A Rough Guide for Librarians On OpenGov

The Leeds Library in Yorkshire, U.K. Photo credit: Michael Beckwith.


In the last few years “Open Government” has emerged as a social movement that reframes the public’s relationship to government. While the concept of Open Government is not new — the federal Freedom of Information Act is a well-known example — the digital revolution has prompted new actors to publish and reuse government information for civic purposes.

Libraries, as a primary source of information about government, should embrace digital open government as a powerful tool to further their access-to-information mission. Citizens, civic organizations and businesses, and governments traditionally have looked to libraries for information about government activities. However, stakeholders increasingly are turning to online entrepreneurs to fill the digital information vacuum where bricks and mortar libraries previously played this role.

It is important to add that open government is not e-government. The concept of open government concerns the public’s ability to access and make use of information relating to governance. E-government, by contrast, concerns the provision of government services through electronic means. For example, filing a tax return electronically is e-government, but obtaining the total amount of money collected by the IRS as revenue is a form of open government.

Oftentimes, and unlike the ways many activists seek to understand government, technologically-oriented open government advocates organize from the ground up, not the top down. They will often use seemingly unconventional means to gather public information, such as “scraping” or reverse-engineering websites to obtain information. It is not uncommon to observe a distinct (and perhaps deserved) lack of patience with the usual procedures for trying to obtain information and the usual formats in which it is provided.

Open government activists likely will embrace librarians that serve as a connector between them and the information that they seek. Librarians, in turn, can lay the groundwork to both fulfill open government activist requests for information and proactively fulfill these requests through online publication of information, breathing new life into civic information often held in musty archives.

Roles Libraries Play

Libraries play a number of roles in the open government space. Here are a few conceptual categories:

Transparency and Hacking — Where libraries facilitate government efforts to be more transparent and citizen efforts to access that information and build new tools with that information. This is the new variety of open government that this guide attempts to describe.

Civic Literacy Education — It is longstanding library practice to educate the community through literacy and educational training. To the extent the subject matter concerns civic-related activities, it is open government.

Access to Government Services (egov) — While egov (service provision) largely is distinct from opengov (making government work better), building new tools or finding new ways to empower citizens to access government services fits within both categories. Libraries may gather information published by governments and repackage it as services tailored for their community.

Information Preservation — Libraries have long played a role in preserving information about government activities, but that often has taken the form of preservation of printed documents. Libraries can move towards preserving government information in digital forms and making that information available online.

One final note: part of what makes libraries unique is that the information is provided to patrons at no cost and with minimal restrictions. The ability to provide everyone with access with information, not just those who can afford it, is an essential characteristic of libraries and should not be overlooked.

Places to Start

The extent to which your library engages with the open government movement will vary significantly based on local circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As one possible starting point, check the Meetup website and reach out to local activists interested in open government. Perhaps invite them to use a library space for the next meeting and even consider kicking and for pizza.

The book “Beyond Transparency” provides excellent examples of how open government has been in implemented at the municipal level all across the country.

The book “Open Government Data” provides an excellent overview of what open government is and what it looks like online.

The recent Bloomberg article “What is code?” provides a plain language explanation of, well, what computer code is. (Opengov is not technology, and vice versa, but this article is a useful point of entry.)

Another starting point is to talk to local officials to get a sense of what their online information publication practices are. Perhaps there are resources at the library that can support these ongoing efforts.

The Free Government Information blog, written by several California-based librarians, provides timely information about the national conversation taking place on open government from a librarian’s perspective.

Finally, some of the organizations listed below may also have ideas or contacts regarding ways to get started.

Who To Talk To

There are a number of resources inside and outside government that should be engaged.

Inside government, possible allies include:

  • The municipality’s director of information technology, CIO, or CTO
  • Elected officials who run on a modernization campaign
  • Other librarians
  • Government components with public-facing or outreach responsibilities
  • Computer or information science academics at local colleges.
  • Other municipalities.

Outside government, there likely are significant local resources as well as state and federal resources. For example:

  • Open government activists often use the website Meetup to organize regular meetings and making use of government information.
  • Local journalists
  • Local IT professionals
  • Code for America is a nationwide organization whose mission is to embed technologically-sophisticated programmers inside government.
  • The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports open government advocacy on the municipal level and also builds sophisticated open source tools for transparency.
  • The Open Data Institute provides course information and technical assistance with publishing open data.
  • The OpenGov Foundation is focused on helping states and municipalities make there was available online.
  • General Assembly provides online and in-person courses on how to write code.

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— Written by Daniel Schuman