Public Libraries & Open Government – Some post-conference reflections

Note:  Last May I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government, organized by the Center for Technology and Government, University of Albany, State University of New York and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  This post is the reflection that I wrote after that conference.  Though this is not a typical “Poking Around” post – in length, content or approach – I thought it might be of some interest to some readers:  M

Thoughts on The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government

Though I am not and never have been a public library administrator, the challenge of participating in this discussion of The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government excites and inspires me.  Because I lack the administrative bona fides my participation in the May conference was as an outsider who cares deeply about how we frame the issue and create effective approaches to the possibilities.

My professional background is as a librarian, working for the most part in multitype library collaboration.  I have also served as a member of the Minnesota State Board of Education, as founder and volunteer ED of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, on the ALA Legislation committee, and more.  At present I am the Outreach Coordinator with OpenTheGovernment.org, a DC-based coalition of civic society organizations, committed to transparency and accountability in government at all levels.   My thoughts are those of an outsider who cares about the untapped potential of public libraries in a changing environment, about open government and about the symbiotic relationship that calls out to be nurtured.  The question on the table is how to make that happen

In my decades of trying to link libraries and librarians with the fundamental principles of open government in a democracy I have observed and participated in the growing pains that shape ways we conduct government business in an environment transformed by information and communications technology.  Now, working inside the beltway, I have a visceral sense of the cataclysmic change that is reshaping the behemoth federal system and its relationships in the information tsunami.   Above all, I understand the challenge facing public librarians who, individually, institutionally and as a profession, must learn to swim in an information ocean that is teeming at high tide.

My reflections are based on experience and on a deep sense that public librarians must first clarify their perception of the “big picture” of open government, then shape policies and procedures that position public libraries as serious players – now, while the open government tide is cresting.

Briefly stated, we need to step back to position public libraries in a broader context – to avoid the inclination to rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic….. To wit, public libraries must seize the opportunity to make bold moves including, but not limited to, these:

  • Position libraries, library leaders and an expanding range of library staff higher up on the information chain. This requires a mental shift so that library staff, especially leaders, see themselves as links in a complex and fluid information environment in which virtually every institution is in flux and in which we’re all trying to figure out the policies and procedures of open government.  Public libraries need to engage as active players in the process itself.
  • Clearly articulate the value that public library workers of many stripes add to the open government mix.  Library leaders need to be more than dutiful administrators of their agencies; library boards, elected officials and other decision-makers must understand the potential of the institution.  Potential collaborators need to understand the range of services and, even more, the diverse pool of talent represented by the public library.
  • Engage in discussions of information policy OUTSIDE of the library setting – work with open government policy groups (e.g. state open government coalitions, national groups, including OpenTheGovernment.org) as well as with new enthusiasts such as Code for America and countless local manifestations of CfA-type groups.  Library leaders need to  have the patience to think creatively about how to harness the surge of energy and talent that hackers offer – to help direct all that effort to enhance open government.
  • Support open government as a concept at the federal, state and local levels. Virtually every special interest advocacy groups (e.g. environmental groups, food/ag groups, transportation advocates) has huge but unrecognized open government implications.  Advocacy groups need to understand open government first, THEN make the library connection, the “why” before the “how” of open government.
  • Act proactively and with passion – work with those organizations, individuals who set the public agenda, be anticipatory not reactive – not just with elected officials but the organizations, media, community leaders who set the pace and carry the message.
  • Get on boards and committees – LISTEN – don’t talk about the library – instead, identify the information “thread”, then show how the library can meet that need.  Build on and at the same time re-brand the traditional library role to meet contemporary needs and possibilities.
  • Better understand the complexities of government per se.  Librarians always focus on legislation, how to get more money to support libraries.  There have long been creative and successful efforts to link the role of libraries with adult learning, literacy, economic vitality.  There is a history and there are models of “insinuating” libraries in the broader contact.  Engaging public libraries in the all-inclusive concept of open government is more overwhelming, but it’s worth looking at the successes of history.
  • Pay closer attention to the executive branch of government – i.e. the role of regulation, how legislative mandates are actually implemented by executive agencies, what happens after a law is passed  – the devil in the details.
  • Connect with the media, an institution also in cosmic flux  – not just to promote the library but to understand the flow of information.  Serious journalists who are also re-positioning their institutions on the information chain can be effective partners in articulating the role of public libraries, convincing open government advocates of libraries’ potential and of guiding readers/viewers/listeners to resources available through and at the library.  Seasoned journalists are old hands of appreciating the importance of open government. They are also familiar with the rules and the tools, particularly FOIA.  The journalism world includes organizations of special journalists – health care, education, environment, agriculture, government, editorial writers, law and others that share with public libraries the job of informing the public.
  • Pay attention to the government documents depository networks.  I heard no mention during the conference of this existing system that operates somewhat sub rosa   The gargantuan system connects academic, special and public libraries with the information chain that has been in place for decades.  The system may not play the role or be the system it once was and what it could be, but it is a living network that should not be ignored.  Though the technology has changed the tools, the concept is solid – that public, academic and special libraries are a functioning and efficient distribution system for federal, state and local government information.
  • Learn from special libraries – corporate, law, health science, federal/state/local government librarians.  Though most do not serve the public directly, these professionals “think like librarians” and are adamant public library users and supporters.  They also share membership in library networks.  Special librarians are experts at anticipating and identifying their patrons’ needs and at collaborating with information partners across institutional lines.  If one of the strategies is to be mentorships and internships, consider collaborating not just with public but with special libraries, particularly state agency libraries that serve not only an agency but the general public.
  • Follow what’s happening in academic libraries, the training ground for public library users.  Suffice to say, the user cohort, faculty and students alike, has transformed expectations of services, access, the very role of the institution, the building, the staff, the resource base.
  • Likewise, heed the changes happening in schools – where learners and teachers alike have 21st century tools of access at their fingers but limited awareness of resources (public libraries or government information).  Work with educators, including school librarians and administrators, to raise the level of expectation as well as to forge information age skills in young learners.
  • Acknowledge and deal with the fact that very few people have an idea of how much government information is available, sometimes but not always accessible – or, for that matter, that the government is a major producer and disseminator of data, information tools, digital resources including huge archival resources increasingly accessible in digital format.  Work with open government advocates to educate the public about why it matters — why information by and about the government is the sine qua non of a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people – and the people have the responsibility and require the tools to fulfill that role.
  • Recognize that government information is organized and shared in ways other than traditional library materials.  Searchers, including public librarians, must understand the structure and processes of government as being other than the structure of knowledge that shapes traditional library classification systems.
  • Take into consideration the obvious fact that the differences among public libraries are huge – a small town library that is the primary source for residents is very unlike a major urban library that operates in an entirely different context.  One size does not fit all; while size determines strategy the  impact of the public library in the community served is parallel.  Find the common ground.
  • Validate the fact that government agencies that expand their outreach and openness by going through the public library will save money – that fact needs to be made clear to decision-makers, which means that libraries may have to provide metrics
  • Build on the fact that public libraries already provide extensive training on use of digital technology – access to free and open government information should be a focus of that training.  People can learn at the same time how to use government information about consumer issues, health care, neighborhood resources, environmental information, voter information (more than job info) as part of their ongoing training on the tools.  Information by and about the government is free – it’s also amazingly diverse and FUN.  Lots of great stuff for kids can be an entrée to the wealth of government information that is readily accessible.  People without means who are introduced to government information as part of their tech training

will incorporate use of free and open government information into their quiver of resources.

  • Find or plant library evangelists within appropriate networks.  At the local level this means nonprofits (environmentalists, parent advocacy groups, food safety, disabilities community) as well as neighborhood associations, faith community, immigrant groups, disabilities community, foundations, good government groups, and other forces of influence in the community.  Communicate through their channels- people go to information resources they trust….
  • The need for evangelists exists at the state and federal levels as well.  In the political arena, the principles and contours of open government are being shaped by a host of civil society organizations that influence the policies and procedures of federal government as well the implementation of practices that work their way through the information chain to end users at the local level.  Library evangelists working within the system are key to stressing the role of public libraries in assuring that information is accessible and useable for the end user.

Librarians are inclined to think they have to explain and to do it all themselves – sometimes it’s better to demonstrate, to listen and to collaborate on the common purpose of open government.  Public libraries must acknowledge that they have an image issue – they must adamantly reinforce the positive, the library as a pillar institution in a democratic society, while downplaying the stereotype, low expectation or invisibility that we must admit persists in the public mind.  To ignore the persistent public perception is folly – to reinforce an anachronistic image is to ensure that public librarians will never be at the table to engage in shaping open government principles, policies or practices.

I hope that whatever strategies conference attendees propose to promote public libraries’ engagement reflect a broad vision of open government and a proactive role for public libraries that may place unwelcome demands on institutions and individuals resistant to cosmic change.  My hope is that my observations are helpful in meeting the challenge

 

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