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Happy Sunshine Week, the week where we celebrate government transparency, FOIA and all things open government information! There’s lots happening this week including the upcoming 1/2 day live and streaming celebration at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). But there’s also work to be done. Evidently, appropriators are holding up the smart, pro-transparency “HR 736 Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act” scheduled for a floor vote on Tuesday. Contact your Representative today and tell them to pass this important act!
There’s too much news happening this week to list it all — make sure to subscribe to the First Branch Forecast weekly newsletter published by Daniel Schuman and his crack team at Demand Progress to keep up to date! — but I did want to highlight the good news coming out of the LIBRARY of Congress. Slowly but surely, they’re expanding the number of Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports being published on their site crsreports.congress.gov. They still don’t have the coverage of EveryCRSReport.com which includes 14,742 CRS reports (and still growing) but LoC is getting there so good on them. Celebrate Sunshine Week by leaving LoC a comment and contacting your Representative to tell them to vote for “HR 736 Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act”. Sunshine is the best disinfectant!!
Since launching, we’ve added hundreds of new reports and are working hard to include the back catalog of older CRS reports – a process that is expected to be complete later this month. Today, you can access more than 2,300 reports on topics ranging from the Small Business Administration to farm policy.
Starting this week, the Library is making additional product types available on the site. The site now includes In Focus products, which are two-page executive level briefing documents on a range of policy issues. For example, recent topics include military medical malpractice and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant. Another newly-added product type is the Insight, which provides short-form analysis on fast moving or more focused issues. Examples of topics include volcano early warning systems and Congressional Member Organizations. Users can filter by product type using the faceted search on the left hand of the search results page.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) reports that the U.S. will no longer seek validation by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global anti-corruption effort to bring openness and accountability to the oil, gas and mining sectors.
- Administration Sounds Death Knell for Transparency Initiative, by Mia Steinle POGO press release (March 17, 2017).
A Department of the Interior official confirmed in a March 9 phone call that the United States is withdrawing its efforts to be validated under the EITI Standard. The standard requires companies and governments to disclose the payments they make and receive for extracting oil, gas and minerals. The goal of the initiative is to ensure citizens and governments are getting their fair share of revenues from natural resource extraction.
Under the Standard governments disclose how much they receive from extractive companies operating in their country and these companies disclose how much they pay. Governments sign up to implement the EITI Standard and must meet seven requirements. Then a Validator commissioned by the EITI International Secretariat assesses whether or not the country successfully implemented the EITI Standard.
The U.S. committed to join EITI in 2011 with the goal of ensuring that taxpayers are receiving every dollar due for extraction of natural resources. The United States had been working towards complying with the standard since 2012. The U.S. formally became an EITI candidate in 2014 when the EITI International Board approved USEITI’s candidacy application.
The website of the U.S. EITI is still available, but it appears no new information has been added to it since the inauguration. Its 2016 report is still available online. The only tweet from @useiti_doi since the inauguration has been one welcoming the new Department of the Interior Secretary.
The Poynter Institute reports that bureau chiefs from major news organizations sent a letter to the State Department protesting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to travel to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo without any traveling press.
- Bureau chiefs ‘deeply concerned’ that Rex Tillerson is ditching the press on Asia trip, by Benjamin Mullin Poynter (March 9, 2017).
CNN’s Jake Tapper called the trip "insulting to any American who is looking for anything but a state-run version of events."
A dozen news organizations signed the letter including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the wire services, Fox News, CNN, NPR, the BBC, Voice of America, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and the Agence France-Presse
The news out of Washington DC is not good if you’re a government information librarian or an open government advocate. In the last 24 hours, the Trump administration has put a freeze on EPA grants and contracts and ordered USDA science researchers to “cease publication of ‘outward facing’ documents and news releases.” Not only does this have a massive negative impact on scientific research — and the thousands of researchers and students who rely on federal grants to do their work and live on a day-to-day basis! — but it also shuts the door on our government’s communication with its citizens. Stay tuned and aware that this is going on, and by all means contact your representatives to let them know that this is NOT all right!
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.