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Our mission

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.

Outreach to New Librarians

Next week, I will be representing government information librarians at a career fair for graduate students in library science here in northeast Ohio. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the message I want to bring to my booth. Many of the reasons I decided to become a librarian are related directly to government information. While I can’t expect that everyone is as instinctively thrilled about USDA research products, Congressional hearings, and old War Department railroad surveys as I am, it seems likely that most government information issues have some inherent appeal to librarians, even those who may not yet have been bitten by the government information bug.

My incomplete list of librarians and related specialists who have some investment in government information includes: librarians at institutions that perform policy, political science, or historical research; public services librarians who help users find information about government services, activities, and priorities; librarians at institutions specializing in the health sciences (or any other discipline for which the government funds research); archivists and digital collections librarians; records managers; book conservators; publishers who reprint works in the public domain; programmers and database administrators who might want to work for the government; and school media specialists looking for resources to support civics education.

Beyond this, I would include librarians who are bloggers, librarians who are politics junkies, and every librarian who is, on principle, an advocate of openness and transparency, or who would benefit as a voter or citizen or member of a community from more open information from the government – and that, as we know, is everyone.

So I will highlight resources that might hook different members of this eclectic community of future librarians. Of course, as an FDLP librarian, I want to make information available about the program and what it’s like to work with documents, as well as the breadth and depth of information available from all flavors of government. But I will also highlight government information accessibility and preservation initiatives, public interest issues (such as access to taxpayer-supported research and the link between public libraries and e-government services), and projects and issues that tie into emerging technologies and other hot topics in librarianship. The more librarians are invested in government information issues, the more they will join our conversations with government entities – and the more they will support our work at our libraries and institutions.

If you have tips and tricks for hooking new librarians, or a great success story, please share in the comments!

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.

46 and 45 Days to Government Information Liberation

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

I think the toughest aspect of sustaining this kind of weeks long conversation is to try and keep all the different aspects of what we now call government information librarianship together into some kind of cohesive whole. In my last post I spoke about the underlying foundations of social capital shared by journalists and librarians that mediates between individuals or communities that want to know more about government institutions and sources of information produced by and about those institutions.

In the case of librarians, the cumulative social capital comes from centuries old traditions of gathering and organizing a community’s information artifacts. As an outcome of this gathering and organizing, librarians might also choose to become familiar with the substance and dynamics of how government organizations function, study or address problems, communicate with the public (and other government organizations), and eventually how the government organization might stash its information stuff over the long haul (or not, as the case might be.) In an open and democratic society these librarians also take on the express purpose to proactively work with other organizations, groups, and interested individuals to keep the civic machinery of government as transparent and accessible as possible. The term civic machinery is not widely used in the library traditions, but is a term that constantly pops in the professional and popular press. example, see here, here, here and here.

I like the phrase “civic machinery” — once used by Jane Addams to describe the critical role certain institutions might play in connecting a community to the democratic structures of their governments. Here is what Addams said specifically —

“As the policeman who makes terms with vice, and almost inevitably slides into making gain from vice, merely represents the type of politician who is living off the weakness of his fellows, so the over-zealous reformer who exaggerates vice until the public is scared and awestruck, represents the type of politician who is living off the timidity of his fellows. With the lack of civic machinery for simple democratic expression, for a direct dealing with human nature as it is, we seem doomed to one type or the other–corruptionists or anti-crime committees”

What the civic expansion of public digital information over the last 15 years now demands of librarians and their professional associations is simply this — take advantage of the technology to preserve our traditions of sustainability and transparency.

See you on Day 44.

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

51 Days to Government Information Liberation

Having just experienced one of those travel nightmares engendered by a combination or bad weather and collapsing service resources in a major domestic airline, combined with underfunded road and traffic infrastructure investments that allows gridlock when only a few inches of snow fall (we are talking about the metropolitan Chicago area here — no stranger to snowfall) — I do not have many good thoughts left today to devote to the long term goals of government information liberation.

Except for this one stray notion — which is spinning off of Rebecca’s comment asking for a parsing of what we mean by “possession” and how it relates to the purpose of libraries.

For me, the idea of possession begins (and in some ways ends) with the physical ownership of material. Over the centuries librarians and libraries have built many intellectual tools (indexes, catalogs, classification schemes) and sustained services (reference, readers advisories, instruction). They often did this regardless of what the publishers or creators of the material wanted to do. They did cooperate on some projects — but for the most part these tools and services were hatched according to local needs and sustained through local investment. To be sure, broad coalitions of library organizations supported what we now call standards and protocols (MARC records, AACR2, etc.) that greatly influenced how these tools/services were fashioned and deployed by local libraries. But, I would argue their primary purposes were shaped by local needs. We sustained our pre-Internet reference and public service cultures even more so on these local purposes, with only broad guidelines or studies being developed for these important library purposes.

In fact, I would argue that the indigenous reference cultures of many libraries remain still largely untouched by the social web in any substantial way at the organizational/departmental level. We still rely on a model that is largely one librarian to one user, with little cross sharing among the librarians except perhaps on through anecdotal comparison. I wonder how many libraries that use digital reference tools extensively keep the data for any length of time and go back and review the questions and answers for patterns, accuracy, ways to improve the reference interview throughout the department, not just at the individual librarian level.

And here is where I think I break with Jim and/or Daniel, or, as we politely put it, agree to disagree. Though I can see some kind of limited future for the traditional ownership/possession of material model (whether it is for preservation or civic purposes) — I wager that the shape and future of librarians in general is going to come from how well we adapt our institutions to that stark reality that we will not own (possess) much of the material we mediate on behalf of our user communities. For many of our users, the digital environment is now the “default library” that supports broad access to a “collection” of government information once only possible through a physical library just a few short years ago. What are librarians to do in order to help people make some kind of civic sense out of this digital mash up of ownership?

Just as our possession of the physical volumes fostered a series of innovations and public techniques that supported free public accessibility, so to will we have to innovate some kind suite of tools and services to help our user communities make sense of all the possible choices they have when the government information can be delivered to their digital door step by either public agencies or other third parties.

Libraries and librarians will have to reanimate their primary missions in such a way that offer better services/resources in a local market now open to more competition from other national, regional, and local service providers (be they other libraries, public institutions, or third party information providers.) I do not think the three of us disagree with the overall purpose of government information in libraries for the near future — they must remain critical links in our civic culture regardless of the technology.

However, the bibliographic bulwarks of information democracy created in a Gutenberg universe are not the same as those needed in an environment dominated largely by the dictates of digital creation, access, distribution and preservation. And these critical differences are what this present 75 day discussion is all about, and what Free Government Information, in my humble opinion, continues to seek to reveal and deepen among the community of government/civic information librarians.

Now, back to the gridlock.

See you on Day 50 (perhaps a red letter day.)