I have just celebrated my 20th anniversary as Executive Director of the North Suburban Library System. It was a very different world in October, 1989, when I came to Illinois. Here at NSLS, we did not have a photocopier, but rather used a mimeograph machine to duplicate the many pages of information distributed to members. I had a Dictaphone and recorded memos and letters for typing by my secretary. We were very advanced in that we had four Wang computers in a small room for automating recurring routines and for word processing. Even more impressively, my predecessor had worked with a consultant to create a rudimentary computer program that automated book loans between member libraries.
Now, 20 years later, whole weeks go by and I do not sign a letter. It's all e-mail. Not only did we get rid of the mimeograph machine, we're working with some success to get rid of the paper, too, by sending out most information to our members electronically. Those Wang computers are long gone, and every employee is expected to be computer literate not only for producing documents, but also for working collaboratively and filing projects in a shared space. Member libraries share their materials with other libraries literally around the world and it's all handled by a giant mother computer in Columbus, Ohio.
Anyone who has been alive in the world these last 20 years has witnessed this revolution. Examples of what has changed are different, but the magnitude of the change is the same. Words like "unbelievable," "unimaginable," "unprecedented," even "unfathomable" come to mind. Who would have guessed, back in 1989?
Simply expressed, how we discover, receive, process, store, handle, and share information in this digital age has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Information is the cornerstone of democracy. When it changes, we need to be concerned about the safety of this democracy we hold dear.
The Knight Commission, which grew out of a 2007 partnership between the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation, has just released an impressive report on the information needs of communities in a democracy. In the foreword, it was noted that technology was changing attitudes toward information in basic, critically important ways, but that free flow of all sorts of information continued to be as critical as ever to the core of a democracy.
The Knight Commission worked from a deceptively simple charge:
1) Articulate the information needs of a community in a democracy.
2) Describe the state of things in the United States, and
3) Propose public policy directions that would help lead us from where we are today to where we ought to be.
The report is very readable and focuses on the information people actually need. It suggests ways that the flow of information and its uses may be enhanced. The report suggests a national policy to strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information: "Access the beginning; education and training, public engagement and government transparency logically follow."
In the end, there are 15 recommendations including: "Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults."
View the full report at knightcomm.org.