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After the Election: Libraries, Librarians, and the Government
Like many of my colleagues, I’m struggling to understand what the results of the Presidential election mean for my work as a government information librarian at a public institution of higher education. In the weeks and months ahead, those of us who claim to value diversity, inclusion, and a human-centered approach to our work have important choices to make about how we meaningfully live these values in our communities.
For those of us who work in educational institutions, the uptick in reported acts of hatred and bigotry in schools and on campuses around the United States is a call to local and national action. For those of us who work with government information, there are additional, compelling questions that we need to consider. How will the least transparent Presidential candidate in modern history, who as President-Elect has already begun to announce administrative appointments evidencing troubling stances with respect to fundamental rights and freedoms, lead his administration? How will changes in policy and political rhetoric be reflected in official public information products, and what will be obscured? What will be deleted or altered? What will — and what should — the documentary record of this political and social era reflect?
Yet in reflecting on these and other urgent questions, it is important to note how many of these considerations have long deserved meaningful discussion in the context of our work. Critical examination has been ongoing and present (if not as widespread as one might hope) within discourse among archivists, instruction librarians, YA librarians, digital humanities and digital collections librarians, metadata librarians, librarians who work with first-year students, those who work with underserved communities, and many more. Within the small, mission-driven community of librarians and advocates whose work engages with government information, there is a lack of discourse engaging with the why of our work, let alone the why now.
Anecdotally, some conversations lean on words like those of James Madison (“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”), without reflecting on the relationship between Madison’s political philosophy and his role in the proposal and adoption of the three-fifths compromise, or that he directly profited from chattel slavery. Other conversations refer to the right of the public to access and use information produced with taxpayer funds, an indirect nod to deeply embedded notions of capitalism that intersect with the prevailing interpretation of the First Amendment that money is a form of speech. Still others reference a broad, generalized right of the public to know, one that is precarious both in scope (who are the public? what can they know?) and in temporal orientation (is there a right to remember? does it intersect with a right to be unknown or forgotten?).
I want to propose that as part of engaging with how we should address these new challenges, our community should meet its obligation to examine why we do this work. Speaking as an individual within this community — not on behalf of the community, or GODORT, or FGI, or my place of work — it seems that we have long understood ourselves as a profession under siege. Government documents collections in print are being discarded, while few institutions are putting strategies in place for collecting government information in digital formats. These strategies are not expanding in tandem with the explosive proliferation of these sources, and certainly not in pace with the changing demands for access from public users, researchers, students, and more. Most of us do work that transcends traditional reference, collection management, and cataloging roles; yet despite this, we still care.
From that stance of care, both for the people who surround me and for the work I do, I want to ask questions like these: with respect to government information, what responsibilities do we have as a professional community? How can we work outside our own walls to meaningfully and inclusively move forward programs that shift the possibilities for access and use? These questions represent only a segment of the unexplored space, and none of us have definitive answers. Our ethical imperative is to open conversations with communities around us that articulate and suggest responses to these questions, and build our future work in ways that are responsive to these considerations.
My colleague Thomas Padilla has pointed me to the work of Shannon Mattern as one avenue for exploration. Mattern’s article “Public In/Formation” argues that we have the capacity to act as “…stewards of equity, discretion, interoperability, resilience, and respect for the past.” Our work extends beyond the capture of information to encompass thoughtful curation that enables people to transform data into knowledge. This thoughtfulness has never been needed more:
A would-be strongman is headed to the White House, amidst swirling currents of disinformation. He has threatened to jail political enemies and sue newspapers, further destabilizing a media environment that was already reeling. Online and off, we need to create and defend vital spaces of information exchange, and we need to strengthen the local governments and institutions that shape the public use of those spaces. The future of American democracy depends on it. Bigly.
And we cannot depend on tech companies to safeguard those information spaces. Sidewalk Labs wants to turn Link stations into nodes of intelligent infrastructure that may one day collect data on pedestrian traffic and garbage removal, direct drivers to parking spots, route autonomous vehicles through the streets, and push location-specific targeted advertising. The ideology of data solutionism has taken over city halls, planning departments, law enforcement agencies, and countless other domains of public life — a troubling trend when social technocrats were in charge, and now, with the rise of Trumpism, an alarming one.
In a recent talk, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” Matthew K. Gold discusses work in infrastructure studies that engages with “…concerns over issues of power, capital and surveillance; the physical and commercial structures through which the phenomenon we refer to as ‘the network’ is built; and the growing sense in which media and networked infrastructures have become constitutive of much of our experience in the world.” When we think about government information as a common good, infrastructure interfaces with political and social realities in ways that can help us surface important considerations about our work in collecting and preserving these materials.
My hope is that we can learn from and build upon discourse in disciplinary communities both near to and far from our day-to-day work. To circle back around to educational institutions, I teach a one-lesson module on government information for an undergraduate introductory course on library research. As part of the lecture, I share a brochure published by the War Relocation Authority in 1943, titled Relocating a People. The argument I present to students is that library collections of government documents help us ask difficult questions about our government with respect to human rights, society, justice, democracy, capitalism, and so on. In that spirit, I ask of all of us: how can we make sure that these questions can be asked now, and then asked again and again in years to come?
Barbara Fister, “When is the Library Open? How About Now?” https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/when-library-open-how-about-now. Updated October 26, 2016.
—, “Get Ready to Fight for What Matters,” https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/get-ready-fight-what-matters. Updated November 20, 2016.
Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” https://medium.com/on-archivy/confronting-our-failure-of-care-around-the-legacies-of-marginalized-people-in-the-archives-dc4180397280#.uw9x7rft0. Updated November 11, 2016.
Christopher Long, “Open Letter to the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University,” https://medium.com/@cplong/open-letter-to-the-college-of-arts-letters-at-michigan-state-university-204d58a59158#.76pfequgh. Updated November 12, 2016.
Ed Summers, “On Forgetting,” On Archivy, https://medium.com/on-archivy/on-forgetting-e01a2b95272#.c1wwouv3f. Updated November 18, 2014.
Erin Leach, “No firm ground, but we ain’t sliding,” https://unifiedlibraryscene.blogspot.com/2016/11/no-firm-ground-but-we-aint-sliding.html. Updated November 8, 2016.
Matthew K. Gold, “Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud,” http://blog.mkgold.net/2016/11/04/out-of-sync-digital-humanities-and-the-cloud/. Updated November 11, 2016.
“Open Letter to the UO Community from the Undersigned Library Staff, Faculty, and Administrators,” http://library.uoregon.edu/sites/default/files/open_letter_diversity_equity_response_2016_0.pdf. Updated November 15, 2016.
Paul Finkelman, “Three-Fifths Clause: Why Its Taint Persists,” The Root, http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2013/02/the_threefifths_clause_the_compromise_over_slavery_and_its_lingering_effects/. Updated February 26, 2013.
Safiya U. Noble, “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression,” https://safiyaunoble.com/2016/08/30/personal-democracy-forum-at-nyu/. Updated August 30, 2016.
Shannon Mattern, “Public In/Formation,” Places, https://placesjournal.org/article/public-information/. Updated November 2016.
Shari Laster, “Government information and #critlib,” http://freegovinfo.info/node/10186. Updated July 21, 2015.
Sunlight Foundation, “The Trump questions: What will transparency and open government look like in the next White House?” http://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/11/10/the-trump-questions-what-will-transparency-and-open-government-look-like-in-the-next-white-house/. Updated November 10, 2016.
FGI Podcast: Building a Collaborative FDLP
Today’s lunchtime listen is FGI’s first podcast(!), a conversation recorded on July 25, 2016, with James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs, and Shari Laster discussing “Building a Collaborative FDLP.” If you missed that post, here’s an excerpt:
FDLP libraries can work together to provide, collectively, more than GPO — or any one library — can provide on its own. A collaborative FDLP is not one mega-library with one huge collection of only those documents that GPO can get. A collaborative FDLP consists of many curated collections that include Title 44 content, fugitive content (which GPO cannot force agencies to deposit), and non-Title-44 content that is out of GPO’s scope (e.g., FOIA’d documents, state/local/international government information, non-government information etc.). And each curated collection will have accompanying services tailored to that content for a community of users.
In such a collective approach, every community has access to the content and services it needs and every library provides a small slice of all those customized collections and services. In this approach, each library’s local-institutional community benefits from the contributions of every library.
This approach requires libraries to make one big change in the way they think of “communities.” In this approach, a “community” is a group of people who have common information needs — they need not live and work near any particular library or even near each other. In this approach every library focuses on one or more Designated Communities.1 In this approach every institution benefits from the collective work of all FDLP libraries rather than the individual work of only its own local-institutional library.
This approach will result in an FDLP collection that is more complete than GPO can build and maintain on its own and more comprehensive than Title 44; it will have much better functionality, and it will be more secure for the long-term.
Stream or download the podcast from the Internet Archive.
Do you have ideas for more conversations and podcasts you’d like to hear? Please share your feedback in the comments!
State Agency Databases Activity Report 5/4/2014
It was a slow week for the volunteers at the State Agency Databases Project at http://wikis.ala.org/godort/index.php/State_Agency_Databases.
Today’s featured database is from Pam Crawford, who maintains the Kansas page:
Kansas Road Conditions – http://511.ksdot.org/KanRoadPublic/Default.aspx
Database of current road conditions is searchable by region. The resulting customized map shows current road conditions due to weather or road work. Color-coding and symbols designate problems like ice, snow-pack, high water, road construction and road closures. Webcams are marked as well so you can view conditions at those locations.
See the full story of the last week’s changes by visiting http://tinyurl.com/statedbs. Below are some highlights of the week.
WYOMING (Karen Kitchens)
GEORGIA (Chris Sharpe)
Georgia’s Traffic Polling and Analysis System (TPAS) – View current and historical (back to January 1, 2008) traffic information collected. Search by county, city, or by click on a location on the map. Information includes vehicle count and percentage of trucks.
MARYLAND (Siu Min Yu)
[Insurance] Producer Enforcement – One can search “orders issued against producers (agents and brokers) for the past 10 years.”
National Library Week – FDLP Edition #nlw2014
Happy National Library Week! April 13 – 19, 2014 is National Library Week (NLW), a time to celebrate and honor libraries. Because we at FGI celebrate Federal Depository Libraries as key links in preserving the nation’s information products and serving as guides to the awe-inspiring mass of publications and data the feds make available, we’ll spend our NLW celebrating Federal Depository Libraries.
Fortunately the Government Printing Office has made things easy with for us with their Depository Library of the Year program. Each year since 2003, the Government Printing Office has recognized at least one library from among nominations made according to these guidelines:
Nominations should demonstrate the library’s creativity and innovation. The nominees should have implemented new concepts that are models for other libraries to emulate. For example, a nomination can detail the development of specific community programs highlighting Federal Government information, the deployment of new marketing techniques that dramatically increase a community’s use of these valuable resources, the employment of any other innovative public service relating to government documents, or collaborations with other libraries or community organizations. Any other accomplishments that greatly enhance public access to Federal government information are good points to bring forward.
When selecting finalists, GPO is looking for programs and library techniques that demonstrate:
Superb promotion of the Government depository collections and services to the community
Thorough knowledge of Federal government information needs in the library’s service area
Outstanding reference and other service assistance to patrons
Well-curated collection of Federal depository tangible and electronic resources adequate to meet the needs of the library’s service area
Excellent bibliographic control to enhance public access
Substantial cooperative efforts with other depository and non-depository libraries to share knowledge and resources with a larger community
Exceptional care and preservation of the depository collection
So for the next seven days, we’ll highlight the last seven years’ worth of award winners. If you’re familiar with the libraries we highlight, we’d love to hear from you in comments. If you’d like to write your own National Library Week stories, please tag your social media posts with #nlw14 or #LivesChange.
See you on Sunday!
OMB Watch: “Libraries Can Connect the Public to Open Government”
From a New OMB Watch Article:
In recent years, government has increasingly embraced the proactive disclosure of information and created online tools to increase transparency. But how do Americans discover that information? Who helps them learn how to use complex government databases and tools? The answer may be a surprisingly familiar one: libraries.
Libraries have traditionally played a leading role in helping the public discover and use government information. However, the rapid expansion of e-government creates new opportunities and challenges for empowering the public with such information. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is now considering a proposal that could help libraries around the country to modernize and expand their government information services, supporting equitable public access to information and amplifying the impact of open government initiatives.
The article goes on to discuss government information in libraries and the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) focusing on the rejected Ithaka S+R report.
Finally, OMB Watch shares several key priorities for the FDLP which were included in comments about the Ithaka report that OMB Watch sent to the GPO on September 16, 2011 (3 pages; PDF)