Tag Archives: National Archives

Exploring the Legacy of MLK in the Digital Age

Long ago I learned from my friend Marvin Roger Anderson that commemoration of the MLK birthday holiday should involve community building, connecting with friends and neighbors to share celebrate the dream.  He insisted that public libraries should throw open their doors to serve as gathering sites. MLK’s birthday, he reminded us, is the only holiday that’s not about family or gifts or escape but an occasion to experience, share and build community committed to MLK’s dream.

Those who have the day off and no home obligations might well heed Marvin’s wise counsel. There are mega-gatherings today at the Convention Center, the Minnesota History Center, the Cathedral as well as less formal events in neighborhoods, places of worship, colleges and public places.   For the homebound our community engagement can be a virtual learning adventure.

Public media do a good job of sharing their audio and video rich resources – in yesterday’s post I mentioned one of many.

Less well known are the vast digital resources to which digital age armchair learners enjoy unprecedented access.  Many of these resources are collected, preserved, digitized and shared by agencies of the federal government, the most prominent of which is the Library of Congress.  LC is digitizizing humungous collections of documents, photos, recordings, diaries, artifacts, virtually anything that helps to tell the story of this nation.  Further, the Library produces online guides to resources of a host of other collections within and outside the federal bureaucracy.

MLK Day provides a great opportunity for a digital dip into the treasures of LC.  The problem is that to dip may be to drown.  A significant problem in using digital resources is that the tidal wave is too much and the searcher washes ashore.

One approach is to start with a guide that LC created in 2010 to complement The African-American Mosaic exhibit.  Click here: (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam001.html) .  When you search under “Martin Luther King” the guide will send you to two sites:

Your learning curve has just begun.  Within LC lie countless caches of digitized history including, for example, the American Folklife Center (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/aboutafc.html) as well as the Afro-American Genealogical Research collection, the National Women’s History Project, the records of the NAACP, and the National Museum for African American History and Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu)  still a work-in-progress set to open next year

The guide will lead you beyond the walls of the Library of Congress (not that walls matter to the armchair searcher).  The National Archives and Records Administration (http://archives.gov) is the repository of the records of the government itself.   “Celebrating MLK’s Legacy and Birthday” offers a quick glimpse of the National Archives resources on the King era – a smidgeon with links (http://blogs.archives.gov/blackhistoryblog/)

Armchair searching of the photos, videos, artifacts, posters, diaries, pamphlets – the stories — is a healthy addiction.  For some, the story of the process itself is as important as the stories that emerge from the records.  Such digital enthusiasts will enjoy this YouTube intro to digitization: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkzWN9t1alk)

With African American History Month just weeks away venturing into the MLK stories may whet the appetite for more – including, perchance, another post.  In the meantime, this just popped up on Twitter – take a minute to click, read and listen:

















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.