Monday, July 25, 2011

Librarians versus city councillors

In the most July 2011 issue of WIRED there is a small article about the promise of open government data called "Why Open Data Alone is Not Enough". I've been following the Open Data movement from afar so most of the ideas in the article weren't new to me, but I will say that the stories of tragic, unintended consequences were.

Those involved in libraries might be interested in particular to its last paragraph:

The concern that open data may simply empower the empowered is not an argument against open data; it’s an argument against looking at open data as an end in itself. Massive data dumps and even friendly online government portals are insufficient. Ordinary people need to know what information is available, and they need the training to be conversant in it. And if people are to have anything more than theoretical access to the information, it needs to be easy and cheap to use. That means investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency. If we want truly open government, we still have to do the hard work of addressing basic and stubborn inequalities. However freely it flows, the data alone isn’t enough.

Investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency? Like, oh shall we say, libraries?

But we know that's not happening now. Not in our schools. Not in Toronto. Not where I live.

I'm still flummoxed whenever I sit and try to figure out why institutions dedicated to learning and our civic life are closing libraries in schools and neighbourhoods. I only have partial answers: our brand is books while the world watches video; the library is now associated with the lower rather than middle class, unionized workforces are vulnerable targets in our current political climate...

In light of these threats to our library systems, I'm working through this possible response:  public libraries should actively develop and promote services to specifically assist citizens in working with and against governments.

I say this because I think it goes almost without saying there is a definite need. Beyond Open Data, there are so many other instances when governments seem to exist only to further empower the already empowered. Indeed, it appears that our governments are purposefully designed to discourage mass participation - as illustrated in this short and recommended TEDx talk by Dave Meslin called The Antidote to Apathy.

While there is a need, this course of action would be with some risk. We could alienate some of our users who shy away from the conflict of politics. And if we were successful, we could end up competing for the same job as our elected city councillors: From Catherine Porter's essay "The boxer: A guide to getting in the ring with City bureaucracy" from the anthology, "Local motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto" :

Imagine a community activist resource centre on the ground floor of City hall. It would be a place where you could drop in, tell a librarian your idea and be directed towards resources, experts, case studies, maybe even professors at universities who are into just that stuff. Wouldn't that be great?

...'That's what a councillor is supposed to do,' Councillor Adam Vaughan said when I described my dream community activist resource centre to him. Why bureaucratize a system meant to help navigate bureaucracy? he asked. Good point. But not all councillors are like Vaughan, who prides himself on helping community builders make changes in his ward, and even community-minded councillors don't always like their communities ideas. What if you great scheme is a bike lane and your city councillor is on the record for saying anyone who rides a bike on a major street deserves to be hit by a car (i.e., Rob Ford)?

So, should libraries get into the government activist business? Should we be serving up classes on The Freedom of Information Act along with our government documents?

Well, I think the answer depends on what you think the answer to this next questions is: Who is going to protect our public libraries from cuts and closures? Your city councillors or your community?