ERIC Identifier: ED331528
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: White, Charles S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources Syracuse
NY., ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington
Information Technology and the Informed Citizen: New
Challenges for Government and Libraries. ERIC Digest.
Thomas Jefferson wrote:
If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,
it expects what never was and never will be.... [I]f we are to guard against
ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to
be informed. (Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816)
The link between popular government and an informed citizenry was a
theme that ran throughout Jefferson's writings and efforts, from the establishment
of the University of Virginia to his advocacy of public libraries. Every
generation since has faced the challenge of achieving an informed citizenry
that is capable of making reasoned decisions and acting on those decisions.
The current generation of citizens is faced with a three-fold challenge
made more difficult by the volume and complexity of information relevant
to public affairs: (1) how to access information, (2) how to find the best
information for the given task, and (3) how to make sense of the information
once obtained (that is, how to transform information into useful knowledge).
The burden of citizens in becoming informed has increased dramatically
as electronic technology has accelerated the production and transmission
of information. As in Jefferson's time, libraries continue to be essential
institutions as people in the "Information Age" grapple with their responsibility
to become informed.
INFORMATION ACCESS: LIBRARIES AS GATEWAYS
Arguably the largest generator of information relevant to public affairs
is government, especially at the federal level. Significant amounts of
data are collected and processed annually. While substantial legislative
and regulatory action has been directed at rationalizing federal information
policies regarding the collection and management of government information,
relatively little attention has been focused until recently on dissemination,
the final phase of the information cycle. This is especially true of information
in electronic formats.
Recognizing its obligation to make government information accessible
to citizens, Congress established the Government Printing Office (GPO)
(1895) and the Depository Library System (1962). The latter now comprises
1,400 libraries nationwide, as well as 53 Regional Depository Libraries,
whose purpose is to provide the general public with the greatest possible
access to government information. With the advent of electronic information
systems, federal information dissemination policies and the traditional
functions of libraries are strained in achieving the goal of informing
According to an Office of Technology Assessment report (OTA, 1988),
the number of civilian agency publications in paper format has been gradually
declining, while those in electronic formats increased more than three-fold
in the four years prior to the report. Pushed forward by an array of technological
advances that show no signs of abating, the growing availability of electronically
based public information carries both benefits and costs. On the benefit
side, more information can be tapped more rapidly than ever before, including
low-demand databases that heretofore could not be disseminated in a cost-effective
manner through centralized production (via the GPO, for example).
COSTS AND ISSUES
On the cost side, however, are several thorny issues that must be addressed
for the benefits to be realized. These issues are identified below.
*Government information dissemination policies. How can we rationalize
government dissemination of electronic information to ameliorate the current
confusion of institutional roles and responsibilities (who publishes what)?
Should federal agencies sell their databases or only services derived from
those databases? Should agencies wholesale or retail their information
products? How much should users (libraries and citizens) be charged for
electronic information products, and does this depend on the relevance
of the information to significant public policy issues (Bortnick, 1988)?
*Privatization of information sources. The federal government spends
in excess of $6 billion on information dissemination (OTA, 1988). In an
era of budgetary reductions, and the likely expansion of electronic information
products, how much can the government afford to pay for dissemination,
and how much will it transfer to commercial database vendors? Will such
a transfer mean relatively high user access fees, the elimination of low-profit
databases that serve only specialized needs, copyright and similar controls
over the public information such vendors sell, undue self-interested influence
over the delivery of public information, and the concentration of information
delivery services in a limited number of commercial vendors (Gapen et al.,
*Usability of information by the user. Electronic information products
are not always readily usable by the individual who needs them. For example,
some information might consist of raw data files on computer tape, requiring
sophisticated hardware and statistical software at the user end. Who will
provide and pay for these "value-added" interfaces that make electronic
information more usable by those who need it (Gapen et al., 1987)?
*Equity of access. Related to the previous issue is the cost one must
pay to play in the electronic information game; namely, the hardware and
software required to access electronic information. A good deal has been
made of direct citizen access to information with the growing availability
of inexpensive computers and communications software. Schuman (1990) reminds
us, however, that 25 percent of households below the poverty level have
no telephone, and only 13 percent of households own a computer (only 10
percent of these with modems). The more immediate likelihood is a growing
gap between the information-rich and information-poor, with the latter
unable to access the growing proportion of public information available
only in electronic formats (Gapen et al., 1987).
As libraries continue to fulfill their roles as gateways to public information,
it seems likely that they will assume increasing responsibility for providing
access to electronic information sources. While maintaining access to existing
print-based information, libraries will also have to grapple with the issues
enumerated above, in collaboration with government agencies and commercial
database vendors. Decisions will have to be made regarding which libraries
will provide what levels of access to what electronic information products
at what cost, based perhaps on particular characteristics of the information
products (Gapen et al., 1987).
FINDING THE RIGHT INFORMATION AND USING IT EFFECTIVELY: LIBRARIES
AS GUIDES AND EDUCATORS
Providing a gateway to networks of electronic information is only one
challenge facing libraries in the years to come. Libraries also serve as
GUIDES, not only filling specific information needs but solving information
problems (Schuman, 1990). For the foreseeable future, the "expert system"
people will use to seek answers to information problems will be librarians
(more appropriately, INFORMATION SPECIALISTS), whose traditional expertise
as information searchers will have to expand to navigate skillfully the
growing web of interconnected electronic databases. A knowledgeable guide
significantly lightens the burden users must bear in finding the information
Libraries must also serve as EDUCATORS, helping citizens to hone their
own information problem-solving skills. The information specialist can
help people to identify multiple perspectives on public policy issues,
to clarify their questions, and to identify what information they need
to answer their questions. Patrons also frequently seek help in INTERPRETING
the information they have found; that is, in converting information into
knowledge. Such requests will likely multiply, as citizens are confronted
with increasing volumes of information and with policy issues requiring
greater understanding of scientific, technical, and social information.
A MULTIDIMENSIONAL CHALLENGE
This last point about constructing knowledge from information underscores
how complex is the contemporary challenge to build a solid foundation for
an informed citizenry. Neither access nor guidance nor skill development
alone is sufficient to the task. All three supports must be in place. This
suggests the need for multiple institutions to change, individually and
in concert. Government information policies need to be rationalized, and
education institutions serving children and adults must focus more attention
on the construction of knowledge. Finally, libraries must interact effectively
with government, education institutions, and the commercial sector. The
functions of libraries as gateways, guides, and educators must expand and
change to meet the information needs of citizens in a 21st-century democracy.
Bortnick, Jane (Ed.). (1988). Symposium on the electronic collection
and dissemination of federal government information. Government Information
Quarterly, 5(3), 197-211, 213-21, 223-302.
Gapen, D. Kaye, et al. (1987, October). Technology and U.S. Government
Information Policies: Catalysts for New Partnerships. Report of the Task
Force on Government Information in Electronic Format. Washington, DC: Association
of Research Libraries. 37pp. ED 288 555.
Gray, Carolyn M. (1987). Information technocracy: Prologue to a farce
or a tragedy. Information Technology and Libraries, 6(1), 3-9. EJ 351 228.
Murdoch, Graham, & Golding, Peter. (1989, Summer). Information poverty
and political inequality: Citizenship in the age of privatized communications.
Journal of Communication, 39(3), 180-95. EJ 400 427.
Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). (1988, October). Informing the
Nation: Federal Information Dissemination in an Electronic Age. Summary.
(Report No. OTA-CIT-397). Washington, DC: Author. 32pp. ED 301 229. (For
complete report, see ED 301 228).
Varner, Carroll. (1988, May). Controversies, Collections, and the Academic
Library's Educational Role. Paper presented at the Association of College
and Research Libraries (ACRL) Session of the Annual Meeting of the Illinois
Library Association, Chicago, IL, May 12, 1988. 7pp. ED 307 876.
White, Charles S. (1987, October). Democratic Citizenship and Information
Technology: Promises, Challenges, and Remedies. Paper presented at the
Annual Conference of the American Society for Information Science, Boston,
MA, October 5, 1987. 15pp. ED 288 791.
White, Charles S. (1987, November). Information Technology and Representative
Government: Educating an Informed and Participative Citizenry. Paper presented
at the Annual Meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies, Dallas,
TX, November 15, 1987. 19pp. ED 293 741.
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