Right at front when you open the website of Monroeville Public Library, Pennsylvania (no, not that Monroeville, fellow literature lovers), you are introduced to the library’s ‘Hot Topics’; i.e. sets of Web resources on local, national and international current issues. It was after my blog post two weeks ago, ‘How a Public Library Can Improve Public Participation and Democracy’, I was informed about ‘Hot Topics’ by Mark Hudson, Adult Services Librarian in Monroeville. He is one of the librarians responsible for Hot Topics.
The day I discovered the Monroeville ‘Hot Topics’ the two top issues were (and still are as of July 21) ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ and ‘Pre-K: Engaging Children’s Minds’. This very much resembles our own experimental LTC portals and the Global Surveillance portal of the University Library of Oslo, both presented in the above-mentioned blog post. The point in both cases is to present web resources of high quality and at the same time important supplementary and alternative links and information to what you find in mainstream media and governmental websites.
– Our understanding and intention are very much the same, Mark Hudson says. – But our ‘Hot Topics’ are not nearly as comprehensive as the example you gave on global surveillance. They usually consist of 5-10 or so online resources representing various perspectives on a given topic. Each new topic is featured for several weeks on the library’s home page. We publicize them via email and social media. When a topic is replaced with a new one on the home page, it’s archived and still available.
– And sometimes we have organized programs with talks and discussions to coincide with the topic being featured.
Which comes close to the demand for relevant knowledge in order to rise the quality level of the debates that Norwegian libraries are supposed to arrange according to the new library act (also covered in the blog post).
Partisan on the side of democracy
– Unlike your Norwegian services we haven’t used ‘Hot Topics’ to comment on specific articles in local media. However, I have made it a point to include, whenever possible, independent media analysis such as that provided by FAIR and also independent media and public interest organizations that are explicitly or implicitly critical of mainstream, corporate-controlled media, e.g., Democracy Now, Common Dreams, Public Citizen and many others.
Mark Hudson underlines that ‘Hot Topics’ is a collective effort at the library, with different librarians contributing research depending on our knowledge of and interest in the various topics.
– During the Scandinavian establishing of ‘debate libraries’ and now this new kind of knowledge portals there has been a certain unease about the library risking to choose sides in conflicts and controversies. What are your experiences?
– As librarians I believe we have a responsibility to be partisan on the side of democracy, human rights, social inclusion and social justice. In the Hot Topics we try to include a full range of perspectives on every issue — including conservative and right-wing views — not because we are neutral on these issues ourselves, but because we always want to help people understand the debate on a given issue and what is truly at stake for society in that debate, so they can form their own independent viewpoints based on real knowledge and understanding of the issue. This is why it’s so important to include independent media analysis that helps people contextualize the various perspectives presented and understand the social and economic interests underlying these perspectives.
For Scandinavian readers: This kind of «media watch» organisations seems to be mainly a USA phenomenon. The closest we come in Scandinavia is perhaps the Swedish politiken.se. Non-mainstream and critical daily newspapers like e.g. Swedish ETC, Danish Information and Norwegian Klassekampen have rather high circulation and citation rates and probably cover those needs.
Include books and videos
– Why do you think librarians in general prioritize books and media much higher than web resources?
– Many librarians would probably disagree with me, but I still believe, as Walt Crawford, Michael Gorman and others have argued, that print-on-paper is and will likely remain the best medium for the sustained reading necessary for the acquisition of knowledge, and for the preservation of the historical and cultural record. It’s also much less susceptible to surveillance and commercialization than the web. Reading books is a private activity; no government or corporation knows what you’re reading, and there are no advertisements popping up every few minutes to disrupt your train of thought.
That said, there’s obviously a vast amount of knowledge to be found on the web, and by organizing online resources on various topics and making them easily available to the public, librarians can help people gain the basic knowledge and understanding they need to participate in debates, engage in effective political action, and make the societies they live in more democratic than they currently are. My hope is that people who use our Hot Topics will continue to study and learn by availing themselves of the many books and documentary videos the library also provides on these topics. In fact, we sometimes include books and videos in the Hot Topics, although our first priority is to provide quick access to useful web resources.
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The response to my recent blog posts makes a small group of us now consider establishing an international network around Web-based knowledge portals and public libraries contributing to democracy. But little will happen during summer vacations. Interest in or views on this are very welcomed, as comments below, on the PLG listserv, where those blog posts are shared and discussed, or by e-mail to frilanders at gmail.com.