Monthly Archives: February 2012

Consumers Shape the Chain – Whether it’s food or information

An op-ed piece in the February 2 Star Tribune caught my eye and kindled thoughts of an initiative with which I was much involved a couple of decades ago.  Clay Johnson, writing in the LA Times examines the unhealthy information diet that threatens the American public.  He compares junk news “largely provided by conglomerates focused on the bottom line” with junk food which most folks realize is neither nutritious nor slenderizing. (One wonders if the LA Times is numbered among those conglomerates.)

Johnson’s point, well stated, is the principle that librarians have stressed for decades, peaking  in the 1980’s with the launch of an energetic campaign to highlight “information literacy” as essential to the core curriculum from cradle through college.  For the outset branding of that worthy campaign was unfortunate – stuffy, pedantic, boring.  Though Clay Johnson’s food analogy is more catchy. the idea behind the information literacy brand is sound:  Just as the way to avoid obesity is to be a smart consumer of food, the way to avoid ignorance is to be a smart consumer of information.

Whether it’s food or information, the key player is the consumer.

Arguing that the media should “chase us” Johnson urges information consumers to “consume deliberately, consume locally, consume close to the original source, consume less and produce more.”  He also warns that given 21st technology, every click counts as it whets the appetite and informs the next move of the junk producer.

Today’s advocates for healthy diets stress the need for consumers to examine sources, processes, economic and political factors that influence the food chain.  Consumer education is imperative.

Similarly information literacy proponents stress the need to educate information consumers at an early age to grapple with the media and info deluge that technology has wrought.  They stress that information literate must be educated to analyze not just the information product but the information chain itself – the complex networks through which information is gathered, analyzed, organized, distributed, preserved, financed and more.

On the production side it takes human beings with time, skills and incentive to forge the information chain upon which the consumer depends and to which the end user contributes.  Whether it’s junk food or junk info, the responsibility rests solely with the consumer.

At the consumer end,  learners must experience, master, experience, practice and dissect the information chain in a learning environment that immerses each consumer in a rich information literacy curriculum.


Caveat discupulo — Caviat civitas popularis


Remembering Dorothy Porter Wesley, Librarian Extraordinaire

When Carter Woodson introduced the idea of Black History Week in 1926 his intent was to illuminate individuals, events, stories of African Americans that were generally unrecognized in common sources of information, including books, museums and libraries.  Though some dismiss what is now generally known as African American History Month I find this month a welcome opportunity to reminisce about great African Americans I have known  – or wish I had known.

Over the decades, an image of Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley has flitted through my mind.   A bit of research has awakened me to the spirit of this visionary librarian whose indefatigable efforts have played a major role in assuring that the recorded history of African Americans is collected and preserved for posterity.

I never knew Dorothy Porter, but I remember her well.  She was Curator of the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University while I was a fledgling librarian at the public college across the street, what was then District of Columbia Teachers College.  During the 1968 upheaval following the death of Martin Luther King we were all operating in an interim mode, classes canceled, libraries closed, protests on campus.  Though its status as a federal building – coupled with the fact that there was no campus – left DCTC a relative sea of tranquility Howard became a rallying ground for student protesters.

My clear recollection is of Dorothy Porter, all five feet of her, bustling about the Howard University campus snatching banners and bulletins and whatever memorabilia she could fetch to add to her massive African American history archives – books, photos, pamphlets, art and artifacts, whatever would preserve and share the stories.

Librarian that I am (it’s in the DNA) I googled to discover what had become of Dorothy Porter, that little dynamo etched in my memory as the quintessential librarian/archivist.  A quick search revealed that she had died in 1995, that her first husband, renowned artist and art historian James Amos Porter, died in 1970, and that later she married Charles H. Wesley, former dean of Wilberforce, who died in 1987.

More than this, I found exquisite quotes from Dorothy, snippets that verified my flashes of recall.  When Dorothy was first selected to compile the Howard collection in 1930 it was an unprecedented challenge to shape a library that reflected the lives and writings of Black Americans.  The need to capture the record, written and oral, was in its infancy.  Before Emancipation slaveholders forbade their slaves from speaking their own language and from learning to write or read.  As a result, most of Black history and stories was oral.

Pioneer librarian that she was, Dorothy began the process by rummaging through dusty old boxes that contained about 3000 books, pamphlets and other historical items that had been donated to the University in 1914 by Jesse E. Moorland, a minister and Howard alumnus and trustee.  She also dug through the 1600 piece Anti-Slavery collection donated to Howard in 1873 by New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan.

And thus was launched the first research library in an American university devoted to the history and culture of African Americans. The task of collecting written records of the Diaspora must have been daunting and dispiriting to young Dorothy Porter who is quoted as saying “I recall that not many years ago the African was said to lack all sense of history because African history was not available in the form of written language.

Dorothy Porter seized the formidable challenge with gusto.  Later she admitted that she had to teach herself Black history.    Later she recalled:  I went around the (Howard) library and pulled out every relevant book I could find – the history of slavery, black poets – for the collection.  Over the years the main thing I had to do was beg – from publishers, authors, families.  Sometimes it meant being there just after the funeral director took out the bodies and saying, ‘you want all this junk in the basement?’

And thus began the story of Dorothy Porter Wesley who went on to become one of the most prominent curators and bibliographers of all that relates to Blacks in America and in the Caribbean.  The list of awards she received during her life and continues to receive posthumously is astronomical.  Among other tributes is the Dorothy B. Porter Reading Room in the Founders Library at Howard; during the dedication the presenter quoted historian Benjamin Quarles as saying “without exaggeration, there hasn’t been a major Black history book in the last 30 years in which the author hasn’t acknowledged Mrs. Porter’s help.”  Possibly the highlight of her professional career came in 1994 when President Clinton hosted a White House ceremony at which he presented her the Charles Frankel Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Though my heart told me that Dorothy’s legacy lives on I was overjoyed beyond words to learn that her lifetime of collecting African American history and culture is today preserved and shared at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) at the Broward County Library in the Sistrunk area of Fort Lauderdale, an area that was once the heart of the city’s African American community.

The AARLCC is an amazing resource built on the vision of Broward County Library Director Samuel F. Morrison who saw the need for a rich research facility, cultural center and historical archive.  The development of the AARLC is a great story in itself.

At the start, Constance Porter Uzelac, daughter of James and Dorothy Porter, took a lead role.  When she moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1990 she initiated efforts to preserve and provide access to what she called “Mama’s stuff.”   As lasting tribute to her parents Uzelac , a former medical librarian herself, was for a time the custodian of the of the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection which houses and makes available the bibliographic collection of her mother and the art and research of her father.

Today, the work of curating the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection resides with the Broward County Library.  Housed within the AARLCC the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection is home to over five thousand bibliographic treasures and memorabilia spotted and saved by Dorothy Porter Wesley.

Little did I know back in 1968 that the powerhouse snatching the toss-aways of the protesters would leave the legacy that is the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection at the AARLCC.  What I did recognize and remember so well is that Dorothy Porter was the diminutive model of a librarian.  Though the day-to-day of rummaging through basements, spotting what is rare, organizing, preserving, digitizing, cataloging is not dramatic, the results are a living legacy.  The record of human history and culture demands and deserves the sort of keen eye and intrepid stamina that Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley demonstrated during those heated days in Washington, D.C.

Little wonder the memory was etched in my mind then and remains there now.



FOIA is there when you really need access

Have you or anyone you know ever submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – pronounced “foy-ya”) request? Have you wondered what the journalists mean when the report with pride that they pried some tidbit of information out of the federal government by exercising their FOIA rights.

Well known to investigative journalists, attorneys of some persuasion and citizens who know and exercise their information rights, FOIA is the bulwark of the tools at the ready for any individual or organization that wants to know more by and about the federal government.

FOIA affirms with certainty that the burden is on the government, not the public, to justify the reason for any information to be withheld from the public; the underlying assumption of FOIA is a presumption of openness. The law, enforceable in federal court, requires that agencies of the government must disclose information unless that information is specifically withheld from disclosure under one of nine very specific exemptions to the law.

The problem is that interest in probing the power and procedures of FOIA is an acquired taste.  Though prime users of the tool are most often well compensated for their time mere citizens should reflect that the payoff for a FOIA quest is the potential of reliable information to solve a problem whether the issue at hand is an individual’s right to citizenship or an inventor’s patent or the location of a hazardous waste site in the community.

In real life, FOIA is the tool of last resort.  The vast network of government distribution systems, including individual agencies and depository libraries supported by public, academic and institutional libraries, meet most users’ needs Federal agency websites and other distribution systems, answer the majority of queries that individuals will ever encounter.

Recently word has come of a tool that promises to be a boon to information seekers floundering in the depths of the Capital information pool.  The National Archives has just produced  an online directory of the records managers in each federal agency whose responsibility it is to respond to requests for information by or about the agency.  The guide lists the name, email and phone number of a specific person, along with a date that the information was collected.  It’s organized alphabetically by agency with sub-agencies aggregated under the executive, legislative or jjudicial super-agency or independent agency.

Though I have not had a chance to use the guide, I trust that it works.  Even more, it bolsters my hope that the federal agencies, in particular National Archives, is taking seriously the commitment to open government.

FOIA sets out the principle of openness.  As a tool, it’s like using a bazooka to kill a fly.  FOIA is for the stuff that’s elusive, shared with greater reluctance on the part of the producing agency, or so specific you need to talk to an experienced pro who knows the agency and can match query with appropriate response.  FOIA is the sort of tool you reach for when all else fails – like a plumbing wrench or a kitchen tool used infrequently but absolutely essential when the occasion arises.

If information is power and if a democracy depends on an informed public, FOIA provides the solid base for the public and those who serve the public to create an open government and an informed public.  The ongoing challenge is to assure that 1) the law is monitored and enforced, and 2) that ubiquitous information and communication technology facilitates rather than impedes the free flow of information by and about the federal government.