ALA Information Policy Workshop

ALA's strategic direction comes into focus

January 10, 2016

ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Director James LaRue talks with participants at the Information Policy Workshop.
ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Director James LaRue talks with participants at the Information Policy Workshop.

As technology expands in our communities, so does the complexity of laws, regulations, treaties, and jurisprudence that govern our information use. As curators and disseminators of information of all kinds, librarians must understand how to impact this policy mélange in a way that advances free expression and public access. To advance such understanding within the library community, the ALA Executive Board and the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) hosted a day-long information policy workshop on Thursday at the 2016 Midwinter Meeting. The workshop included more than 90 ALA division and office leaders, senior ALA staff, and Executive Board members as well as a diverse selection of panelists that included representatives of federal agencies, policymakers and influencers, and library allies.

Delivering the opening remarks, ALA President Sari Feldman highlighted information policy as a key component of ALA’s Strategic Directions. She noted that the first step in expanding and strengthening library professionals’ involvement in information policy is increasing their understanding of it. The day’s programming focused on elucidating this concept, and building library professionals’ capacity for advocacy around it through the National Policy Agenda for Libraries, ALA’s recently launched Libraries Transform campaign, and other ALA advocacy initiatives.

The wide world of information policy

The workshop kicked off with two big-picture policy discussions, one led by Jenny Backus, until recently a senior policy adviser at Google, and another featuring a conversation between OITP Director Alan S. Inouye and Marjory Blumenthal, executive director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In her introduction to what she fondly calls the “Wonderful, Weird, and Wacky World of Information Policy,” Backus shared stories of her own love of libraries and the role that they played in her previous political roles, but she also emphasized the power of library advocacy. Specifically, Backus reminded participants how libraries can serve as the “canary in a coal mine” to policymakers in providing indicators that help judge the effectiveness of federal programs—by being early adopters of new technology and modes of manufacturing, and by relaying key information about community questions and knowledge gaps.

Blumenthal expanded on this topic by addressing the widespread nature of information policy topics in today’s world, ranging from health and education to transportation to the rise of big data. With regard to topics of particular interest to the library community, she pointed to the physical and cognitive challenges surrounding America’s increasingly aging population and digital privacy issues that play out in international contexts, such as Europe’s “Right to Be Forgotten.”

Following these two sessions was a series of more granular discussions on specific policy areas and issues, ranging from state and local perspectives to internal ALA resources for information policy. Examples provided by panelists, such as state legislation on student data privacy, led to a discussion on how local laws often become the basis for similar legislation at the federal level, thus making the case for a multipronged approach to library advocacy at all levels of government.

Similarly, the scaling of information policy issues across governments is mirrored globally as well. As International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) President Donna Scheeder explained, our increasingly globalized world means that decisions made by multinational bodies can affect domestic information policy, as there is no longer a fine line between national and global information policies. On the copyright front, Scheeder offered examples from the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty as well as the current Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Information policy and libraries

Interactive breakout sessions organized between panels allowed participants an opportunity to provide ALA with guidance on policy issues of consequence to our members and leaders. While many referred to the profession’s more traditional “three point” model that often includes the interrelated values of freedom of speech, privacy, and intellectual property, participants also highlighted relatively newer policy areas for the library community such as broadband deployment. With respect to this and other telecommunications issues, some participants emphasized the need for librarians to gauge just how well their users understand these issues, and exactly which types of organizations or institutions libraries should be aligning with in this policy area.

A common sentiment echoed by several of the presenters was the credibility that libraries maintain in the eyes of our communities and, by extension, our public officials. The fact that libraries are long recognized as trusted institutions means that they are well positioned to be trusted advisers to legislators and other decision makers on issues of information policy, both on the local and federal level.

Presenters also emphasized that libraries should engage in coalition efforts with groups of diverse or perhaps unlikely backgrounds in order to expand resources and capacity where shared policy interests exist. The Re:Create Coalition was offered as one example, which consists of partners from across the political and organizational spectrum, all united toward the shared goal of seeking a balanced approach to copyright. The potential value of these types of “strange bedfellows” alliances should suggest to librarians that “there are no permanent friends or enemies,” Backus said.

Professionals in all types of libraries have an opportunity to combine the policy information and advocacy strategies highlighted at the workshop with their existing community support networks to enhance the impact in the information policy arena. As several participants noted, library professionals already engage with information policy in their day-to-day activities. Moving forward, they can and should think about this policy in the context of local, state, federal, and international decision making.