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Tapping back into the “raw power” theme, I just read the New York Times article on Carl Malamud mentioned here by Jim Jacobs. I found the article curious for the simple reason that it equates “free” access to massive amounts of court records with power, and a good form of power, or what he calls the “operating system for democracy.” Though this kind of rhetoric sparks the necessary energy to get people to leave their couches and join the open government brigade at the barricade, I think it also paints a too simplistic picture of the complex arrangement of constitutional and legal traditions that favor a highly evolved civic engagement.
Missing from the newspaper article’s description of what happened to the PACER pilot project and its sudden suspension is the more messy aspects of democracy that try to balance privacy with open access, free access with the necessary infrastructure (that requires money and personnel to function) to sustain long-term availability of “raw data.” This balancing act depends on a series of relationships between the courts, users, the GPO and its depository libraries. Simply downloading millions of pages, as one person did in California is not a relationship, it is simply a power surge that may or may not be made useful by people on the information grid.
However, as the article points out, Malamud does demand some level of privacy protection in these court documents, he puts that responsibility squarely back on the shoulders of the courts by pointing out that is the court’s duty, and heavy lifting, to make sure this private information is not made publicly available.
What I would expect to see, if indeed Malamud is interested in becoming a future Public Printer is less focus on the power aspects of the information grid, and more focus on the redistribution stations necessary to make government information understandable, accessible, and sustainable over long periods of time. Libraries have done this for several millennium, and they will continue to do so with the different technologies now being deployed. It isn’t a race to see who can make the most government information available. It should be a long engaged relationship between those in power and those the power serves to assure that the knowledge, information and necessary data are understood and usable by the citizen. Power without breakers or distribution centers only overwhelms, it does not inform.
Now that the Senate is close to a vote on the stimulus bill — and we all know what a slugfest the conference committee is going to be as the two Congressional chambers work through their differences — I think this could be another one of those “teaching moments” for our communities, let of course by government information librarians. Blogs are good, guides are good; but how about if a collection of public libraries and academic libraries banded together to put on a one or two hour program the describes the various intricacies of the legislation and how folks can get the information from the web. This can be done, considering how much energy we put into explaining tax forms and how to find ancestors.
See you Day 20.