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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Access

One of the main parts of my job is connecting people with the information they need.  A major obstacle to this is the commercial aspect of information– in other words, the publishing industry.   Information costs money, and it takes energy and time to figure out ways to get people linked to it in the most seamless way possible.

Library science students also spend at least a few months, if not a whole semester, learning about copyright law and the rationale behind it.  So, even though some of us might come across as having an attitude that “information wants to be free,” in general, librarians are quite knowledgeable and respectful of the law.

But golly, we want information to be free.  We want that information to be in the hands of the people who are going to make good use of it, to create more really good information and make the world a better place.  Not to mention that we really dislike having to represent a profession in which you have to click multiple times or go through lots of contortions or non-intuitive steps to get where you need to be (ironically, our profession is one that is most successful when the people we serve don’t even realize we are going through those contortions behind the scenes so that they don’t have to, which is a whole other blog post in itself).

At my library, we just installed a “discovery system”, which allows users to enter search terms into one box and simultaneously look for materials from our library catalog and electronic article databases.  Except that the vendor who sold us the new system doesn’t play nice with (or vice versa) some of the vendors who sell us database subscriptions, so those databases aren’t included in the one-box search.  Or, they can be included, but you have to log in to the system (think: contortion).  Still, it’s better than our old system with all the separate silos people had to navigate.

Now, just to make things possibly a bit more challenging, the Research Works Act has been introduced in the House of Representatives.  It would make it illegal for publicly funded researchers to be required to make the results of their work publically available.  One of the main targets is the National Institutes of Health: four years ago,the Consolidated Appropriations Act directed that this agency would make all federally funded research articles available to the public through the PubMed portal.  The RWA would negate this act, and pre-empt any other government agency from making similar requirements of their federally funded researchers.  In other words, citizens who don’t have access to an academic or research library would lose the ability to read the results of research that they paid for with tax dollars.

The RWA came about due to the lobbying efforts of the Association of American Publishers, who argue that they add value to the end-products of the research: the articles.  But, as Michael Eisen points out in the NY Times, the peer reviewer process costs publishers very little, as it is carried out by academics and government researchers who volunteer their time (or are required to do it as part of their job).

Perhaps our business-friendly Congress and executive branch will see fit to pass this bill, but I hope not.  There’s enough bad, biased, and flat-out crazy medical information on the internet, and the balance doesn’t need to be made that much worse by the removal of the meat of PubMed material.  It does seem like the SOPA and PIPA bills are losing traction as representatives realize that the constituents are against them, or that they just don’t understand information technology well enough to be ruling on these matters.  In the public outcry over these bills, I hope we don’t lose sight of the Research Works Act and let it slip through.

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I don’t normally pontificate on matters political here, but I’ve been following recent developments in Wisconsin with great interest, and even a bit of hope.

Why?  I have a soft spot for Wisconsin?  Maybe– after all, I interviewed for a couple jobs there last year.  It’s right next door to Minnesota, where I have family and history.  The main reason, though, is that the events in Wisconsin have shown me that what I perceive to be American intelligence, values, and spirit still exist.  Workers protesting a threatened outlawing of their ability to collective bargaining?  A university professor writing for the public about controversial political events and defending his right to do so?  Yes!  To me, that is what this country is about.  It’s not just the right to feel a certain way about an issue– it’s the right to carry on an intelligent argument about the issue in public.

Two weeks ago, UW-Madison professor of history William Cronon published an opinion piece in the NY Times that draws comparisons between the tactics of governor Scott Walker and Senator Joseph McCarthy.  At about the same time, he started a blog that poses questions about interference in state politics by clandestine conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

These publications resulted in a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request from the Wisconsin Republican Party for Cronon’s emails.  Professor Cronon continued to blog about this turn of events, including a plea to university officials to resist what he argues is an attempt to intimidate or discredit him.

Cronon’s blog posts are followed by hundreds of comments, which means that thousands of people are reading them.  I find this very heartening!  In an age of sound-bite blips and words taken out of context to make public figures look bad, here is someone who is taking the time to write careful, well-reasoned, engaging narratives about important political events– and large numbers of people are being engaged by it.

So, three cheers for Professor Cronon!  I hope he continues to write to inform and involve the public in these crucial decisions whose outcomes will likely affect us all eventually.

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