Life is a Mystery

19 November 2010 . Comments Off on Who do we trust?

Who do we trust?

We hear complaints about how our government is not entrepreneurial enough, not agile enough; and yet we burden government with the kind of fetters we would not begin to consider for real business. We don’t trust our government to get the job done. This week I was reminded of this distrust in a discussion of “data practices” sponsored by MNCOGI.

I am proud that Minnesota’s data practices act assumes the public has access to public data and forces lawmakers to enact specific exemptions to this presumption as law. This makes it a little more difficult for the government to keep secrets. The presentation by Don Gemberling helped us understand our rights and the government’s responsibilities. For example, you have a right to inspect public government data at reasonable times and places at no cost. The government has a corresponding responsibility to make government data easily accessible and convenient to use. Sound good, right?

But then, one of the panelists at the session, State Senator Warren Limmer, complained that after a three minute wait at a county office he was charged $22 for an aerial photograph of a property he was handling in his real estate business. $22 was way more this “piece of paper” should have cost, he contended. When I pointed out that that cost might easily be justified by the systems required to store and provide quick access to such photos, others in the audience responded that the government must be keeping this data around for its own purposes, we should not be charged for just getting copies for our purposes. And yet, I wonder, as we suck funding out of local government and insist on lower taxes toward state government, how can we at the same time expect services like this with little to no fee? Is $22 really so unreasonable? Isn’t a copy in three minutes flat as service to be commended, not ridiculed?

Another public official on the panel, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, floated a plan for a state commission to handle the tide of exemption requests that hit legislators with regard to data practices. She complained that these requests boil down to a late-night legislative bartering session where lobbyists are in control because part-time legislators just don’t have the time to become experts in data practices, privacy, and government transparency. A commission could operate year-round, hear requests at reasonable hours, and process recommendations for legislators, and perhaps even make interim findings in certain cases. How would such a commission be funded, asked one participant? Holberg simply said, “well, it would have to be a priority.”

Holberg and Limmer are both part of the new Republican majority in the Minnesota legislature. Here they were both demanding increased government service and responsiveness, but you can bet they won’t be arguing for increased funding to support such initiatives. Why won’t we agree to pay for the services we demand?

Meanwhile, I left the panel with real concerns about the fundamental mission of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. While I appreciate the ideal of transparency in government, I also recognize that government has to attract real people to its service and the threat of exposure of every action is chilling to government service. Two of four candidates for the recent University of Minnesota presidency pulled out of the process because they did not consent to the very public interviews that would have been required. State workers who supplement meager state technology offerings with personal equipment (like laptops or phones) then find that equipment could be confiscated as part of public information discovery. Government has to avoid the use of cloud services like Gmail or Flickr because public access rules may not be enforceable. How do we make compliance with requirements for public access to government data something other than a weight that drowns efficient administration?

I don’t have any magic bullet. I am simply very concerned that we are, with the best of intentions, destroying the viability of government to serve the common good. As government becomes less efficient, we complain more about the poor service, and we cut back on funding. It is a vicious cycle that leads nowhere but chaos and corruption. Who is left to roam free in the remains of government dysfunction? Private enterprise. With none of the same restrictions and subject to almost none of the same regulation, private enterprise slowly absorbs formerly public function. Then we are truly left in the dark.

We need to stand up for the good that we can do together, as a public. We must trust our government a little more and private corporations a bit less. I’m not sure how we get there, but if we don’t, we give away our state and our country.

datapractices.jpg

15 November 2010 . Comments Off on Considering Academe

Considering Academe

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I consider a position at a small liberal arts college here in Minnesota. As a consequence, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my own relationship to academe. My career as a librarian has been spent serving large research libraries at two very different institutions, MIT and the University of Minnesota. But for the past three years or so I’ve been on my own, doing consulting work, making way for something new.

The first question I asked myself was whether I was really trying to escape the academy. I have all sorts of stories I tell myself about why I left the security of my position at the U of M to strike out on my own as a consultant. Some of these may even be true! But what if it boils down to disillusion with higher education, with the mission of the university? If that were the case, the last thing I should consider is re-entering an academic institution.

The answer, after some reflection (and one particularly long walk along the Mississippi), is that I still believe in the mission, but I began to recognize the different shades this mission takes on at different institutions of higher education. My undergraduate experience at Yale was really more complex than I’d realized. Although Yale is a research university, the Yale College experience I’d had was more like that of a liberal arts college than of the research universities I’d been serving as a librarian. My undergraduate experience was much more about discovering who I was and what I believed in than preparing me for any specific work or career. Activities like letterpress printing and peace protests were just as formative and critical to this experience as classes with Jonathan Spence or Serge Lang.

In my reflection I came across this passage by Wendell Berry:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. … [W]hat universities … are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.

I am very curious to read Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul, where he writes “The students are not soulless, but their university is.” Mary returned from a conference last week in Denver with an image Parker Palmer apparently used to refer to the soul: the soul is a wild creature within us, shy and reluctant to appear, easily startled, which we coax to light with gentle attention and carful nurture. The soul is easily crowded out by the busy concerns of daily life or, in this case, departmental demands and course requirements.

I realized as I reflected, that the academic library could nurture the soul of the scholar. Libraries can be more than just an archive of books, we can be stunning shared architecture, we can be art, conversation, performance, serendipitous discovery. We are a quite woods in the bustle of academe’s demands, a place of contemplation and self-discovery, with the whispers of lives bound to page or pixel all around us.

With this I realized that I was not running from academe, I just want to engage it in an environment that cares as much for the soul of the scholar as it does for the job prospects, research results, or test scores of the scholar. I suppose this is a bit romantic, and possibly naive. Still, I decided to apply for the position and see whether a smaller liberal arts institution might be able to teach me something about nourishing the soul and raising “responsible heirs and members of human culture.”

Lower Arb Panorama by Adam Gurno

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org