Tag Archives: Harlan Cleveland

Frances Naftalin – Reader, Leader, Feminist and Friend

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

 These words of Rosalynn Carter well reflect many of the women who have shaped our state’s social, political and cultural environment. The stories of some of these women stand out as subtle threads woven into the fabric of Minnesota’s political history.   Women such as Joan Mondale, Nancy Latimer, Arvonne Fraser and Muriel Humphrey were wives of powerful political leaders; each in her own life embodies Carter’s truth that leadership should be judged by the movement of the minds and hearts of people to “where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

One such leader, Frances Healey Naftalin, died recently died at age 95 in her Minneapolis home. She was memorialized on Valentine’s Day by loving friends and family. Arvonne Fraser, who shared with Naftalin the experience of being typecast as the dutiful wife of an elected official, spoke for many:

She didn’t parade her magnificent intelligence; it simply demonstrated itself in conversations. She read widely, deeply and intensely, and discussed what she was reading about, or had read, with respect and admiration for the author or the subject when it was relevant to discussion. Without condescending to all of us lesser minds, she educated us as she talked, never really realizing that was what she was doing.

Fraser described early politicking for women candidates with Naftalin, recalling how “people listened when Fran talked whether it was about children, politics, the fine arts, her mother…whatever. She neither wasted nor minced words.”

Many of us knew Frances Naftalin best as a peerless advocate for libraries. She served with distinction as President of the Board of the Minneapolis Public Library and was appointed by President Carter to serve on the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. As a member of NCLIS she served with distinction during a turbulent era marked by political challenges to the appointment of some of the Commissioners, including Naftalin – all survived the tempest in the NCLIS teapot, though it did involve Fran’s having to defend her appointment before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.

It was in her role as a member of NCLIS that Fran quietly maneuvered one of her most subtle strategies to “move people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” In 1982, when the information age was more a gleam in the eye than a reality, NCLIS sponsored a national study on Public Sector Private Sector Interaction in the Delivery of Information Services. The fledgling information industry managed to skew the final report to the benefit of corporate interests that effectively squelched the public’s right to know and the role of public agencies, including libraries. (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED500878.pdf)

Commissioner Naftalin entered a minority response and grudgingly supported the report on the explicit condition that NCLIS follow up with discussions of the volatile issue of “public sector/private sector interaction.” Naftalin chaired the opening session of the first response, held in Minnesota, sponsored by Metronet and funded by the Minnesota Humanities Commission. At that session she introduced Harlan Cleveland, Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, who chose the occasion to elaborate on his prescient theory of the unique characteristics of “Information as a Resource.” (https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/harlan-clevelands-characterization-of-information-as-a-resource/) Cleveland’s formulation reshaped the premise of the report and the offered a new lens through which to view and assess the properties of information as a resource.

Aware that the information and communications environment was poised for massive change, Naftalin had once again proved herself “a great leader (who) takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

Reflecting on her early days of politicking with Fran, Arvonne Fraser wrote these words which were read at the memorial service for her friend: “Activists we were…In many ways, we were feminists – the suffragists had preceded us; we were just a bit ahead of the mid-20th century women’s movement.”

Reflecting on the Resource More Than the Opponents

When matters relating to information policy or practice rise to the palpable public agenda, it’s usually because complex issues have been over-simplified – good guys and bad guys pitted against each other – a mighty struggle between the forces of access vs individual privacy, free speech vs producer/performer/author rights, or another version of the confrontation between forces deeply rooted in history and philosophy – like good and evil.

The problem with this bifurcation of powers is that it isn’t that simple.  The Information Age is fundamentally unlike the industrial age or any of its antecedents. The Information Age in which we are marinating is substantively new in deep-seated, gut-level ways — the rules of the game are clearly “not even new yet”, the law is woefully inadequate, crafted and administered as it is by mere mortals.  The players, no matter their position, seem stuck in a bygone day.  Rules, fiscal negotiations, rights of all parties concerned are running full-speed ahead into a barrier constructed by trying to fit today into yesterday’s ill-fitting vessels.

It’s time to revisit the insights of a 20th Century intellectual giant Harlan Cleveland whose thoughts I invoke whenever information battles rage in the public arena.

Cleveland, who was neither predictive nor pedantic, simply reminded us that information, the resource itself, possesses characteristics that are inherently other than the stuff we know how to manage.  Information, a resource of inestimable value, just does not conform to the rules we know, the rules we try so hard to impose.

Time to take a deep breath and re-think the characteristics of information, that ubiquitous, fluid, quixotic, perplexing, immensely powerful force about which and from which we have so much to learn.

Here’s a quote from something I wrote about Cleveland five years ago.  (Cleveland’s words are more eloquent; mine more spare.)

Focusing on the information as a resource, Cleveland argues that a society based on information will look very different than one based on raw materials and heavy manufacturing. The uniqueness of information as a resource lies in that fact that it is


  • expandable without any obvious limits;

  • compressible for easier handling;

  • transportable at least at the speed of light;

  • substitutable for capital, labor, or physical materials;

  • shared among people;

  • not a drain on our resources;

  • diffusive and hard to contain; and finally
  • information shared is information expanded ( like a kiss, he tells us…)

The mighty quiet imposed by the Wikipedia shutdown, offers a chance to dust off the reference shelf or to seize the moment to reflect.  Cleveland’s prescient observations on the challenges presented by the very properties of information per se offer a worthy starting point.   We live in complex times that deserve more thought and than unenlightened self-interest.

Harlan Cleveland – Properties of Information Revisited

One positive thing to be said about our national deciders is that they have a healthy regard for the power of information. In the old days we library types naively waved banners touting “Information Power!” The idea of capitalizing on information as a powerful, if abstract, force for positive change was refreshing – smart people, good information, wise decisions. There was an implicit theme about “Power to the People.” Something along the lines of Jefferson and Madison.
In the early 80’s Harlan Cleveland, best known in these parts for his tenure at the helm of the Humphrey Institute, laid out a framework for thinking about information as a resource with unique properties that don’t fit the grid. Cleveland’s piece, “Information as a Resource” first appeared in 1982 in The Futurist.(1) In it, Cleveland first tackles basic definitions, including the definition of information. He starts by quoting T.S. Eliot’s hierarchy, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” He invokes his U of M colleague, Yi-Fu Tuan, who observes that “the difference is one of order of complexity. Information is horizontal, knowledge is structured and hierarchical, wisdom is organismic and flexible.”(2)

Focusing on the information as a resource, Cleveland argues that a society based on information will look very different than one based on raw materials and heavy manufacturing. The uniqueness of information as a resource lies in that fact that it is
expandable without any obvious limits;
compressible for easier handling;
transportable at least at the speed of light;
substitutable for capital, labor, or physical materials;
shared among people;
not a drain on our resources;
diffusive and hard to contain; and finally
information shared is information expanded ( like a kiss, he tells us.)
Twenty five years hence, we laud the clarity and optimism of Cleveland’s thesis. At the same time, we struggle as individuals and as a society with the dark side of information – permutations, misinformation, information stifled, skewed, bought, warped, subverted, choked and turned against the voting public. Though information as a resource is unique, it is not benign; rather we live in world in which information is created, shaped, spread, collected and twisted to serve the interests of a power structure that is only too well “armed for action.”(2) Although we are witnessing an explosion in the amount of and access to both data and information, real knowledge eludes us.

Citizens of virtually every democratic nation operate on the assumption that information relates in some substantive way to truth. In reality, it’s a treacherous route from information to knowledge to wisdom. Bombarded as we are by information presented in every possible format, replete with color, sound, texture, action, and now olfactory attributes, we remain vulnerable, as much victim as master of information. We lack the time, the experience, and perhaps the will, to probe those basic characteristics of information profiled by Cleveland.

Still the struggle with information may be a necessary, if insufficient, first step. It may be folly to grapple with the philosophical concept of “truth” absent some exploration of its information component. One place to start is with the mundane queries posed by a paranoid – or a prepared – electorate.

Who pays? Monitors? Reviews? Sets the information agenda?
What didn’t get out? What wasn’t asked? Who was excluded?
What is the connection between the medium and the message? between the message and the delivery system?
Where are the filters? Who operates those filters – and who pays them?
Where do informed citizens hone essential information skills?
If information is so important, who is paying attention to information per se?

These thoughts percolate as a cadre of unreconstructed information veterans prepares for Freedom of Information Day and Sunshine Week 2007 – a little hokey for sophisticates, but an honest effort to shed light on the unique characteristics of this most ubiquitous of all resources.

(1) Harlan Cleveland, “Information as Resource,” The Futurist, December 1982, 34-39
(2) Ibid, p. 34.
(3) Early in the 80’s when Joan Durrance wrote the primer on the topic, Armed for Action, her innocent subtitle was “Library response to citizen information needs.”)