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.

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Cullier’s proposal is stimulating. While all media undergoes change, Cullier is correct to point out that our communities still require balanced and vetted information and knowledge resources. While I find the library as gazebo a bit minimalist – (I haven’t read his paper, just this report of the paper) — the librarian as activist “informateur” is certainly valid, and not completely new. In the 1920s and ’30s, public libraries offered community forums, to engage with the “issues of the day.” In the late 1930s and ’40s, librarians facilitated programmatic coordination among unions, promoted inter-racial community events and actively engaged in outreach to broadly diverse communities, ensuring access for those socially under-served. In the 1970s, librarians took on the development of community resources, such as community information files, which indexed service agencies, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, YMCA, Big Brothers, Big Sisters — and made them available within a given community. These files were first available in 3×5 card drawers, then in printed directories and later included in online public access catalogs, based on a standardized file format developed by the Library of Congress. Before the World Wide Web, librarians created gopher sites to direct users (who were, admittedly, primarily other librarians at that point) to other online information resources.

    All of this provided the practical and intellectual ground work for librarians to engage in the creation, development and publication of information resources delivered via the Web. I think of the phenomenal work done by the Chicago Public Library web team in the early 1990s and the original information resources they developed to support the Chicago Public Schools Chicago History projects, including digital publications on the Chicago Renaissance and the development of the Chicago urban infrastructure. (The pictures are still there, but the framing content is now gone.) All of this points to a change in how librarians see their relationship to knowledge — no longer simply gatekeepers, but active developers and promoters of information resources.

    This is threatening to a number of stakeholders in the public library. Critical reading of library history reveals an anxiety about how public librarians would function in a community, and the demand that PLs be “neutral” agents of information dissemination — as journalists are also expected to be neutral — points to concerns about the potential influence PLs could have in a community, which is, as Cullier points out, a political environment.

    The governance structures of public libraries vary from state to state, but all require a board of trustees; that board is supposed to protect the library from political manipulation by local governments. It is questionable whether that structure actually serves that purpose. I would certainly like the opportunity to research the effectiveness of the state laws and structures in place, but that would be another very political decision. I do agree with Cullier, however, that the future success of the public library lies in the degree to which it engages with the community it serves, rather than the books it checks out. Hopefully, those of us involved in LIS education can advance that vision and secure that future.

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