Magazine article Special Libraries

The Bicentennial of Democracy: A WHCLIS Theme

Magazine article Special Libraries

The Bicentennial of Democracy: A WHCLIS Theme

Article excerpt

Since 1976, the United States has celebrated a number of significant bicentennials. In 1987, the 200th anniversary of the Constitution was marked, the bicentennial of the U.S. Congress was noted in 1989, and this year, 1991, is the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to our nation's Constitution, which guarantees so many of the freedoms we take for granted.

It somehow seems appropriate that as we approach the White House Conference on Library and Information Services (WHCLIS) in this bicentennial year of the Bill of Rights, one of the themes of WHCLIS is democracy.

Democracy and Information

In 1985, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) established a White House Conference Preliminary Design Group which was charged with, among other things, recommending what the scope and focus of the White House Conference would be. It was this group which proposed that library and information services for literacy, productivity, and democracy be the overarching themes for the White House Conference. [1]

What follows is a discussion of the democracy theme as it relates to open access to government information. The accessibility of such information to the public continues to be a major concern for the library/information profession and is one issue SLA would like to see debated and discussed in depth at the coming WHCLIS. It is an area in which all levels of delegates--from library and information professional to elected official to citizen--has a stake.

The preliminary design group report noted that:

"Like business, government at local, state, and federal levels is part of today's complicated information society. Today, more than ever before, information is a crucial resource in a democratic society--information upon which electors make their decisions, and information upon which elected and appointed officials and their staffs make decisions that affect those governed." [2]

Librarians, as seekers, handlers, and purveyors of information, have known for some time that information has value. The importance of information issues has gained more and more prominence in this Age of Information as leaders in education, business, and government have begun to measure the value of information. [3]

The design group report went on to state that "Government decision making is not the sole responsibility of elected or paid officials--a democratic society depends upon the informed participation of its people." [4]

Special librarians and information professionals are keenly aware of how important it is for citizens to have ready access to information about the activities of its own government. This is as true in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe as it is in the United States. "Open access," however, is something U.S. citizens seem to have taken for granted for too long. The last decade has seen an erosion of such openness with the U.S. government resorting to tactics such as reclassifying documents to restrict access and attempting to privatize federal agencies, many of which are information-rich sources for librarians, business people, and the general public.

Access to information in a timely, cost-effective manner is crucial to the functioning and competitiveness of American business. Obtaining information has become increasingly difficult with obstacles preventing or delaying access to reports, studies, and statistics which are supported by tax dollars.

The Trends of the '80s

In her book, Keeping America Uninformed: Government Secrecy in the 1980s, Donna Demac said:

"Hundreds of public and special libraries rely upon the government for their material and have, at the very least, been inconvenienced by the increasing fees for government publications, the elimination of federal information products and other changes." [5]

In a 1982 article titled, "Who Can Own What America Knows," Anita and Herbert Schiller wrote of the increasing trend toward the privatization of government, taxpayer-supported information. …

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