Earlier this month, I was invited to participate in a workgroup that focused on and merged two of my strongest interests – libraries and open government. This workgroup, made up of approximately two dozen leaders of the worlds of libraries, open government and the Internet, was pulled together by the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) of Albany University, as part of a project funded by the Federal Government’s Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS).
CTG describes the rationale for the project this way:
“State and local governments are exploring new ways to open their governments using technology to engage citizens, increase transparency and accountability. Such efforts provide new opportunities and challenges for public libraries as citizens turn to them for both access to and assistance in their interactions with government … An open government initiative will impact and can be facilitated or impeded by a community’s information ecosystem. Libraries can have a critical influence on an ecosystem and the success of such an initiative.”
The CTG staff will summarize the day and a half of intensive work at a later point. But I thought I’d share some of my observations from participating in it.
First, while open government, particularly the open data initiatives that have occurred all over the US and elsewhere, is clearly a step forward for transparency, it is not always very useful to the average citizen. That’s why too often, the data has been used mostly for “gotcha” articles by local news media.
Typically, the data is put out on the web. This is akin to setting up a library by buying 10,000 books and dropping them all in a big pile in the middle of the floor. Librarians have long developed skills in organizing knowledge and, as reference guides, in helping people find what they need. So the most obvious first role of librarians is to help open data initiatives succeed by applying their professional skills to the data.
Second, libraries can be the place where open government occurs. This role not only involves making available to citizens the printed and online forms they need to interact with government – or even extending that to enable citizens to have video conversations with government staff who are located many miles away from home.
Libraries can also encourage the discussion of public issues. Traditionally, libraries have used their meeting spaces for open forums. More recently and much more interesting is the role the Los Angeles Public Library has played in a community in south Los Angeles. The local library branch there is hosting Betaville, open source software to enable people to collaborate together to propose urban design solutions for their community. Betaville is being used for people to do exactly that with respect to a large proposed redevelopment of the Rancho Cienega facility. The library was the only place where people could come together to do this work, which had the proper technology and also the trust of residents that it is an objective, open facility.
Third, Jamie LaRue, former director of the Douglas County library system, which has been a pioneer in libraries as creators of content, built on that experience to propose an additional role for libraries. In the face of the demise of many local news outlets, he suggested that this creative role of libraries be extended to becoming the platform for local news.
Finally, while a number of state and local governments have encouraged their local software developers to create apps using open government data, this is clearly not enough. There are many apps that are needed, but make no sense for private companies that ultimately require profits. Government cannot abdicate its own technology role. Recognizing that it can’t do everything, however, government can call on librarians to understand what gaps exist based on what they are asked for by library patrons.
For more information, see CTG’s website at http://www.ctg.albany.edu/projects/imls . They have also posted a concept paper at http://imls.ctg.albany.edu/book/enabling-open-government-all-planning-framework-public-libraries . If you’d like to participate in the discussion about libraries and open government, you can do that at http://imls.ctg.albany.edu/forums/online-discussion-concept-paper .
© 2014 Norman Jacknis