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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Open government and libraries

It happens that I serve on an advisory committee for an IMLS grant on Open Government. Crafted by the good people at the University of Albany (NY), the grant is about encouraging public libraries to contribute to the open government trend.

That trend seems to comprise several other things:

- the rise of e-government. More and more governments use new technologies (mostly web-based tools) to make it possible to retrieve information that used to require office hours and staff assistance.

- Transparency. Tyranny and waste thrive in secrecy. If government operates in the light, at least in theory it should be easier to detect misbehavior. (On the other hand, it may be that we can have governmental efficiency, OR government transparency, not both.) On the other hand, transparency might lead to something more positive: citizen contributions, and if not efficiency, at least effectiveness.

- Civic engagement. And here the idea is that real citizenship or democracy depends upon a vigorous discussion between governed and governer. Open government means open to all. 

It seems obvious that public libraries could and should be a part of this broad initiative. Most of us are wired now, and already focus time and resources connecting people to information. Few organizations are as dedicated to transparency as an institution founded on intellectual freedom. Those are easy fits.

But civic engagement is the challenge. While most public libraries in America were founded and justified to further precisely this goal, the last generation of librarianship has mostly focused on individual, one-on-one transactions. I believe that's largely due to the Baby Boomer ethos: it was all about personal values and interests. 

But society is changing. One might argue that we've gone about as far in this me-centered direction as we can, and may be overdue for a swing back to some shared or community-centric ground.

Clearly, libraries have many assets that make them good potential hubs for civic engagement.

- Reputation. Librarians are generally held to be honest brokers, trustworthy information providers that aren't pushing any particular political agenda.

- Collections. We pay to buy books, subscribe to databases, and devote many hours to spending public dollars wisely. 

- Buildings. People come to public space. There's no admittance charge, and few transaction fees. Public programs are a draw.

- Traffic. We routinely rack up more visits than almost any other institution in town, and thereby surely touch more lives in a week, and more positively, than any other public institution. 

- IT infrastructure. The majority of our 15,000+ locations have broadband access, public PCs, and even general technical assistance. Indeed, ever since the public decided that we would assume the role of free Internet cafes, we have been tech support for the nation - a big new job that came without any big new sources of revenue.

But there are some obstacles, too.

- We need a new model, a conceptual framework for stepping into this area. At my recent meeting with grant advisors, it was clear that we still have a ways to go. What is the language we use when talking with our authorizing environment (public boards and voters) about the importance and value of supporting this direction? How will library leaders begin to map out strategies for ramping up to the task? When and how does the support for civic engagement move into job descriptions and duties? 

- Staff skills. Civic engagement isn't just providing public space, collections, or even public programs. We need librarians who understand community development, and have skills in facilitating public dialog. This isn't just about training, by the way, although that will certainly be necessary. It is also about recruiting people with these skills INTO the profession, and designing hiring processes that identify and integrate them into the team. In my experience, libraries are still using hiring practices that simply aren't up to snuff. We need real leadership.

- Other. There are, of course, many other concerns.

But as I heard loud and clear from Nancy Kranich, former ALA President (who was talking and doing something about these issues over 10 years ago): if we want to be successful in making our communities better (and we do, don't we?), we can't just talk about problems. We have to talk about our communities' shared aspirations. And we have to DO SOMETHING to make those aspirations real.

Again a nod to Nancy: the best thinking about the library role might be expressed as a continuum. 

- We inform. We are passive conduits to the resources citizens seek. That's not altogether passive, of course. It still requires scouting out the options, acquiring items of interest, organizing them, and making them easily accessible. 

- We consult. That is, we step from behind the desk, from inside the building, and find those community constituencies who would benefit from the resources we know about, but they may not.

- We lead. I don't mean by this that we tell our community what to do. I mean that we actively assess trends and opportunities, then reach out to people to convene meetings to get ourselves (libraries, but not JUST libraries) organized. We pay attention, we are ourselves engaged, and we are forces to help others get engaged. 

Again, why? To make the places we live better.

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