Libraries as Freedom of Information Gazebos

I recently attended the 9th annual Information Ethics Roundtable hosted by the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science. This year’s theme was “Human Rights as Information Rights,”and featured a great collection of papers.

I presented a paper co-written with three of my esteemed colleagues, Johannes Britz, Peter Lor, and Shana Ponelis, titled “From Codification to Actualization: Applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to an Information-Based Rights Framework.” In this work-in-progress, we use Sen’s capability approach to reveal how personal, social, and environmental factors shape individuals’ capabilities to capitalize on their access to information and knowledge, and conclude by suggesting that information rights advocates must turn their focus from simply promoting access to fostering capabilities, which in turn will truly empower individuals to exercise and actualize their basic information rights.

All the papers and comments at this event were stimulating, but one talk in particular grabbed my attention. David Cullier, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at UofA, presented “Freedom of Information Gazebos: The Ethical Imperative for News-Library Town Squares in the Digital Age to Preserve the Communal Right to Know”, where he called on public libraries to take on a slightly new role in their communities.

Concerned that the shrinking of local news rooms and resulting lack of reporting of local news and government activities, Cullier called on libraries to be more proactive in the gathering and sharing of public records and other government information — to become freedom of information gazebos. He points out that:

Most communities have libraries, serving as a focal point for information important to citizens, often providing physical space for discussion, forums, and community meetings. Libraries are staffed by professionals expert in finding and disseminating information for citizens. Libraries also are embedded with a culture of information freedom.

To serve as true freedom of information gazebos, Cullier suggests, libraries would need to make several important changes in their culture and organizational composition. Libraries would need to be more aggressive in seeking information, actively filing freedom of information requests, and litigating for access to public records when necessary.

Local librarians should also engage in reporting and synthesizing government activities, such as attending a city council meeting, summarizing it online and posting the minutes and supporting documents. Cullier even suggested that MLIS programs should include journalism training, and libraries could even hire the reporters being laid off by newsrooms to perform this important function.

Most importantly, libraries would have to be granted greater independence from local governments, and protections would be necessary to protect libraries from retaliation, both in budgetary cuts or outright firings.

These are not modest proposals, but I really like the direction of Cullier’s thinking. Groups of activist-minded librarians, like Radical Reference, have embarked on similar efforts, but a call for more structural change in the nature of the library profession and institution might be just what is needed to help libraries maintain their central role in providing access to information.

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