Open and the Public Good: More on open data and open access


flickr photo shared by Boston Public Library under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’ve been thinking about issues surrounding open data and open access quite a bit since I blogged about it the other day. Some of it has been general existential thoughts about what it means to be a library or librarian in the 21st Century, but I’ll probably save those thoughts for later.

I really need to thank Andrew Owen and Kevin Webb for making excellent points and giving me lots to think about. The state of transportation data has been shaped by government’s lack of ability to fund and regulate. This creates room for market-based solutions to become the only viable game in town, which is where we are now. It be wonderful if there would be more regulation, but we barely fund the the current physical infrastructure as it is. There just isn’t the political will to fund the required administration and research surrounding transportation, just things you can cut ribbons for (highways), so it’s data programs are unfunded mandates. We all know this though.

I have been getting these same feelings when well intentioned colleagues (none of whom are librarians or in positions to act on these ideas) suggest revenue generating ideas for our library that really go against the central philosophy of a library. We should charge for people to use our space. We can charge for research assistance. We could charge people to keep their research. I give them credit for thinking outside the box and trying to help. I also understand why they think this way; Since the economic crash we’ve focused on nickel and dime ways to stay afloat, lacking long term vision and often selling out the past and the future to survive today. It’s been a survival tactic and I think we all accept this reality to some degree.

I think we have given up on demanding “public good” and resigned to seeing it only as an ideal we can’t afford. Nowadays often the “public good” feels antiquated like a Rockwellian vision of the past with kids running in public parks and such. It’s not something you can readily contract or outsource, it’s the combination of civic responsibility and social conscious that is hard to market, but I think it used to be more understood and accepted. Libraries work because we have that long vision both forwards and backwards. Not that it should mean us being tied to the past or future proofing unrealistically. We can’t collect everything and we can’t be the library of record, but we can consider the risks and the outcomes. This is why so many librarians are so vocal about issues around transparency, access, privacy. Either we’re drawn to the profession for these noble ideals of fostering the public good, or we know we have to protect them.

The problem, other than the core American (and now global) value of “fuck you, I’ve got mine,”, is that sometimes the public good is in direct opposition to the free market, and usually the market wins. This is happening with scholarly publishing, it’s happening with telecoms, and it’s been happening with transportation. Regulation in theory protects the public interests while still leaving room for private enterprise.

So I guess this all can be summed up in the obvious: I care about the public good and I wish my fellow Americans and the government actually did as well, but this is the world we live in.

One thought on “Open and the Public Good: More on open data and open access

  1. Regarding your conclusion, it might be useful to meditate Niebuhr’s famous “serenity prayer” and remember that the important point in it is the wisdom to distinguish between what can be changed and what cannot. Your blog confuses realism with resignation, which points to the need for more work on attaining wisdom.

    Jean-Claude Guédon

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