As the vast majority of government information goes digital, it becomes more accessible to many segments of the population that may otherwise not be willing or able to invest the time and energy to travel to a repository or track the documents down through other means. K-12 students working on projects for civics class or stay at home moms living in rural areas are now able to do research from exactly where they are on their computers. As physical documents and physical space become less restrictive we are seeing government information as it has always been intended, accessible, democratic and for the people. In the flurry of excitement surrounding this new level of transparency and access it is easy to forget what a large segment of the population has no access to the Internet whatsoever.
In a recent National Telecommunications and Information Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, Digital Nation: 21st Century America's Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access 40% of Americans surveyed said they have no household high speed internet access, and 30% said they have none at all. While we can most likely assume they have some level of access via school, work or the public library. However, the vast majority of prison inmates have no access whatsoever. In a rapidly advancing and ever more digital world, inmates spending any length of time away from computers will certainly find themselves left in the dust upon re-entry into society. Some facilities recognize the value of increased access, as both an educational and community engagement, Matt Kelley wrote about the expansion of Internet in Kansas State prisons In most prisons around the country however, prison librarians serve as the main point of access to information for all inmates. For those seeking to better understand sentencing, that often means requests for copies of legislation and other government information. One of the most highly requested bills at a DC area prison of late has been the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789) which reduces the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine. The flurry of press coverage following its signing this past summer led to high requests of the legislation itself by prisoners looking to understand its impact.
While the argument can be made that those who have broken the law deserve punishment, not the privilege of surfing the web, I firmly believe that if prisoners are expected to productively rejoin society and improve themselves direct access is essential. Hopefully, eventually more states will go the way of Kansas, but in the meantime, prison librarians must continue the difficult and commendable work of disseminating information.
Check out my cousin Gabriel Troy's artwork using government documents.
He says about this sculpture, "Federal Paperwork Burden": "I wanted to make these Government documents accessible and inaccessible at the same time. The books are fixed by tension without a back or shelf."
He also took pages from government documents and painted over them: "These pages were cut from documents pertaining to business, agriculture, industry, and domestic issues. I have added structures to house the information."
A blog post by Coby Logen was brought to my attention in the comments from my previous post about Government agencies using Twitter, called "Agencies Block YouTube, Shoot Themselves in the Foot" (great title!). When I was hunting fervently for the NASA Twitter account, I almost jumped to the conclusion that perhaps they never did create one because of this article I stumbled upon, discussing how some Government agencies block access to Twitter on Government computers.
I found a recent news report on GovTech.com entitled, "Don't Block Web 2.0 Access", urging businesses to "resist the temptation" to block their employees' access to Web 2.0 technologies . I wish the author had urged the U.S. Government to resist the temptation too, but perhaps this is implied.
This quote from Coby's blog post sums up the issue nicely:
"It is humorous that the Secretary of Energy invites us to explore the Solar Decathlon MySpace page while he doesn't trust his own employees to do so. And you've got to chuckle a little as you watch the Secretary of the Interior on a field trip to learn about "technology and collaborative science" via the collaborative technology that his department banned. But I hope no one in the Coast Guard or FEMA (both in DHS) would benefit from NOAA's environmental visualization channel on YouTube, because they aren't allowed to watch it."
The FAS Secrecy News blog documented the experience on the following blog posts:
Thank goodness for organizations like the FAS who are keeping tabs on and taking a stand on disturbing occurrences like this. Be sure to check out the FAS Project on Government Secrecy website and blog.
It gives me the chills to think how many other resources are "closed" or simply vanish without our knowledge. I've been working as a Government Documents Librarian for a little over a year and I've only read about restricted access...but I dread the day I have to actually experience it. At least I feel more prepared after reading about the FOIA request filing procedures and I know where to get support if I have questions (yes, I'm talking about you, my fellow FGI readers!).
The Directorate of Legal Research at the Library of Congress: A Treasure Hidden Under a Bushel Basket, By Michael Ravnitzky, LLRX.com, November 12, 2006.
Michael Ravnitzky, a Washington, D.C. area attorney and journalist, has published this useful article about this "little known but well-regarded and highly influential research department contained within the Library of Congress." The mission of the Directorate of Legal Research is "to provide high quality, timely, and innovative research, analysis, and reference services on issues of international, and foreign and comparative law."
But obtaining reports from the Directorate is very difficult. No overall list of DLR reports has ever been produced or released and the Directorate itself says that it has no comprehensive list of its own publications. While the Pennyhill Press sells copies of 66 DRL reports, there are evidently many more that it does not sell.
Ravnitzky does an excellent job of digging into the sources that do exist to track down this useful information. Bookmark this article for future reference questions!