In between working on my directed fieldwork and watching Stranger Things, I’ve been finishing Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age. He discusses the various barriers that prevent access to primarily creative works, such as copyright law, technological barriers like digital locks, and publishers’ contracts. Many of the concepts and concerns apply to almost any situation that involves information access and usability. In particular, architecture and systems, even those created with the intent of improving access and use, can inadvertently become barriers—sometimes even masking the existence of information.
The results of my survey and assessment seem to substantiate this. Respondents want to prepare their public libraries for crises through planning and training. Many have taken some actions. But most were not aware of all the resources available through the National Library of Medicine and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. These free resources are available online to anyone and include templates for plans, training, assistance, advice, lessons learned and best practices. I attended training and was disappointed to learn that in many cases libraries and government agencies were still relying on—and paying—contractors to provide them similar information. Unfortunately, the resulting products did not comprehensively incorporate guidance, policies, and best practices, let alone encourage community wide collaboration. Those who cannot secure funding often have not engaged in emergency preparation efforts because the concepts are unfamiliar or the tasks seem daunting, despite the existence of so many free tools.
Luckily, as Cory Doctorow explains in his third law, though Stewart Brand purported the duality of information wanting to be both expensive and free, in reality, “[i]nformation doesn’t want to be free—people do.”
Doctorow applies this tenet to what people want from computers and the internet. This applies not only to the user but also to the content and architecture creators. Many agencies and organizations in the Federal and state governments, as well as academic institutions, have created incredibly helpful and reliable resources and made them accessible online. Despite best efforts, some of this information remains elusive or intimidating. With the enthusiastic input of various stakeholders, survey respondents, and advisors who want to improve this situation, I’ve devised a strategy to make disaster information more available and actionable to public libraries. I’m excited to receive feedback this next week and then hone the strategy even further. (You can see the strategy, the infographic and research guide here and here.) The experience has illustrated once again how people in the public service information business, including librarians and emergency management coordinators, are always willing to work hard to improve access to information and thereby improve the quality of life for the population they serve.
One more note about “[i]nformation doesn’t want to be free—people do.” Or, as people who know me well will attest, hundreds more words…
When I read those words I couldn’t help but think back to a trip I took with my daughter last year. In August 2015, we visited my mother’s family in Lithuania. While a handful of my relatives was able to leave when the occupying government became too oppressive, the majority remained. They could not secure passage or it was too difficult to leave loved ones behind. Those who stayed in Lithuania endured a very difficult life—and a pattern that had repeated over the centuries continued: their language was outlawed, books were burned, property and businesses were confiscated by the Soviet state. They had to still work their farms but could not receive any of the profits. Ultimately, when the expenses of maintaining their farms and homes became too great and buildings and equipment became unusable, they simply abandoned them. People were forced into jobs they didn’t want and poor quality of life they could not avoid.
We visited one of those properties in Marijampole and found the stones of the bulldozed houses and buildings. Standing in the fields and looking out across what had been two farms that belonged to my great-great grandparents and one of my great aunts, I was struck by how it must have broken their hearts to just walk away from the houses and barns and fields they had built and worked for years.
Later that week we walked around the memorial in front of the Parliament. My relatives had stood in front of that building in January 1991, linked arm in arm with other Lithuanians, defying Soviet troops and tanks who were attempting to occupy the Parliament building. Lithuania had declared its independence the year before and suffered economic hardship, increased military occupation and harassment, and unarmed protestors had been shot and arrested many times.
My mother’s cousin, Ruta, who is my age, talked about how proud she was that her father and brother had been there. As I walked around this glass building looking at the cement barriers covered with graffiti demanding freedom and the photographs of people standing in front of looming tanks, I was amazed by their bravery. People had been arrested and killed for decades leading up to Lithuania declaring its independence. Soviet forces increased their occupation throughout the country and particularly in Vilnius, and yet Lithuanians persisted. My uncle, who is American and was accompanying us on the trip, commented that the people must have been so happy to be democratic and live under a capitalist society rather than a communist one. Ruta said, “We just wanted to be free.”
I cannot explain the impact those words had on me. I have had the experience before as an Army officer in countries like Bosnia and Albania to meet people who had suffered because of their ethnicity, religion, and culture. I had grown up knowing that things were often bleak for my family in Lithuania, but I usually pictured the near-empty grocery stores and the years of waiting to be able to buy a car that Ruta described in her letters. I didn’t really understand how her letters were screened and that she had to carefully choose every word. I never imagined the lack of freedom or ownership of information—I simply could not grasp it. I certainly cannot appreciate it the way Ruta and my family does.
But a week in my mother’s family’s country helped me begin to understand the passion with which they fought to regain their freedom, especially in relation to information. In the Church of St. Johns, I saw the memorials to several scholars and writers essential to the preservation of Lithuania’s language and culture. One of them, Konstantinas Sirvydas, wrote the first Lithuanian dictionary in 1620, when other countries insisted it wasn’t a language worth a dictionary. Due to the constant political unrest in the country, it was the only dictionary of the Lithuanian language until the 19th century. Simonas Daukantas wrote the first history of Lithuania in Lithuanian in the 1820s. His subsequent works on the history, folklore, customs, and songs critically preserved Lithuanian culture—including rare words from ancient works. Their memorials were damaged by the Soviet government. They have been lovingly restored.
Ruta talked about people smuggling in Lithuanian books, in spite of the book burnings and dangers of being arrested--for possessing a book--while under Soviet rule. Ruta’s husband, Giedrius, explained that when he and Ruta went to school they had to share books with their friends because there weren’t enough for everyone—even in medical school. And they all were in Russian because Lithuanian books were not legally allowed to be published. And now their children can access books in multiple languages at libraries and bookstores all over the country. Because of their indomitable will to be free, Lithuanians have made information more free. It makes their gifts of Lithuanian books all the more precious.
I’m humbled and inspired by people who have worked diligently and even struggled to improve access to information—including both the Lithuanians and librarians. They have taught me that people want and need information in order to be free and to have a higher quality of life. Information is the critical lynchpin whether one is trying to be creative or constructive, independent or united, entertained or informed. The more we share it and make it available, the more we all are free.
The evidence is undeniable. Articles about recent crises show that libraries play a critical role in the response and recovery of communities in crisis not only in New Jersey, but also New York, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Missouri, Colorado, Michigan, California, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, North Carolina, Iowa, Haiti, Chile, Australia, Norway, and more (Librarians and Libraries Respond to Disasters: Bibliography on Library Roles in Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery).
Throughout these articles, libraries are called safe havens, ports in the storm, sanctuaries, churches of knowledge, and gates to information. There is good reason for this. They are arguably the most approachable of all governmental agencies, at once authoritative and welcoming. No matter where you are, you know what a library is for and what it can provide. And it isn’t just books.
Last week I attended a community resiliency workshop given by the New Jersey State Library. The librarians spoke of people coming to the libraries after Hurricane Sandy, shellshocked from having lost their homes, their pets, and their businesses. The library staff sat with hundreds of people, holding their hands and comforting them as they poured out their grief and fears. Even staff who usually had no contact with patrons came into the reading rooms and sitting areas just to listen and provide comfort.
For weeks, the libraries extended their hours and services, connecting patrons to resources and tools. They provided activities for children so parents could focus on filling out FEMA forms. And when people could not come to the libraries, the libraries went to them. They sent staff and materials in the form of mobile libraries to shelters and neighborhoods. They even walked door to door to let community members know about services and events available at the libraries. All in addition to having to resolve the effects on their own homes and families.
This is a pattern repeated again and again in libraries around the country and the world. It is a fascinating phenomenon that is not advertised or promoted typically. It is an inherent part of the culture of libraries and our communities. The public expects libraries to be there for them and libraries do all they can to provide for the needs of the public no matter the circumstances. If leveraged effectively through planning, preparedness, and collaboration, this culture can be key to not just the recovery of individuals but the resiliency of an entire community.
Myhrvold comments that we live in an age where food is abundant and that a lack of access is caused by systems and mechanisms that create barriers. This is equally true of information. We often hear that we live in the Information Age due to the increase in access to technology that can improve access to information. New means of sharing, obtaining, and packaging information are available every day...but not to everyone. Rather than refined cuisine, he could be referring to the high cost of technology that causes information to "stay(s) in this funny place where the elite practitioners of the very highest forms remain really expensive".
Although "we" live in an Information Age, there are huge disparities in many communities that cause barriers: small library and community budgets and staffs, limited access to the internet and computers or other devices, and a lack of both information literacy and technology proficiency, to name a few. This isn't an earth shatteringly profound concept, of course, but it does have a profound effect on those who experience information inequality. Those of us in the various library and information science professions are constantly trying to improve that situation.
A third year MLIS student conducting fieldwork with NLM, NN/LM NER, and Massachusetts Libraries.