Monthly Archives: October 2004

discussing the commons

I?m in the Cerritos Public Library, waiting for the second day of the Information Commons meeting. There are several other bloggers here who are ?covering? the discussions. Eli Edwards, who posts great comments on my blog and has a terrific one of her own, is posting detailed notes. Jessamyn West, who has been running since 1999, is here, but she has been deferring to Eli and Fred Stutzman to blog about the conference. Rick Emrich, the founder of Commons Blog , is also here. I don?t go to a lot of techie conferences, so it tickles me that posts are appearing online as people talk.

The library is astounding. It?s new and cost the city $47 million. Disney designers from nearby Anaheim helped to plan it, and it?s a kind of public-sector Disneyland. The children?s section, for example, contains a full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and a huge salt-water tank with sharks and a coral reef. There?s a lighthouse big enough to sit inside and various high-tech gizmos such as tv screens that show the visiting kids in various exotic settings. There are also books.

Each section is ?themed? in similar ways. There?s a baronial, gothic library with vaulted stone ceilings, leather chairs, leather-bound books, and a fake electric hearth. The large Asian book section is supposed to look like Shanghai circa 1930 (when Indiana Jones visited).

I wish I could take my kids here; they could have fun for a whole day. I?m impressed that a smallish community would put so many resources into a public facility devoted to learning (whatever you may think of their taste). However, this is a conference about the ?commons,? and it strikes me that the Cerritos Library is almost antithetical to the ideal of a commons. The model here is a democratic-consumerist one. The city hired expert librarians to spend $47 million of public funds in the private sector to purchase tailored experiences for individual patrons. Because everything is finished to a high sheen, planned to the last millimeter, and high-tech, there are few ways for citizens or groups to contribute. In fact, the typical urban public library?with its dirty, peeling, whitewashed walls and aging collections?may actually make a better commons. Often the walls are covered by children?s art, the new purchases are funded by bake sales, and the special events are organized by neighbors. (My wife, for example, runs a weekly “Children’s Book Bingo” event at our local library every summer.)

I don?t think it?s fair that Cerritos should have a $47 million library unless the libraries in South Central Los Angeles are also well equipped, which they probably aren?t. However, paradoxically, the people of this affluent community may have bought themselves out of the commons and deprived themselves of the satisfactions of public work.

to California

I’m on my way to Cerritos, CA (in eastern Los Angeles County), where the new public library has won awards as a model community center or “information commons.” This weekend, the American Library Association is holding a conference there. The subject is the commons, and I look forward to discussing intellectual property, the role of information in communities and civil society, the physical design of libraries, the place of youth in public libraries, and related topics. I will have a chance to present our work building a (strictly virtual) information commons for Prince George’s County, MD.

The Cerritos conference is mentioned on Commons Blog, where there’s also a relevant bibliography.

hopes for a Kerry administration

I think the odds favor the Democrats on Tuesday, although it will be close and nobody really knows who has the edge. If John Kerry is elected president, my hopes will be modest–not because I lack respect for him as a person, but because the situation is awful and good ideas are scarce. I will be more than satisfied if Kerry and a Republican Congress are able to get the deficit down somewhat; America is extricated from Iraq without a devastating defeat; and people in the executive branch and the congressional Democratic Party begin to work out solutions to problems that Kerry currently does not know how to solve. Those problems include:

  • The loss of manufacturing jobs or decent substitutes. Playing with tax policy will have only a marginal effect. Better education is a long-term strategy, and it’s going to be hard to achieve big improvements in education now that we’ve solved some of the easier problems. So what should we do to provide stable, remunerative, rewarding employment for people with less than a college degree?
  • Dependence on foreign oil. There are chalkboard “solutions” to this problem: higher fuel taxes and tougher economy standards. These solutions are politically implausible. A real answer would come with a political game-plan that could work.
  • The highest incarceration rate in the world. (5.6 million Americans are in prison or have prison records.) They are disproportionately younger male African Americans and Latinos. Even if massive incarceration is a way to reduce crime, the cost is far too high. There has to be a better way.
  • This list could also include the 40 million without health insurance, al-Qaeda (and its clones), global warming, and nuclear proliferation. I think John Kerry’s biggest contribution, just like Bill Clinton’s, may be to keep the fiscal situation reasonably sound so that the government is able to act later on; and to veto the most dangerous ideas from the right. This would not be a small achievement, but it is disappointing that we have no better solutions to our deepest problems than we had 12 years ago.

    Uzbek TV

    A news crew from Uzbekistan interviewed the CIRCLE staff earlier today. They were nothing like Balat from the “Ali G. Show.” For one thing, they only spoke Russian and had to use an interpreter. For another, they asked extremely serious and sober questions, like “What precentage of eligible voters are under 30?”

    All interviews are one-sided affairs; and when everything has to be translated, you can’t make small talk or ask irrelevant questions. As I watched, I wondered: What is it like being in a car with four Uzbeks and a State Department handler, driving around suburban DC for an interview with people at some “Center for Information …”? Why do Uzbeks care about youth turnout in the US election? When we say that kids study “civic education” in American high schools, what scenes pop into their heads? What do they imagine goes on in a place like the University of Maryland? What are they going to say in Russian voiceover as they show my colleagues talking? Are they even paying attention?

    In short, I found the news crew more interesting–but probably more mysterious–than they found us and our issue of American youth civic engagement.

    medical information online

    LIBRES (Library and Information Science Electronic Journal) has just published an article of mine entitled “What Should be the Role of Government-Supported Medical Websites?” I begin by noting that low-budget medical websites with crackpot advice can sometimes score higher than MedlinePlus on Google. MedlinePlus is a major product of the National Library of Medicine, which has an annual budget of $250 million and is supported directly by the National Institutes of Health. NIH, in turn, has a budget of $20 billion and employs 18,000 people, including 5-10 Nobel Laureates at any given time. The openness of the Internet means that official, white-coated medicine (as embodied by NIH) is losing its monopoly–and that is not necessarily a good thing.

    I ask whether we should take various modest steps to push Web-searchers toward official portals like MedlinePlus. I conclude that we should, although this is not an easy question, since government sites have been known to manipulate medical information for political reasons, and drug companies have excessive power over the medical profession.

    Peter Suber immediately noticed my article. Peter is probably the world’s leading advocate of open-access publishing. Material is open-access if it is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” LIBRES is an open-access publication: peer-reviewed, but available free on the Internet. Therefore, Peter monitors it. I asked him how he could track so many sites so efficiently, and he told me that he uses WebSite Watcher to “crawl” through 100 sites each day and notify him of all changes.

    Peter says he agrees that government websites like MedlinePlus are great, but they would be better if NIH required all of the work it funded to be open-access. There is a serious proposal to make that happen: see Peter’s FAQ page.