Capturing government websites during the 2013 shutdown

The shutdown of the U.S. government between Oct. 1-16 left government websites in varying stages of disarray. Some agencies shut their websites completely, others remained accessible although no longer maintained, and others still seemed unaffected.
Libraries and commercial vendors stepped in to fill the gap. Librarians created LibGuides with updates on the status of government websites and sources, and commercial vendors provided temporary complimentary access to their databases that are based of government information. In the few days that past since the reopening of the government, these LibGuides ceased to exist and commercial access removed (in fact, access to Social Explorer ceased two days before the shutdown ended). This should not be surprising given the nature of immediacy of websites where here-today-gone-tomorrow is the prevailing approach and the historic value of documenting transitions is overlooked.

I thought it worthwhile to document government websites during the shutdown and was looking for a way to do so quickly and with the limited technology tools and skills available to me. The immediate solution was to capture government websites with Zotero and create a library of websites at the time on the shutdown.

Zotero is an open source bibliographic citation manager from George Mason University. It can be integrated to a web browser and when clicking ‘add’, it will capture the website displayed in the browser, saving a screenshot of the website as well as the bibliographic citation. It is quick and easy to use and answered the needs of this project.

My first priority was to capture all official government websites. Using the A-Z list from USA.gov, I captured 405 websites from the legislative, executive and judicial branches as well as quasi-governmental websites. All the websites are available from this Zotero library.
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Next, I decided to capture the official social media websites used by the U.S. government. This part of the project was done by my colleague Anthony Cocciolo. We based the capture of social media sites on work previously done for the End of Term Harvest. Anthony wrote a script for a program that would crawl all the social media websites, import them into Zotero and capture their screenshots. The result is a library of 1356 government social media websites.
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The final step of this project is still in progress, and includes adding tags to all snapshots. These tags can allow future researchers to search the collection applying different filters such as shutdown status (Completely shut down, Available but not updated, No apparent change), by branch of government (Executive, Executive Office of the President, etc) and by agency (Dept. of Labor, Interior, etc.). These tags must be added manually and I will continue to do so over the next few weeks.

While we recognize this is not a true archive, we hope this capture will help those who are interested in learning more about the status of government website during the shutdown.


Suggestion Box: The Full Catastrophe: NYPL – Please review your circulation policy

The off-site storage policy of New York Public Library has stirred much public debate, and rightly so. I feel honored to live in a city that cares about its public library. I wont repeat the debate and will only say briefly that I personally have no problem with off-site storage. From what I tested, the turn-around time is pretty good and I feel the books are accessible. What I do take issue with is that all the books stored off-site do not circulate. To invoke the cliché, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? In other words, why can’t off-site books circulate, and why are so many book in-library use only? Once a book is delivered, why can’t I check it out? For example, Zygmunt Bauman is a contemporary socialist that has published widely on themes on post-modernism, modernity, liquid societies. He published 57 books and countless articles. Many of his popular books are available on Amazon but at NYPL, only two of the books circulate, and the others are all either off-site or in-library use only. Why don’t these books circulate? These are not books one can read at the library, these are not reference books; these are books you have to have by your side as you read them.
Screen shot 2013-05-26 at 5.40.53 pmAnother example: The Full Catastrophe, a book by David Carkeet, is a academic funny mystery novel with a linguistic twist. It’s fiction, it’s a novel, it’s mystery, it’s summer on-a-rainy-day upstate kind a book. What is it stored off-site and does listen? NYPL are you listening?


Questioning the standard Call For Papers model: ALISE 2014

ALISE, the Association for Library and Information Science Educators, recently posted a call for juried papers (CFP) for its 2014 annual conference. As far as CFPs go, this is a pretty standard one.

First we are told that the conference theme is “Educational Entrepreneurship,” well within the scope of the ALISE audience. Then comes a more detailed description of topics of interest, which include

“original contributions including reports of research, theory, pedagogy, best practices,
think pieces, and critical essays […] Potential topics […] include but are not limited to:
Program revision; Curricular innovation; Program delivery; Innovative service learning
initiatives; High impact practices; Novel pedagogical approaches; Approaches to research.

So far this makes perfect sense to me, and as a library educator these topics are of interest. Then, again quite typically, comes the following:

Submissions should be original papers that have not been previously published. There are no
restrictions on research methodology. Alternative perspectives on educational entrepreneurship
in library and information science are welcomed and encouraged.

It is that first sentence of the section above that gives me reason to pause: submissions not previously published. ALISE does not publish conference proceedings—not on the conference website, as a monographic series, or as part of a journal. The conference program includes only extended abstracts, and papers “are eligible for consideration for the Journal of Education for Library and Information Science (JELIS) ‘best papers’ conference issue.”

It seems to me that in the spirit of Library and Information Science, papers should be made available as open-access publications on the conference website. Given that they are not, why does it matter whether they have been previously published? As a conference attendee I don’t mind if a paper has been published elsewhere. But as someone who is considering submitting a paper to the ALISE conference, I have little motivation to submit a previously unpublished paper that will not be disseminated beyond the score of people in the session.

As an information professional I support practices that allow for as much open access and as little gatekeeping of submissions as possible, and educate my students in that spirit. I would like my professional association to also share and act on such values.


FOIA wishes

James Madison is often invoked in discussions on freedom of information and his memorable words “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both” are at the foundation of our rationale for freedom of and access to information.

March 16, Madison’s birthday, is celebrated as Freedom of Information day, and often serves as an opportunity to both celebrate and take stock of the state of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the U.S.
Sunshine week is celebrated this year on March 16-22 and affords many opportunities to learn about and promote free of information.

Here is my freedom of information day wish – I would like to be able to sign up to receive alerts from agencies of my choice whenever their record of information they hold on me changes. Instead of my having to file a FOIA request to the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) asking to see the records they maintain about me, I would like to be able to subscribe and receive an e-mail alert every time my record is updated. Then I can login to the system that holds my record and see the changes made. Similarly, if there is an issue I follow I would like to receive alerts when a federal system of records is updated regarding that issue.
This is a natural next step to the proactive disclosure that the DHS committed to in their Aug. 26, 2009 memorandum.

And no, I will not accept the cybersecurity argument as a reason not to implement this practice.

Happy Sunshine week and Freedom of Information day.


A tribute to Aaron Swartz and a comment on women activists

I am touched and inspired by the outpouring of emotion following the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. His life and activities have affected many. I am most familiar with Aaron Swartz through two of his works of activism: the PACER document release, an action that I strongly support, and his download of JSTOR files, an action that I sympathize with.

Aaron Swartz at SILS

Aaron Swartz at SILS

I am touched and inspired by the number of tributes I have seen friends post on Facebook and Twitter. At SILS, we well remember Aaron’s visit to the student association, SILSSA, back in the 2006/7 academic year. I had no idea how many people looked up to him.

I am touched and inspired by the way Aaron’s death reached beyond the circles of free information enthusiasts. The New York Times online reported on his death in detail on the front page (or front screen, as the case may be). The On the Media coverage was equally dignified.

I am touched and inspired after listening for two and a half hours to the live streaming of the memorial to Aaron Swartz organized by Democracy Now!. I am not quite sure how many speakers there were, but my guess is between 10-15. Each and every one of the tributes is worth listening to; don’t skip a single one. Aaron’s scope of activity, and the personality he had to match, require this many people to tell his story.

I am touched and inspired by the words of Roy Singham (and I apologize, but as of this writing there are no minute breakdowns in the recording of the memorial, and you’ll have to watch it all to find any one speaker), whose j’accuse words generated positive action from anger toward the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz.

I am touched and inspired by all the tributes paid in the memorial and am in awe of Aaron Swartz and his commitment to First Amendment Rights. I urge you to watch the entire (2.5 hour) recording. Due to the inability to pause-and-play right now, I am refraining from writing a more detailed review.

I am touched and inspired by the words of Quinn Norton and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the only women among the speakers. Both are personal friends, the first a former partner and the second his current partner and an activist in her own right. The words were personal and moving and they both, particularly Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, addressed his civic activities as well.
And while I would not have omitted any of the speakers, I can’t help but wonder at the lack of women among them. Are there no women active among access rights, or did Aaron Swartz not work with them? Some who come to mind are Patrice McDermott from Open the Government, danah boyd, who paid a very nice tribute to Aaron on her blog , Melissa Hagemann from the Open Society Foundations , and Kathleen Fitzpatrick of MLA. This absence of women saddens me and I am not aware of any women, Aaron’s age or younger, who are taking on these activities—though correct me if I am wrong, and send me names.

I am touched and inspired by the work of Aaron Swartz and he will continue to inspire and inform my own work for many years to come.
I will end with a quote from an essay titled When is Transparency Useful? that Aaron Swartz wrote and that was made freely available to the public by the publisher, O’Reilly, in tribute to him.

I suspect few people would put “publishing government documents on the Web” high on their list of political priorities, but it’s a fairly cheap project (just throw piles of stuff into scanners) and doesn’t seem to have much downside. The biggest concern—privacy —seems mostly taken care of. In the United States, FOIA and the Privacy Act (PA) provide fairly clear guidelines for how to ensure disclosure while protecting people’s privacy.


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