The Goverment Domain: Government Topics at the SLA 2008 Conference

The Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference in delightfully chilly Seattle provided a welcome escape from the DC heat and humidity but not from government information issues. Even the opening session with Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, who was interviewed by PBS star Charlie Rose, strayed from information technology topics and onto issues of policy and government’s role. Cerf noted that he and Bob Kahn were able to share the architecture of the Internet at the height of the Cold War, and he said he hopes we can preserve that kind of openness. He went on to say that “sharing information works” and that “information is not power; information sharing is power.” Cerf put in a word for the Google party line on net neutrality versus the call by the phone and cable companies for more control over broadband traffic. Finally, Cerf mentioned his work on the InterPlaNetary (IPN) Internet concept of data communications standards in space, which he has worked on with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and with the international Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.

Coming down to earth, another session focused on truth and spin in political communication. Brooks Jackson spoke about his book unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, co-authored with Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Jackson is the director of Annenberg Political FactCheck, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Their website,, is a nonpartisan effort to monitor the factual accuracy of statements by political candidates and others. Jackson described the process that the FactCheck staff goes through in determining the veracity of claims. This part of his book may be of particular interest to those who teach information literacy. He takes the line that it does not matter what type of lie, inaccuracy, or misstatement is being made; what matters is that it can result in a wrong decision or action. Jackson characterized “what is truth?” discussions as being more relevant for college sophomores than for those in the arena of practical politics, where it is fairly clear what the actors’ motives are. He dismissed the “true believer” argument with the statement that “falsehood isn’t any more right if the speaker believes it.” Jackson provided the audience with plenty of examples of falsehoods or misstatements from both the left and the right of American politics. Disheartening for lovers of fact, Jackson cited examples to show that, as he said, “disinformation works.” Also disheartening, he cited the work of Dr. Drew Westen, showing how rational thought does not reign supreme when it comes to partisan loyalty. (For more on this, see Westen’s Huffington Post posting and his book The Political Brain). On the upside, Jackson assured us that the Internet, the same avenue that is spreading bad information, can be used to spread fact. He responded positively to the suggestion from an audience member that “librarians should offer an un-spinning service.”

In the SLA Public Policy session, SLA’s Chief Policy Officer Doug Newcomb recapped the past year of SLA government relations. Recent activity by the association has included work with the Library Copyright Alliance on the issue of orphan works. The major public policy issue of the past two years has been the status of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) libraries and information services. Debbie Balsamo, National Program Manager for EPA’s Library Network, was present to provide an update and to answer members’ questions. The status of EPA’s response to congressional inquiries is available from the EPA National Dialogue web page. SLA CEO Janice Lachance noted that SLA has gotten smarter about how federal libraries work and what SLA can do to help.

U.S. federal agencies were present at SLA to describe existing, new, and forthcoming online information services. A panel on “Building Global Bridges across Science Databases” featured the international governmental product WorldWideScience enables a federated search of scientific databases from over 40 nations. Just prior to the SLA conference, a WordWideScience Alliance agreement was announced, formalizing the arrangement by participating countries “to sustain and build upon joint efforts to provide a single, sophisticated point of access for diverse scientific resources and expertise from nations around the world.” On the same panel, a representative from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) summarized U.S. participation in international data cooperation in the biological diversity research areas of invasive species, protected areas, pollinators, specimens, species, and ecosystems. The U.S cooperates with the Inter-American Biodiversity Information Network (IABIN), pronounced ee-YAH-bin. The U.S. IABIN node is managed by USGS. A closely aligned effort is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). The U.S. National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) is the U.S. node to GBIF. Had enough of the acronyms? USGS representative Tom Lahr provided some pithy quotes to explain it all, including “animals don’t respect national boundaries” and “GBIF facilitates the repatriation of data” (meaning that U.S. – created data about species in other countries can go back to those countries, where they can use it).

It is an election year, so even marketing guru Seth Godin, the SLA closing speaker, could not avoid politics. His talk focused on how the democracy of the Internet changes marketing and customer service. But he also commented on its effect on political communications. Godin noted that anonymous speech has not been a wholly positive development in the political realm, where it has helped to spread misinformation and provide an escape from accountability. He offered the hope that, in such an environment, non-anonymous speech will become more important.

unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation
Author: Brooks Jackson, Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Binding: Paperback
List price: $14.00
Amazon price: $11.40
Posted in: E-Government, Government Resources, Legal Research, The Government Domain