Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunshine and Preservation

It is Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

Sun shining through a pipe which now carries
tar sand oil across Michigan.
An open and transparent government is – or should be – one of the highest principles of American life, or really of any civic life. The government acts on behalf of the people, regulating the people, and using the people’s money to act, so the people have a right to know how the government does its work. The means of acquiring that knowledge championed during Sunshine Week is the FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request.

I work for the government – the State of Michigan – so my role and experience with FOIA and government transparency is different from journalists. I tend to be on the receiving rather than requesting end of FOIA requests. My involvement on the receiving end has been simply as a member of the department – providing copies of emails sent to Hillary Clinton’s non-governmental email address (zero), and identifying any training videos I created so a resident could determine if the video was wasteful (I believe I create one video, and no word if it was deemed wasteful.)

I’ve also been part of internal discussions considering a digitization program which would help make our own agency’s response to the more common FOIA requests a quicker and easier process. In my other digitization responsibilities we are increasingly responding to government agencies wanting us to digitize and provide online access to their own most requested materials. (These materials end up on our Governing Michigan collection.)

But this is a blog about preservation and not open government. Government agencies can only fulfill FOIA requests if they have and can access the information being requested. Preserving these records in an accessible format is a vital responsibility of government – and something that personally motivates me to do what I do. One thing that helps hold government accountable for its past decisions and actions is well-maintained records of those past decisions and actions. The challenges of capturing, preserving, and providing access to that information have only increased as governments have moved to digital media.

In thinking about preserving government information for open access Sunshine is a curious metaphor. If you’ve ever watched a single episode of Antiques Roadshow you’ve heard the advice to keep things out of the sunlight. Sunlight damages materials and speeds up the aging process. But sunlight (both literal and figurative) also reveals and exposes and allows materials to be read. We preserve (keep out of sunlight) to provide access (let the light shine in.)

If the sun shines in and exposes unorganized shelves of crumbling paper and unreadable files, then we – our government, and those of us who preserve government records – have failed.

A few resources for more information about open government:
Sunlight Foundation
Sunshine Week
Free Government Info
Michigan Coalition for Open Government

(I feel I should probably reiterate that everything on the Library Preservation 2 blog is my own opinion and is in no way endorsed by my employer.)

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