presses) who might be more interested in the benefits of open access that the big vendors. However, when I asked if he was advocating canceling contracts with big vendors, he answered (I’m paraphrasing) “Well, probably not. Well, not entirely. Might want to pass on those Big Deals they offer though.”

He also felt the library community should speak up loudly in favor of the recent RFI from the Office of Science and Technology Policy regarding increased access to the products of federally funded research. At the same time he reiterated that open access isn’t exclusively a library issue. In fact, he said it’s a faculty issue. Libraries need to keep pushing on the topic, but pushing faculty to understand that this is an arena they can control if the choose to do so.

Courant isn’t a librarian – he’s an economist by background and I found his application of an economics perspective refreshing. Again, like Dempsey’s talk, there was no magic “the Libraries should do this” moment because we are in a tough spot without easy resolution. But, also like Dempsey’s talk, he has a great way of expressing the issues facing libraries.

Presentation, Webcast, Related Readings: https://wiki.lib.umn.edu/Staff/UniversityLibrariesSpeakerSeries#courant

I don’t know if these speakers really will lead to concrete ideas for coping with our budget problems, but I sure am glad we’re having them – each one has been thought-provoking.

Updated Guides to Government Info Access Laws

Catching up with some updates released in August:

CRS has updated its Access to Government Information in the United States report. The latest edition is dated August 31, 2009 (via OpenCRS.com).

The Justice Department released its 2009 edition of Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act on August 10. The announcement says the “2009 edition contains a newly updated and revised discussion of all aspects of the Freedom of Information Act, as amended by the OPEN Government Act, including the Act’s procedural requirements, its exemptions and exclusions, as well as considerations applicable to FOIA litigation.”

How Congress Uses Twitter (Research Preview)

[UPDATE 7/12/10: I updated the link to the paper from Justin’s site to the umd site where the paper was officially published. jrj]

I thought I would give the readers of FGI the first scoop on some early research that is coming out of the University of Maryland on how members of Congress are using Twitter.

Twitter Use by the U.S. Congress (currently under review)

Abstract: Twitter is a microblogging service boasting over 7 million members and growing at a tremendous rate. With the buzz surrounding the service have come claims of its ability to transform the way people interact and share information, and calls for public figures to start using the site. In this study, we examine the way Twitter is being used by legislators, particularly by members of the United States Congress. We read and coded over 4,500 posts from all members of Congress using the site. Our analysis shows that Congresspeople are primarily using Twitter to post information, particularly links to news articles about them and their blog posts, and to report on their simple activities. These tend not to provide new insights into government or the legislative process or to improve transparency; rather, they are vehicles for self-promotion. However, Twitter is also facilitating direct communication between Congresspeople and citizens, though this is a less popular activity. In this paper, we report on our results, analysis, and provide suggestions for how Twitter can be used by Congresspeople in ways that benefit the citizens, not just the PR machines of the legislators themselves.

From the results of this study we found that Twitter is being used effectively in some spaces and not as effectively in others. In particular, Twitter has created opportunities for increased communication between citizens and Congresspeople, but the majority of posts contained information or location and activities which were being used for outreach and self promotion rather than to provide information that is helpful to citizens.

* Note this paper has been submitted for an upcoming conference but has NOT been accepted, peer-reviewed, or published. Please DO NOT CITE this article but if you are interested feel free to contact me.

US Census Bureau’s DataFerret

DataFerrett (Federated Electronic Research, Review, Extraction, and Tabulation Tool) is a free data mining and extraction tool developed by the U.S. Census Bureau that allows users to search, browse, combine, tabulate, recode, and analyze statistical data from a network of online data libraries. The DataFerret software can be downloaded from the website or ran in the browser via a java applet.

Some material to read before getting started:

  1. DataFerret Brochure
  2. Getting Starting with DataFerrett Tour
  3. DataFerret User Guide

Available data sets included:

  • American Community Survey (ACS)
  • American Housing Survey (AHS)
  • Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS)
  • Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES)
  • County Business Patterns (CBP)
  • Current Population Survey (CPS)
  • Decennial Census of Population and Housing
  • Harvard-MIT Data Center Collection
  • Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA)
  • Local Employment Dynamics (LED)
  • National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS)
  • National Center for Health Statistics Mortality (MORT)
  • National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (HANES)
  • National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
  • National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS)
  • National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife (FHWAR)
  • Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE)
  • Social Security Administration (SSA)
  • Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP)
  • Survey of Program Dynamics (SPD)

DataFerret is a wonderful tool for exploring and analyzing data. Enjoy!

(found via Open Access News)

UNL’s Government Comics Digital Collection

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library has recently put together a very unique collection of government information. Free and available to all, UNL’s Government Comics Collection is a digital library containing 174 scanned comics books from various government entities. In the government realm, comics books have had a long and rich history as a delivery medium for government information. UNL has managed to successfully amass a pretty impressive collection.

(found via MetaFilter)