The Shutdown of Public Knowledge

“…to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
–Mission of the Library of Congress

When the United States government shutdown last night, I did not expect it would have an immediate effect on the Isis Bibliography. Today, I found that I was wrong. My staff and I access the Library of Congress website frequently, yet the building and the website are closed now until the government gets back up and running.

I consult the website for many reasons. Sometimes I look at their catalog records to check the accuracy of a citation, but more frequently—several times each week—my staff and I consult the Library’s rich authority files in order to accurately spell a name, find birth and death dates, or decide on the best word for classifying a subject.

Starting today that is impossible. What we find when we attempt to go to the site is the following screen:8518072_orig
The moment I saw that message, it dawned on me how much I rely on this public resource. I know that many other people, organizations, and businesses are going to be hit just as I have been. This public institution helps to sustain our work. Without it we are impoverished.

In an earlier post, I wrote enthusiastically about the open access movement. Since 2009, the Library has been at the forefront of this movement by exposing its authority lists as Linked Open Data. By giving the world such a carefully curated list of millions of names and terms the library is performing an extraordinary public service and encouraging innovation and creativity.

The point is that open access does not just happen on its own. The economics of open access demands a vibrant public sector. When we find vital public resources blacked out, as we do today, we understand better what we are missing.

It is ironic that the first part of the Library’s mission statement is “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties.” Just when they need them the most….

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