Hurricane Sandy and the national digital library issue: With smartened-up journalists and voters, could we have stopped or slowed down global warming?

Canned and dried foods, flashlights, radios, cellphones and good UPSes aren’t the only essentials that the wired might buy in an anticipation of the growing number of weather-related exigencies like Hurricane Sandy.

I’ve also purchased a $99 battery-powered portable hotspot through which my iPad and other WiFi-equipped devices  can stay in touch with the rest of the world when the power goes off. In the best-served locations, optimal speeds supposedly should reach 1.4 Mbps with the company’s current technology, perhaps even making Skype possible. No need for a cellphone with tethering capabilities, and my wife and I will be able to recharge the device with our several UPSes and even download e-books. When Sandy struck us in Alexandria, Virginia, we endured just a minute or two of a power blackout, but earlier this year our electricity and Internet connections were kaput for days.

But why must I ponder such basic infrastructure-related questions? Global climate change seems upon us, the scientific consensus is solid, and like many, especially post-Sandy, I’m frustrated that so many journalists have not held policymakers and industry sufficiently accountable on this and other paramount issues. In character, in recent months, they have fixated on the endlessly repeated campaign fluff in the “horse race” vein—some 38 percent of campaign stories tracked by the the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, or better than the 53 percent from four years earlier, but still worrisome, especially since health care “accounted for 1% of campaign coverage.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq claimed a mere percent or so.

More on why we need better ways to smarten up voters

The emphasis here is on the United States. But the mass media’s same dissing of substantive information for voters just might be dumbing down some other countries, including certain developing nations that rely more and more on petroleum and ideally could use the U.S. as a green example and receive aid from us and others to reduce greenhouse gas in the future. Maybe if the press here and elsewhere had jogged politicians early enough into caring about climate change (plaudits to the re-elected Barack Obama  for renewing his interest, assuming he follows through), we would not so regularly suffer “historic” calamities. This is just one example of the divergences between science and public discourse and policy. Countless others abound—for example, the fast food allowed to distract students from healthier government-subsidized fare in school cafeterias, despite all the obesity this promotes among young people, along with the resultant increase in national healthcare costs.

Smarten up votes, directly and through the media, and politicians will respond accordingly.

Wen Stephenson recently wrote a Boston Phoenix essay raising the climate-change issue in a media context and correctly noting that journalists should rely less on oil-industry-funded politicians to set the agenda. My friend Jim Fallows, author of the still very-relevant Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, has pointed to the essay. He correctly accuses both parties of downplaying “an issue that (I contend) will loom larger in historical accounts of this era than 99 percent of what is discussed in speeches, news analyses, and debates.”

Here’s to more attention to long term! That is exactly what the Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of America could foster by helping history-minded academics—and, yes, that includes scientists in climate-related disciplines—more effectively reach the masses both directly and through the press. I’ve been writing about digital library issues for two decades. Imperfect but vastly improved and still evolving, the DPLA initiative in my opinion now stands an excellent chance of actually succeeding, either as an independent organization, a mix of public and academic digital systems or ultimately as an organization within an existing agency such as the Library of Congress. The DPLA, which has drawn prominent participants from government and academia, is coming closer and closer to the vision laid out in on the LibraryCity.org site, in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere  As I see it, digital libraries should have many missions, in partnership with other library organizations, from promotion of culture and academic research to family literacy. But civic matters must not get lost in the shuffle, and, as is often the case, the big question isn’t simply how to find and spread information but also how to make the best use of it.

E-libraries vs. knee-jerkism: Some nuts and bolts

The current DPLA leaders show an admirable passion for culture and history—for encouraging local scanning projects to digitize documents, to give one example—and Sandy and Katrina are powerful arguments for digitally based preservation to augment the physical variety. But how about the DPLA as an promoter of rational thoughts in contemporary civic life, based on up-to-date and actionable information, not just the writings of the Founding Fathers or other historical documents (including local ones)? You can read more in $1M DPLA grant from Knight Foundation: Start of more synergy between libraries, schools and newspapers? And smarter civic life?

Among other things, in line with the beliefs of authorities such as Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, we need a major makeover of civic curricula in K-12 schools, so that, while students still master basic facts about government and other aspects of civic life, they perform more than rote memorization. With encouragement from organizations such as CIRCLE and the Civic Action Project, this is already happening to an extent. But so much more could be done with content and focused support from a national digital library system and participating libraries. Take climate change. What if high school students in the area of Breezy Pointbesieged by by flooding and fires—could tap into gigabytes of localized and other climate information and extra-easy applications online so they could use the data in a local context? Suppose more connections existed between civics and science classes? Suppose interested students, overseen in a teaching-hospital fashion to spot errors and keep quality high, could blog about possible solutions while weighing a number of options? Not just what might work, but what policymakers thought of these answers?

The students’ writings could be analytical rather than a form of school-specified advocacy. Of course,  teachers should still encourage students to speak their own minds in other ways, whether through social media, personal blogs, library forums, letters to the editors or direct and well-informed communications with policymakers (even if the recipients might not always be as receptive as hoped).

Some of America’s brightest high school students at national, state and local levels—not just young journalists but likeminded geeks—could even team up via the Net with academics to undertake the computer-assisted reporting and analysis of the kind that Phil Meyer and others pioneered.  Via a mainframe and surveys he showed that “Rioters and non-rioters” in Detroit in 1967 “were no different in education and income.” Prof. Meyer’s findings must have disturbed those who place a high premium on college attendance and economic opportunities without also understanding what he has labeled “relative deprivation” (or “seeing others progress while your advancement is stalled”). But his Detroit work was a good example of how facts and rational analysis could prevail over convenient arguments. With the right apps online and templates for action and good methodology, excellent computer-assisted reporting and analysis could happen locally—in interested communities—by students and professionals alike.  No need for a mainframe today. But even compared to personal computer software, the right apps would be easier to use, particularly if enriched with graphics and multimedia and well integrated with data that the DPLA and affiliated libraries pulled in from a variety of sources.

Toward numeracy and reason in a civic context—and more appreciation of good journalism

Numbers have their limits, granted. During the Vietnam war Defense Secretary Robert McNamara‘s misjudgments showed the perils of relying on numbers ahead of humanity and commonsense. I myself would argue for both qualitative and quantitative approaches, as Prof. Meyer has.

My own talents, in fact, are more on the qualitative side. But I still recognize the need for the intelligent use of numbers and see a huge difference between civic-related numeracy and a benumbing, Gradgrind-style approach in education. Consider the loss of life that may result when society ignores scientifically recognized statistics and interpretations, as in the case of global warming. Train more students to be nerds in a civic context, and even if they do not go into journalism, they will better appreciate the work of the professionals using these same techniques. Nate Silver‘s stunningly accurate election prognostication, based on the statistical skills he honed following the sports scene, is just the latest example of the successful use of numbers and the better side of Big Data or at least insights derived from it.

While the DPLA is heavily weighted in favor of historians and English professors rather than the people interested in civic and public policy scenes, a tight connection needs to exist. The DPLA’s proponents want the digital library system to be “generative” rather than simply serving as a warehouse for old books. With DPLA-encouraged creation of information and analysis, historians would be able to focus less on the elites and their preconceptions and more on what was actually happening in society and the world at large. Archived Twitters feeds by themselves can take you only so far in, say, helping to determine the causes of a future riot killing 37 people, the minimum death toll in Detroit in 1967. Imagine all the additional content, helpful to future historians and digital humanists in general, that could be created through discussion of originally “contemporary” issues.

Libraries, civic debate and the need for a dual-system approach

So could the current DPLA help realize the vision of the use of a digital library system to encourage better-informed, more rational discussion of civic affairs? This stands a much better chance of happening if the organization in time evolves into extremely intertwined but separate systems—one academic, one public—sharing gigs and gigs of unencumbered content and a common technical services and R&D operation, but still free to set their own priorities. The DPLA is much less elitist than when it started. But the real emphasis is still more on the past than on better, smarter ways to write our future history, whether at the national or personal level. We need balance.

Yet another reason for a twin-system approach—perhaps with an advisory coordinating body, rather than one system forever having to juggle around the oft-differing needs of public and academic libraries—is that academics as a group tend to be more cosmopolitan than the country at large. For all we know, in the distant future, the current DPLA could turn into a world library, given the mindsets of some of its participants, and the executive director might not even be a U.S. citizen. That’s good meritocracy. But how useful, then, will be the DPLA be as a forum for civic issues discussed from a distinctly American perspective (even if it often will and should overlap with a global one, as in the case of climate change)? Do we really want to globalize America’s libraries without considering the consequences of clashes between cultures and the related values shaping civic life, not just art and literature?

Whatever the ultimate architecture of the library system, let’s hope we can deftly juggle around the historical, cultural and immediately actionable and also use a more rational and data-driven approach, so that issues like global warming don’t receive short shrift. I’m reminded of the quote from Benjamin Graham, mentor of Warren Buffett: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine, but in the long run it is a weighing machine.” Although we can quantify election results, individual voters are not metal slabs with glowing red numbers. But with a well-crafted national digital library strategy, perhaps we can be more rational both individually and as a country.

Detail: While enthusiastic about the Tru Connect service for mobile WiFi hotspotting, I would also suggest checking out an interesting rival called FreedomPop.

Update, Nov. 13: The DPLA has just released an official overview from its Midwestern meeting (PDF). Meanwhile, speaking of hurricanes, check out what the Georgetown County library system in the Lowcountry of South Carolina has done in areas related from emergency preparation to archiving of hurricane photos (YouTube). Exemplary! In fact, Georgetown won an award—from the International City/County Management Association—for its innovative approach.  Obviously the DPLA could serve as a clearinghouse for ideas on this and a number of other topics related to civic matters.

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