Tag Archives: public libraries

The freedom of information

Brookings seminar on Japan in AfricaWashington and the United States are deeply polarized. Those holding liberal or conservative views increasingly live in echo chambers in which media and other sources of information typically reinforce already established views. In addition to being more parochial, media also seems increasingly superficial and less nuanced as the Internet and television present news and information as “infotainment”.

This bias and superficiality is especially ironic in Washington since it is a city with incredible competition in the market place of ideas. Indeed, there is a complete glut of information sources here. Ease of access to high-caliber information, informed debate and knowledge is a defining characteristic of living in Washington. Policy-oriented think tanks rather than academic institutions create much of the information; their practical orientation is appealing. Scholarly information is certainly available, but it is more confined to university campuses and less accessible to broader society.

Ten days ago, the venerable Brookings Institution, for example, offered a fascinating half-day seminar on Japan’s reinvigorated approach to Africa’s economic development. Attendees learnt intriguing details such as the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allotted twenty minutes a piece to meet individually with each of the 39 African heads of state who went to Japan for the recent TICAD V conference. This impressive and revealing time commitment from the Japanese premier underscores Japan’s new approach to Africa. Imagine President Barack Obama similarly according each African leader equal “face time” during the upcoming U.S.–Africa Leaders’ Summit to be held here this August? It is unthinkable. African leaders are, of course, being courted by the United States and Japan in direct response to greatly expanded Chinese influence on the continent. Whatever the motivation, this African, for one, is gratified that Africa is at last receiving greater world attention.

Attendance of an event such as the Brookings seminar on Japan in Africa is typically free. Anyone can sign up to attend through the Brookings’ website. In this case, fellow attendees included U.S. government officials focused on Africa, foreign diplomats based in Washington, staff from international organizations and NGOs, private-sector representatives, contractors, academics, students, and retirees and other interested individuals. Complimentary coffee and tea is usually available. As this event was longer than the more usual 90 minutes, a complimentary lunch was generously served for all attendees, providing the opportunity to chat and “network”, to use that overworked Washington term. It is probably fair to assume that the government of Japan or Japanese companies hosted the lunch.

It would be exhausting to trawl the websites of the major think tanks regularly to keep up with their imminent seminars and guest speakers. Helpfully, most institutions with this type of programming allow people to sign up on their websites for email notification of upcoming talks in one’s selected areas of interest. A portion of the programs that think tanks offer are also available for viewing on the Internet, either live through a webcam or live streamed in audio.

Attending these types of lectures, panel discussions, or seminars is also a helpful way to get personal impressions of key actors in diverse areas. For example, I heard Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee; speak on the post-Hurricane Katrina focus on charter schools in New Orleans. It was similarly illuminating to hear Mark Warner, Virginia’s Democratic senior U.S. senator who sits on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees, discuss the budget battles on Capitol Hill.

Another personal favourite for broadening understanding and appreciation of an issue is hearing authors speak about their recently published books. There are ample opportunities to do so here, since stopping in Washington and having at least one public reading seems to be “de rigueur” for newly published authors. Bookstores like Politics and Prose (which the Washington Post recently described as “the showcase for D.C.’s literary intelligentsia”), Busboys and Poets, and Barnes and Noble constantly offer the chance to hear authors. The talk featuring Katherine Boo, author of the powerful “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about life in a Mumbai slum, was very poignant. My children greatly enjoyed the musings of Irish author Eoin Colfer at another such event. The annual National Book Festival, a celebration with nonstop talks by authors held—until this year—in big tents on the National Mall, is another joy. Attending a reading and insightful question-and-answer session with Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini is a treasured memory from last year’s Book Festival.

Public libraries here are exemplary. The range of services they offer, all free to residents of that particular county, is incredible, so it is not surprising that these places bustle with activity. I have enjoyed visiting area libraries for their speakers’ series. An eloquent talk by “Cutting for Stone” author Abraham Verghese was inspiring. His talk drew many from Washington’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, tellingly suggesting that he accurately described their challenges and diaspora.

Some venues typically only hold ticketed events. But the number of free events held in Washington that any member of the public can attend is breathtaking. Visits to the numerous Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are also free.

So, amidst the sharp, often disingenuous discourse too well exhibited in Washington, the yearning for more substance, common sense, and evidence-based understanding can—ironically—be well satisfied here. Thoughtful presentations at think tanks and inspiring discussions on literature offer reassuring counterpoints to the shrill ideological content of political discourse and the popular media. It is not a zero-sum game; we all win when we better understand each other. Is it not possible for Americans to get out of their ideological silos and rise above bitter and divisive politics, and see the world more broadly than the present narrow parochial ways? This is sadly not likely. There are mid-term elections this year and the presidential election in 2016.

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Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?