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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.

Library of Congress to acquire and archive every public tweet ever

Your Tweets, Archived for Eternity, By Emily Long, TechInsider (04/14/10).

In true Twitter fashion, the news came out via the @librarycongress feed: “Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archive — ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006! Details to follow..”

Library of Congress to archive public Tweets, By Emily Long, NextGov (04/14/2010).

According to Twitter, the Tweets will be available for internal library use, noncommercial research, public display and preservation after a six-months.

Library of Congress Unveils Redesigned Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

Library of Congress Unveils Redesigned Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, News from the Library of Congress, April 7, 2010.

PPOC offers access to 1.25 million digital images and to more than 600,000 records describing the collections in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division (P&P). The improved catalog can be found at www.loc.gov/pictures/.

“The new features are wonderful,” said Helena Zinkham, acting chief of P&P. “People seeking specific subjects, or just wanting to explore what’s available, can interact more easily with the picture collections. They now have the tools they’ve come to expect from other websites, like a variety of viewing options and simple sharing of what’s found, plus improved keyword access and more indexes to browse.”

Yes, We Do Need A World Library!

The other day Barrett posed the question Do We Need A World Library? in response to news coverage of the prototype World Digital Library being developed by the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library.

Good Points!

Barrett makes some good points, particularly about the problem of information disappearing. The combination of problems — including the natural loss of the physical information objects (particularly rare ones) and the fact that the problem of digital preservation (particularly for the "born-digital" objects that have no physical instantiation) remains largely unsolved — creates a situation in which huge losses of information are almost guaranteed. I was at a meeting last year at which a university was acknowledging that it is losing information every day — it just doesn’t know what or how much.

I also like Barrett’s point about the existence of technologies to help solve some of the information problems we face today.

And I share Barett’s frustration with large scale, top down projects and his implied promotion of smaller scale, innovative projects.

Need for Libraries

But I believe we do need planning and we do need libraries. I don’t think the situations we face call for an either/or approach. We don’t need to choose big libraries OR small libraries; we don’t need to choose small projects OR large projects. We don’t even need to choose "libraries" OR "no-libraries" as a solution to information preservation and access. We can choose a both/and approach that makes best use of a variety of tools and techniques, each suited to a particular problem that it can address best.

I don’t think that we should exclude any possible solutions or worry about big projects like the World Library. I think we should welcome such projects — just as libraries should welcome P2P file sharing, user-generated keyword-tagging, and even private sector projects when they facilitate more access to more information. I believe that it is extremely important that libraries and librarians avoid assuming that everything will take care of itself.

Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn’t let it set our goals

Some librarians take this kind of thinking way too far, I think; (see my post, The Googlization of Everything, "Drop the fight"? or Start a Revolution?). They miss the point that even such revered tools as Google work not because of technology but because of human generated metadata. Technology (e.g., Google’s algorithm) provides tools that are only useful if there are raw materials to work with. (Try building a house with hammers and saws and no wood or nails; imagine google if there were no links, i.e., human generated metadata, to which it could apply PageRank.) Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn’t let it set our goals.

Rather than "dropping the fight" or saying that we don’t need a world library, I think librarians should be looking for things to do that will complement what others are doing. For example, we should be looking for ways to apply existing (and forthcoming!) technologies to what we do. We shouldn’t give up on authority control (e.g., LCSH) but neither should we overlook the value of user-generated keywords when they provide better, more-precise, more up-to-date access than slow-changing authority records. Rather than hoping that someone (e.g., publishers, distributors, individuals, researchers, volunteers?) will save what needs to be saved, we should be building redundant digital collections and providing selection, organization, preservation, access, and service to those collections. And so forth.

It is commendable that individuals and non-librarians are creating metadata, just as it is commendable than people can design and build their own homes; but that doesn’t mean we want a world with no architects and no carpenters and no plumbers. I might be content to live in a self-built dome, but I can still value a skyscraper designed and built by professionals. To use a different analogy, the open-source programming community values professional programmers and version control and source-code monitoring and so forth to guarantee good reliable code. Professionals (be they programmers, or carpenters, or librarians) bring skills and tools that are valuable. And we should not ignore or deprecate those skills and tools; we (librarians) should celebrate them and make sure we (society) do not lose them.

The Web is a tool, not a Library

But, perhaps more importantly, the web is not a Library and never will be. The web is a tool libraries can use for what they do — just as scholars and readers and publishers and artists can use it for what they do. Libraries are defined by what they do — not how they do it. Libraries should use the best tools available to do what they do. What do libraries do? They fulfill an essential function of society by having as their primary role the selection, acquisition, organization, and preservation of information and the provision of access to and services for that information. Societies need professionals in specialized institutions who take on this role. This won’t happen by accident. Others may from time to time provide one or more of these functions as a secondary role (e.g., Google makes money by selling ads and, as a by-product, indexes web pages). But society needs institutions that fulfill all these functions as their primary activity. The web is a tool libraries can use to do that, but the web is not the library.

When we see some of those functions being performed on the web and it tempts us to say that the web is a library, we need to ask ourselves if we really have everything we want: organization AND access? Access AND preservation? Selection AND service? etc. And we should be particularly careful about relying on commercial services that replace the public function served by public institutions. Will privatization of "organization" (e.g., Google’s book-scanning project) reduce access and fair use and replace copyright with license agreements? Private companies must, by law, make money for their stock-holders; any "public service" they perform is secondary to that. We need institutions whose primary function is public service related to information selection, preservation, and service. What would you call such an institution but a "Library"? Just today I reread an old article that addresses some of these issues and, though it is dated, I still recommend it.

  • Griffiths, Jose Marie (1998). "Why the Web is not a library." In The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, eds. B. L. Hawkins and P. Battin, pp. 229-246. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998.

In it, Griffiths asks, "…why is there an assumed headlong dash into digitizing everything in sight while beating a chaotic retreat from the functions our libraries and librarians have fulfilled for centuries?" She has lots of answers for what libraries are and should be and some of them are still relevant today almost ten years after she wrote this piece. Thinking like this and the planning being done by The Institute For The Future Of The Book and the Digital Library Federation is a good thing that we should, I believe, encourage. (See the really modern library.)

Not a Technological Problem

I also believe that, though we do have lots of wonderful technologies, the problems are not technological, but social, political, and economic. Two recent articles said as much. One was an article about the World Library (Checking Out Tomorrow’s Library, by John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, October 18, 2007, page A21). In it, Paul Saffo, a long-time Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says

The challenges here aren’t technological… the issue is the will to make it happen.

I believe that "the will to make it happen" has to include a societal-scale recognition of the information needs of society, not just a hope that things will work out because technologies make it possible and lots of volunteers might make it happen. We need to think in terms of public access to information, not just commercial, privatized access. And, in a recent editorial (Sue the libraries – they’re letting people get content on the cheap by Andrew Brown, The Guardian, October 18 2007, p2 of the Technology section) Brown, who is an English writer and journalist, said,

This isn’t a technological problem…. The problem, as usual, is a social one: it can only be solved by collective action, and there is no better means of sharing in the information age than old-fashioned, unglamorous libraries, even when you can use them at home.

I think this sums it up pretty nicely. Technology provides us tools to get more information to more people better than we ever have before. But it can also be used to lock-up information and make it harder to get and more expensive. We’ll always need libraries because libraries do something that societies need and that no one else does — not publishers or readers or the private sector.

Do We Need A World Library?

Plans for a World Library were announced with great fanfare earlier this week.  It’s a nice idea but I have to admit, my first thought when I learned of this project was "Why?"  We already have a digital library that covers the world.  It’s called the web.  Yeah, I know the collection could use a little weeding but still, it’s up and running and being added to all the time.  Are grand designs and top-down planning still the way to go in a time when anyone with a laptop, a scanner, and a DVD burner (or good bandwidth) can crank out gigabytes of data?  The other day I was visiting a friend and, while we sat talking in his livingroom, he burned a DVD for me containing every Black Flag album,  every Sonic Youth album, every Minutemen album, and every Husker Du album ever released.  It was all done in about 20 minutes.  Now I’m not saying that scanning the Mabo Case Manuscripts would be as easy, and I have tons of respect for those who labor to provide access points to such things, as well as the folks who coordinate such activities.  But I do worry because the methods for organization are already here, the technologies are already here, and while smart people spend time crafting carefully worded discussion papers, things are disappearing.    

How Washington DC shapes us all: in honor of Art Emerson

Many of us who are drawn to U.S. federal publications end up traveling to our Nation’s capitol fairly regularly, if we don’t live there already.  Over time, we develop constellations of memories about "the first time I did" this or that in Washington DC.  We attend GPO-sponsored events like the formative Interagency Depository Seminar (alumna, class of 1993) or the Depository Library Conference & Council meetings; we tour famous sites and museums; we recall our first time on the Mall, seeing cherry blossoms, and riding the Metro.  Special people in our lives are willing to show us "their" Washington DC, and their perspectives further enrich our understanding of all the secrets within the Beltway.
There are also special Washington DC people we visit — our family or friends — who are completely outside the govdocs realm.  For fifteen years, I’ve had a standing date (always dinner and a walk) with a reference librarian from the Library of Congress, Art Emerson.  Art served as the Library of Congress subject expert for Australia and New Zealand.  He was a contemporary of mine from the University of Michigan School of Information and Library  Studies (its old name).  Art and I would look forward to our annual time together:  what new memorial would we see?  What museum just opened?  What ethnic restaurant was fabulous and as yet undiscovered by the hordes?  I’ll never forget the night he took this small town girl on a no-holds-barred tour of the Metro’s steepest escalators, because he knew what fear and excitement these inspired in me.  He took special pride in my teary-eyed first glimpse of the LC Main Reading Room and the restored Jefferson Building.  When he visited the Northwest this past year, we took him to see Seattle’s favorite Australian import, Lauren Jackson, play a mean game of basketball.
My friends and I were shocked to learn that Art Emerson died last week.  A health problem had been building, stealthily, for some time, until it finally manifested itself and ended his life.  He was 51.  He had spent a glorious year at the State Library of New South Wales.  He helped people all over the world discover treasures of one of the greatest libraries on Earth, and a federal library at that.  He was still planning his next trip to Australia, perhaps planning his next book project after his Historical Dictionary of Sydney.  He had a wicked sense of humor and a mind that would be the envy of any scholar.  With the serendipity that always seems to happen around a death, I turned over a scrap of paper on my guest room floor last night to find that it was a card for Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant and Mongolian Barbeque, the last restaurant I visited with Art.  I’m too sad to eulogize him further right now, and FGI is not the place to do so.  But I thought in Art’s memory, I would ask the FGI readership:  what are some of your favorite secret spots in  Washington DC?  What special person introduced you to these?  How has Washington DC changed who you are as an information lover?