In the Sacramento River Delta, just a short drive to the south of where I live, there is an area with some confusion regarding the official geographic information that has been disseminated about it. There are two islands named Ryer Island, and because of some errors in the past, the one that is populated is impossible to find using most geographic information tools. Here is a website about it: ryerisland.com.
Among other things, I think this site could be used in conjunction with an information literacy lesson regarding the reliability of authoritative information resources.
A convergence of several things — the White House’s new policy on Open Access to federally funded scientific information, the NAPA Report on the GPO, the CASSANDRA Letter to the Public Printer, Aaron Swartz’ long work with open govt and open access and his tragic suicide and Sunshine Week among them — has led us to create a petition on the White House’s We the People petition site. If you believe in free permanent public access to authentic government information, we hope you’ll sign the petition and forward on to all your friends and social networks to help us reach our goal of 100,000 signatures by April 11, 2013! Thanks in advance!!
I want to provide a link to some admirable and important work being done by the Center for Media and Democracy: ALEC Exposed. (ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that serves as a clearing house for model state government legislation written to further the interests of corporations.)
The work of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and the work of ALEC are good examples of the odd state of public information in this country today. On the one hand, and CMD shows, the political process is corrupt, and contrary to ideals of democracy, the public has little influence over the state of their own governance. On the other hand, despite the domination of society by corporate interests, we still have the access to government information and the free speech rights that enable CMD to do the work that they have done in exposing ALEC’s role in state legislation. It is a shame that these rights and the work done by CMD don’t have more of an influence than they do, but the potential is there.
This raises a question for librarians. We talk about our role in supporting the conditions for a democratic society, but what are libraries doing with the kind of information that CMD compiles and disseminates? What role are libraries actually playing in the public sphere where essential issues such as this are concerned? Concerning the support for democracy, what is the potential of libraries and what are libraries actually accomplishing?
And where does the new thinking in libraries, about serving the information needs of a Web 2.0 audience for example, address these questions? How is the new thinking of libraries addressing the GOALS of libraries as opposed to reacting to perceived changes with the goal of “staying relevant?” Should “staying relevant” be a goal in itself, or should we rather form external goals (like furthering democracy), which, in reaching them, satisfies any internal goals that may be thought up. It is like the difference between a young person whose goal is “to be successful” and a young person who has a goal to achieve advancements in his area of interests. He is successful if he accomplishes his goal. We are relevant if we accomplish our external goal of supporting democracy. We may need innovative strategies in order to do it, and traditional ways of doing things in libraries may be obstacles. But unless we focus on the goals instead of the tools, we will flounder around lost.
Daniel Ellsberg spoke at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans this summer, about the current world situation and libraries. ALA’s Leonard Kniffel followed up with this on-camera interview.
Librarians have responded to the internet and other technologies that have reduced people’s demand for our services in a couple of complementary ways over the past 20 years or so (or more). On the one hand, we have pointed out all of the reasons that libraries are still needed and still heavily used, and on the other hand we have embraced new roles as information technology designers. These strategies have worked fairly well for libraries as institutions, but not for all specializations in library work. At the reference desk (my own encampment), we have seen steadily declining interest in the service we offer, because most of the simple factual questions that people used to come to us with are now more easily answered via the web. When people do come to us with simple, factual questions, we often have a sense that these questions don’t demand much of our expertise as reference librarians, and could easily be handled by other staff or by student workers with a little training. Yes, there are times when the reference interview reveals that the real question is somewhat different than what we have been presented with, or that behind the question there are important considerations that we are able to help the patron incorporate. But most of the time, the simple, factual questions that people present make us feel as redundant as we are said to be.
In academic libraries, we are often called on to do a little bit more, to engage with students in a learning process that has to do with helping them become competent in their new intellectual world. That is one avenue for expanding the role of reference librarians – to become more integrated into the teaching mission of the institution as educators. But I will leave that aside for now to talk about a different potential direction for reference librarians that can exist outside of educational settings, one that could involve provision of a new kind of public service.
I got the germ of the idea at a job I once had at a government special library. In the California State Library, a unit called the California Research Bureau provides reference service to the State Assembly and the Governor’s Office according to the model set by the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. At the California example, librarians, and other employees with the job title of “researcher” (mostly with masters degrees in public policy), respond to requests from the offices of Assembly members. Reference questions typically had a turn-around time of one to two days, and the response, rather than a suggestion of some resources that the user might consult, was a packet of printed-out documents containing the information that the requester wanted. We selected documents with a high degree of attention to relevance, knowing that our users did not have time to wade through irrelevant matter. We used Lexis-Nexis, the physical collections of the State Library, policy papers that we found online or requested directly from research organizations, or other materials. The research we did for patrons – as reference librarians – often involved telephoning potential sources of relevant information and asking if they would share it with us. The jobs of the Researchers (the non-librarians) at the CRB was different. They were assigned research projects that took weeks or months to complete, according to the needs of legislators who wanted to write good policy, and they used social science methodologies. They did original research. Among the researchers there were people with backgrounds in different areas of policy, as specializations on top of their masters degrees. The reference librarians supported their research in addition to providing reference service directly to legislators. This organization worked with efficiency and smarts (and still does, I’m sure, I am just no longer there), constantly proving its worth to the legislature that was responsible for renewing its funding.
Since leaving there in the early 2000′s I have often felt dismay that the same degree of interest in good research to inform policy is not a part of the American political culture in general, especially in the news media. When political questions are debated it often occurs to me how good it would be to have certain relevant data, in order to check the assumptions that are in play (often contradictory assumptions). And when people toss numbers or other factoids into a discussion without knowing where they came from or how they are arrived at, without the slightest worry that they may be bunk, I feel that the services of reference librarians are very much in need, and painfully in need, but that few realize it. I think this is true with respect to many topics that interest people, whether they are policy questions or not.
So why not set up, as part of a public library organization, a “Public Library Reference Bureau,” that gathers up, sorts through and compiles already-published data in the service of clarifying the questions of the day? I will not worry here about the logistical issues around how to determine what questions are researched and for whom, except to say that one option could even be to develop the questions internally with the idea of sharing the results with the news media.
Let me provide some examples of the kind of research I think would be appropriate for this type of a service.
Regarding “Freedom” as a distinctive American value, distinguishing us from other societies, are there ways of measuring the degree of freedom that we enjoy in comparison to other countries? One possibility would be to gather information on how many activities in the United States require a license (with a fee, or a test, or both), whether granted federally, at the state level, or locally, as compared to other countries (e.g. Mexico). Another example would be a more micro-level analysis that researches all of the steps that a person would have to go through, and the severity of each barrier to entry along the way, in order to start a business doing a particular thing (e.g. selling fresh-squeezed juices) in a number of different countries. Parallel to this research would be to find information on the effectiveness of each of the regulations and license requirements that account for various barriers in terms of achieving their policy aims.
So that’s one example.
Another would be to find data relevant to the idea of domestic and foreign auto makers. We have an idea that may or may not still be valid that certain car manufacturers are American and certain others are foreign. Ford and General Motors are American companies, Toyota is a Japanese company, etc. But what do we mean when we say this? In fact, shares of large publicly traded companies are owned by international investment banks and by various equity funds that are located all over the world. Cars tend to be manufactured in factories that are as close as possible to the markets for those cars, meaning “foreign” cars are manufactured in U.S. factories by U.S. workers. Many “foreign” cars are also designed in the United States. And Americans are not always aware of the extent to which Ford and General Motors have a presence in other countries not as a foreign car manufacturer but as a domestic car manufacturer (especially Ford, but also General Motors brands like Vauxhall and Opel). Many cars are the product of joint ventures between companies that are based on different countries, or are licensed to be “badged” with the brand of a car company that had nothing to do with designing it or manufacturing it. Often an auto maker will own a large percentage of shares in another car company in another country. All of this isn’t to argue that there is no such thing as a foreign versus a domestic auto maker, but to say that we could use some data to find out to what extent that idea still makes sense. The data could be along the lines of the question: for each of the top ten global auto makers, what proportion of the workers doing manufacturing, engineering, design, marketing and management are located in what nations (and how much of the stock is held in what nations)? The numbers are out there for librarians to find and compile, and only by doing that can we get an accurate sense of what is a foreign or domestic automaker. (By the way, are the Big Three now Ford, General Motors, and Fiat?)
Another example is a very practical area for compiling information for the public: the hot policy issue of immigration and immigration reform. So many people have strong opinions with little to no awareness of the relevant numbers, just some basic “pro-” or “anti-” passions. But there are so many relevant questions to which answers already exist. How many non-citizens are there in the U.S.? How many are here legally on visas? On green cards? How many are here on overstayed visas? How many of those who are on overstayed visas are here because of paperwork delays at the INS, and how many of them are deliberately avoiding the INS? How many are here without visas at all? With all of those questions, from what countries? What are the existing immigration quotas, in terms of visas (and types of visas), green cards, and citizenship, by nation of origin? What is the history of those quotas, and their rationales? What is the history of amnesty? What are the types of amnesty? What are the policies in place that effect people who are here illegally? How much do illegal immigrants pay in taxes? (Not just whether they pay taxes.) What are illegal immigrants paid versus legal workers at the same jobs? How risky is it, in terms of the actual enforcement of the law, for employers to hire undocumented workers in various sectors and regions? What determines the policies on enforcement of the laws affecting employers versus immigrants? What rights do undocumented workers have or not have in the workplace, de facto and de jure? What is their contribution to the economy? How are they included or not included in economic statistics? What were the conditions of undocumented workers in their countries of origin, in terms of wages, rights, conditions? Etcetera. Personally, not knowing objective answers to these questions, I feel that I can have very little to say about immigration policy. (I do often say an aspect of immigration policy, broadly considered, is the de facto maintenance of an unenfranchised population who are here by choice; but I can’t say as much about that idea as I would like without having this kind of data.)
How nice it would be if reference librarians were given the role of finding, compiling, and critically presenting existing data as it relates to questions like these. It would be a way of putting our skills to work that is more efficient in terms of what we get out of it as a society. As a reference librarian, I may enjoy those times when someone comes to the desk with a question that is unusually challenging and meaningful, but how many people are helped by the research that we do together? Unless the patron is a researcher whose work is going somewhere, perhaps only the two of us. So wouldn’t it be good to find a way to leverage the higher-level work that we are able to do in such a way that many people can benefit from it? We could not only help individuals who came to the desk, but perhaps through some kind of media channel we could reach the public. Maybe some creative TV producer needs to help us out with this….
No comment about this or predictions about where the case may be headed or whether there will be broader implications for privacy down the road, except to say to anyone out there who uses an email account set up by a public university: Best to keep as much as possible on your own private email accounts.
Susan Maret sent an interesting link to the PLG listserv to an article about statutes that create new exemptions to FOIA. If you’re interested in access to government information, this is something you should be aware of.
Christian Caryl has an insightful post on the NYRB blog, “WikiLeaks in the Moral Void.” As he astutely says about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,
In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see coherently articulated morality, or even immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void.
There have been so many times, historically, that good ends have been served by bringing information to light the government or other organizations wanted to conceal that it can be difficult to see the radical effect that the internet is having on the implications of transparency as a value. Sunshine laws have always built in limitations on disclosure for good reasons, but in popular thinking these limitations haven’t changed the way many people think about transparency as a value per se. Now, in the case of WikiLeaks, it seems that technical tools are realizing that value to an absolute degree. I think librarians who admire Julian Assange as a matter of reflex should stop to consider how our basic framework of values is affected by technology in this area. To think that the world would be a better place if there were total transparency, no distinction between public and private, inside and outside, would, I think, amount to a failure to think things through. Instead of making a hero out of Julian Assange, I think we should study WikiLeaks as an example of the social effects of technology. What does it tell us about how the internet amplifies certain human tendencies as opposed to others? About the effect of the internet on international relations and people’s relationship to the state? Do we know why we react to something like WikiLeaks the way we do, prior to thinking about it?
Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to not bring criminal charges against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the destruction of federal records: videotapes of the torture of detainees at CIA black sites. The destruction of these records is a clear violation of the Federal Records Act, which DOJ should have pursued. The decision to date to give the CIA a free-pass is antithetical to DOJ’s mission to enforce the law of the land, and sends the wrong message to agencies that may have information that, if released, would be embarrassing or reveal illegal activities.
…The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched an early investigation into the issue, which was put on hold for the DOJ. NARA has indicated that they will re-start their investigation in light of DOJ’s failure to take the lead. Join us in thanking NARA for its willingness to demand the CIA answer for its actions, and expressing great hope that DOJ support NARA.
You can sign onto a letter in support of the Archivist of the United States in support of this investigation. It is a positive letter, thanking him for his leadership and offering support. I think we should not take for granted that NARA is looking into this when the DOJ refuses to.
I was discussing the free press with a Russian friend once, and she told me that the main difference between Soviet Russia and the contemporary USA was that Russians knew they were being lied to, while Americans have naively believed that what the news says is the truth. Amusingly, right wing skeptics are presently doubting the US military line regarding the missile sighting on the California coast, as though today’s Pentagon is a different Pentagon from the one they backed and trusted during the Bush administration. At any rate, it does look as though Americans are in a mood to doubt the honesty of the government.
But what about the news media? If the news media were a branch of government, obviously Americans would doubt it in much the same way that Soviet Russians doubted Pravda. Paradoxically, the American news media has become less reliable at the same time that it has become popularized. News organizations are being squeezed by declining revenues and shareholder demands for higher profit margins, and consequently are weaker in the newsroom than they have been in a long time, less capable of solid investigative journalism. The result is that the news media has to trust and rely more than in the past on the products of public relations people, working for both corporations and government. PR firms and the PR departments of government are responsible for most of what we read as “news” (even more than in the past). The news media is more propagandized and filtered than in the 20th century, while at the same time more “popular” in tone, to appeal to a customer base that increasingly distrusts “elites.” New media, blogs, etc., are often cited as representing a hope for greater democracy, but when democracy means channeling corporate and government propaganda, that hope is rather pale.
That said, the diversity of new media has to be recognized, and the importance of a free press, whether it is relevant to the average person or not, is something that we become cynical about at our peril. Case in point, a post from yesterday’s Machetera blog regarding a meeting at the Capitol building today. The meeting is called “Anger in the Andes: Threats to Democracy, Human Rights and Inter-American Security.” I am not sure whether the meeting will be open to the public or whether proceedings will be publicly available, or not. The blog post talks about players from the Latin American right wing who are scheduled to be present at the meeting. I recognized some of the names and am aware of some of the historical events that others are associated with. (I blogged about a couple of them last month.) The list has quite a few known terrorists, and other baddies involved in right wing coups d’etat and assassinations. For all the Tea Partiers’ assertions that the Obama Administration is socialist, it seems our government has maintained its ties with fascist elements in Latin America. But to say that because of that (or because of the Democrats, which it regrettably needs to be objected) we are a fascist state would be to take for granted the press freedoms that allow the Machetera blog to share this news with us without fear of (ahem) surveillance or harassment. (That statement might need to be qualified, however – you can read the blog to see why. To say that we have a free press that is overwhelmed by propaganda would be to oversimplify things a bit, when American dissidents (radical or perhaps not) sometimes face consequences that don’t make news.)
By the end of the file one walks away with a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him. There is no reason, with the massive expansion of our internal security apparatus, to think that things have improved. There are today 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States…