Monthly Archives: January 2011

The peril of benign neglect

My public radio hero Scott Simon grabbed my total attention Saturday when he thoughtfully observed:

In a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is. But authoritarian governments know that news, and even the nonsense and misinformation that goes with it, can be insurrectionary. That’s why they try to hold news back, contain it, strain it and dole it out to their citizens after it’s been sugar-coated, like treats to obedient children.

His words warmed, even lulled, my heart – until my head kicked in.  Suddenly thoughts of media mergers, erosion of investigative journalism, closed meetings, closed libraries, oversight lapses and unabashed censorship seeped through the warm thoughts.

What emerged was focus on the seminal thought: “in a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is.”  Therein lies the problem, that we forget.  We take it for granted.  The free flow of information and ideas is subliminal, implicit, routine, quixotic.  It is so invisible and so assumed that it is vulnerable at best, threatened today when public attention, not to mention funding, is in desperately short supply.

Sometimes I think we break it down to such minute detail that we lose the fundamental principle.

These thoughts have been rattling about in particular as I’ve tried to digest the recent manual on framing an issue in human rights terms by the Advocates for Human Rights about which I posted on the blog last week.  I’m trying to figure out how to frame access to information, particularly government information, as a human rights issue.  What would that look like?  Who would do the framing?  Who would care?  How would we turn a human right into laws and regulations?  How would we monitor implementation?

Of this I am certain:  It is at our peril that we assume all is well.  The convergence of telecommunications and information technology, simmering for a half century at least, has boiled over – and we’re all getting scalded, in part because the collective we have not been watching the pot.

What is on the back burner?  More mergers?  Less oversight?  Executive privilege?  Funding of public media?  Corporate sponsorship of essential research?  Diminished regulation? Fewer investigative journalists?  Depository library cutbacks?  The list of goes on…There are lots of back burners with many simmering pots.  What is certain is that all of the decisions will be cloaked in the sacred robes of cost savings and reduced government.

Confession: Just yesterday I read about the demise of the Minnesota News Council which has kept an eye on access for four decades – the fact caught my attention because that, the last I knew I was an active member of the MNC,  the first I knew that the plug had been pulled was when I read it on the back pages of the Star Tribune.  It seems I was not watching the heat being turned up under that pot.

Keeping an eye on access as a human right is not a solitary task.  Nor does it make the headlines, particularly in today’s media environment.  Still, it is increasingly obvious that authoritarian governments and corporate powers operate on the absolute premise that information, that quiet underpinning of freedom, is “precious and powerful.”   For some access to information is a threat to be quashed and manipulated.  For me access to information is a human right to be tended with care, celebrated with gusto.

 

Access to Government Information that Matters

In my perennial quest to promote access to government information as a national priority I am beginning an assertive promotional effort to make government information as relevant as it is vital.  With this in mind I’m starting the most relevant of all federal government information provided as a public good by that most public of all public government agencies, the U.S. Census Bureau.

 

What every American needs to know about Super Bowl XLV.  Understand that if you digest this you will win the next bar Trivia contest and be one step ahead of the sagacious commentator who gets his or her data from precisely the same public trough:

Super Bowl XLV

Super Bowl XLV will be played Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. To commemorate this occasion, the Census Bureau has compiled a collection of facts examining the demographics of the host city, as well as the cities represented by the contenders, in this year’s edition of our nation’s most celebrated sporting event.

Green Bay, Wis. (Packers)

Unless otherwise indicated, the data come from the 2009 American Community Survey.

268th

Where Green Bay, Wis., ranked on the list of the nation’s most populous cities. The estimated population of Green Bay on July 1, 2009, was 101,412. Green Bay gained 527 people from July 1, 2008, to July 1, 2009. Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009.html>

19%

Percentage of Green Bay residents 25 and older who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009; 85 percent had at least graduated from high school. The respective national figures were 28 percent and 85 percent. The percentage in Green Bay who have graduated from high school did not differ significantly from the percentage for Arlington.

18 minutes

Average amount of time it took Green Bay residents to get to work. Seventy-eight percent of the city’s workers drove to work alone, 8 percent carpooled and 1 percent took public transportation. Nationally, it took workers an average of 25 minutes to get to work. The percentage of Green Bay workers who drove to work alone and the percentage taking public transportation were not statistically different from the respective percentages for Arlington. The percentage of Green Bay workers carpooling was not statistically different from the percentage for Pittsburgh.

14%

Percentage of Green Bay residents 5 and older who spoke a language other than English at home. The national average was 20 percent.
Source: 2007-2009 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

$40,857

Median household income for Green Bay. The national median was $50,221. The figure for Green Bay was not statistically different from that for Pittsburgh.

$129,800

Median home value of owner-occupied homes in Green Bay. The national median was $185,200. The figure for Green Bay did not differ statistically from that for Arlington.

Pittsburgh (Steelers)

Unless otherwise indicated, the data come from the 2009 American Community Survey.

61st

Where Pittsburgh ranked on the list of the nation’s most populous cities. The estimated population of Pittsburgh on July 1, 2009, was 311,647. Pittsburgh lost 472 people from July 1, 2008, to July 1, 2009.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009.html>

33%

Percentage of Pittsburgh residents 25 and older who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009; 89 percent had at least graduated from high school. The respective national figures were 28 percent and 85 percent.

22 minutes

Average amount of time it took Pittsburgh residents to get to work. Fifty-four percent of the city’s workers drove to work alone, 10 percent carpooled and 19 percent took public transportation. Nationally, it took workers an average of 25 minutes to get to work. The percentage of Pittsburgh residents who carpooled did not differ statistically from the percentage for either Arlington or Green Bay.

10%

Percentage of Pittsburgh residents 5 and older who spoke a language other than English at home. The national average was 20 percent.

$37,461

Median household income for Pittsburgh. The national median was $50,221. The figure for Pittsburgh did not differ statistically from Green Bay.

$92,500

Median home value of owner-occupied homes in Pittsburgh. The national median was $185,200.

Arlington, Texas (host city)

Unless otherwise indicated, the data come from the 2009 American Community Survey.

49th

Where Arlington ranked on the list of the nation’s most populous cities. The estimated population of Arlington on July 1, 2009, was 380,085. Arlington gained 5,292 people from July 1, 2008, to July 1, 2009. Arlington is more populous than several cities with NFL franchises, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, Fla., Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009.html>.

28%

Percentage of Arlington residents 25 and older who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009; 83 percent had at least graduated from high school. The respective national figures were 28 percent and 85 percent. The percentage in Arlington who graduated from high school did not differ statistically from Green Bay.

26 minutes

Average amount of time it took Arlington residents to get to work, not statistically different from the national figure. Eighty-one percent of the city’s workers drove to work alone, 12 percent carpooled and less than 1 percent took public transportation. Nationally, it took workers an average of 25 minutes to get to work. The percentages in Arlington who drove to work alone and took public transportation did not differ statistically from the respective percentages for Green Bay. The percentage carpooling in Arlington did not differ statistically from that for Pittsburgh.

34%

Percentage of Arlington residents 5 and older who spoke a language other than English at home. The national average was 20 percent.

$50,938

Median household income for Arlington, not statistically different from the national median, which was $50,221.

$132,200

Median home value of owner-occupied homes in Arlington. The national median was $185,200. The figure for Arlington did not differ statistically from that for Green Bay

 

Does poetry matter — really? how?

Once again the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center takes on an imponderable.  The Great American Think-Off topic for 2011 is “Does Poetry Matter?”

To this English major the answer seems obvious – till one thinks deep.

Guidelines note that “judges are looking for essays that address the value and usefulness of poetry by speaking about personal experience rather than abstract philosophical reasoning.”  Ah, there’s the rub.

The contest involves far more thinking than paper work.  Submit an essay of 750 words or fewer by April 1 – send the essay by email, USPS or online.  No admission fee and a financial incentive of $500 cash plus travel and lodging to/in New York Mills for four finalist essay winners who will be invited to participate in the final debate in June.

The winter of 2011 offers an irresistible opportunity think deep and long.  Poetry seems like a most worthy topic for cogitation.

Though there are lots of details on the competition past and present on The Great American Think-Off website,  don’t let the prose distract you – focus like the proverbial laser on the theme!

Human Rights – Framing the issue

As a librarian of very long standing I have worked with a mix of like-minded souls to frame access to information as a human right.  A powerful and much-appreciated resource is now accessible online.  Last week, in commemoration of MLK Day, the Advocates for Human Rights and the US Human Rights Network issued a significant resource useful to a broad range of advocates.

A Practitioner’s Guide to Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation and Advocacy provides comprehensive information and guidance on how to use a human rights framework to facilitate domestic social change.”

This eminently useable resource has broad potential use.  The Manual will guide practitioners through steps to “push forward recommendations using education, lobbying and litigation strategies as well as international human rights mechanisms.”

Most important is the Manual’s help for advocacy organizations to understand how they can use the human rights framework in their ongoing efforts. Though this all sounds a bit esoteric, the guide is practical, useful, down-to-earth, and totally approachable by any individual advocate or advocacy group.

This powerful resource is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a gift to advocates of every conceivable stripe.

 

 

 

Tolerance – not even a first start

Tolerance has always troubled me.  Wherein lies the authority for any person, government, organization. church or other to tolerate another?

Tolerance is inert, non-action.   Should we not be taking action  — not just to break down obvious barriers but to understand that it is not for anyone one of us to “tolerate” but for each of us to de-construct the system.   Today we have new tools, yet untested.  What would Dr. Martin Luther King do with these tools?  And what should we be doing to move beyond mere tolerance .

Tolerance warms the heart; it doesn’t unravel the many steps yet to be taken.

Politics in the produce aisle

Last weekend I was pursuing Saturday afternoon-type pursuits.  I landed at Lund’s and the Prairie Stone Pharmacy in St. Anthony where I quickly sought out and inhabited one of the cushy leather chairs which I think are theoretically reserved for prescription waitees.  There I discovered a long-time colleague with whom I had a grand conversation, interrupted by the entrance of a stranger who was breathless to know “what’s going on at Lund’s.”  I knew nothing, of course, but her exuberant description of cameras, press crews and anticipation was enough to halt the conversation, catapult me out of complacence, and send me off to search out the story.

 

Come to find out, it was a press conference, replete with cameras, store security, hovering aides and, eventually, the star performer, Senator Al Franken.  There he was midst the quinces the arugala and the raspberries (remember this was condo-city), launching a profound discourse on legislation passed recently by the US Senate.  Actually, I think it was essential information about tracking sources of agricultural products as a way to stop the spread of disease.   Unfortunately, the microphone wasn’t transmitting beyond the Senator’s nose, but that didn’t really matter much.  I could learn the details later.  What overwhelmed me was that there I was amongst the avocados and curious Minnesotans, right there in the produce section at Lund’s, on a nondescript Saturday afternoon, hearing from and having the open opportunity to talk with, reach out to, slap on the back, our Senator – at the same time that the good people of Tucson were gathered to meet with their Representative.

 

Though I never did follow up on the Ag policy, I did think of the scene all week, a week during which we were mesmerized as a nation by the tragedy in Tucson.  The Tucson scene must have been  similar as Representative Giffords reached out to her constituents.  Open, friendly, informative, an exchange of views and information.  The parallel is disquieting.

 

President Obama reminds us in elegant words of the challenge to the nation to engage in civic discourse on issues that are no more remote from the Lund’s produce section than they are to the Safeway story in Tucson.  My memory of a quiet experience cannot be separated from the tragedy.  My hope is that I will always be able to run into my elected representatives in the quiet discourse I enjoyed on Saturday.

Boneshaker Books adds to cities reading options

Think “boneshaker” and bicycles come immediately to mind – unless you’re clueless like me and had to resort to Wikipedia to get a glimmer.  What ignited my curiosity was the quest to understand the origin of the name of this community’s newest bookstore.  First I learned about the bicycle derivation – and then I had the delight of exploring Boneshaker Books, right in the Seward Neighborhood, on 23rd just off Franklin, in SE Minneapolis.

When I arrived at Boneshaker Books I was far more concerned with bone-chilling than bone-shaking.  My arctic trip to their not-quite-new bookshop had left me grumpy and generally impervious to any good thoughts, much less of bicycles and bookstores.  When I left Boneshakers an hour later, after a broad-ranging chat with Clay Beardshear, member of the collective, I was inspired, energized, open to new ideas – I even had a glimmer of the enigmatic name of the shop and an appreciation of the collaboration that’s working to build this unique bookstore.  Not so relevant at the moment, perhaps, is the fact that Boneshakers really does plan to offer a bicycle delivery service, as befits their name.

To understand Boneshakers is to go back to its roots at Arise! where the seven members of today’s Boneshaker Books collective got their start as volunteers, a mix of professionals, craftspeople and all-round bibliophiles promoting the cause, making a difference in the unique role that Arise! once played on the community scene as a source of progressive, non-traditional, unique reading resources.  When Arise! was forced to close, these seven entrepreneurs first considered purchasing the Arise! building to continue the mission.  For several months they hosted the Storefront in a Box programs at their South Lyndale site, maintaining throughout that the demise of Arise! meant an “unacceptable loss” to this community.

At some point, a new idea took shape, the opportunity to create a bookstore born of but not housed at the Arise! site.  Seward neighborhood and the opportunity to establish a new site in an irresistible option.   Boonshaker Books soon saw the opportunity renovate a beautiful building at the same time they could build an independent organization and business, committed to a collection of fiction and nonfiction titles that include  history and politics, economics, race and sexual relations – with a concerted eye to children’s books that escape the made-for-TV genre that permeates the chains.  The building itself is a model of recycling, re-use and environmental concern – the beautiful hardwood floor was once  a basketball court, shelving hand-crafted by Clay Beardshear is as beautiful as it is sturdy, windows, doors, walls – basically everything – is recycled and elegant.

The all-volunteer staff at Boneshaker Books is committed to the power of the printed – and read – word, and to serving the Twin Cities with a unique mix of book stock and creative programming.

A sidebar issue that I hope/plan to explore in greater depth is the fact that one area of tomorrow’s Boneshakers is reserved for the Women’s Prison Book Project, a program that too many of us had assumed was no longer.  I was happy to learn that it was not dead, but only sleeping.

As with other book dealers Clay was far more interested in the future of the printed book and of Boneshakers than he was with whining about the impact of e-books and other technologies, or even the heavy hand of the biggie publishers.  Totally refreshing.

Boneshaker Books is celebrating their Grand Opening with an all-out bash on Saturday, January 15.  They will open their doors to shoppers and explorers at 11:00 a.m. That evening there will be a great blast off, featuring pizza and other treats, free and open to all.

The Seward neighborhood and adventurous readers throughout the Twin Cities have a grand new option.