Libraries Are a Natural Home for Data Seekers — And Providers

September 15, 2017 9:00 am PST | Data as a Service

When citizens need to find answers or do research, reference librarians are one of their best, most reliable and knowledgeable public resources. What if reference librarians applied their research abilities and data know-how to open data? That’s just the question a team of open data proponents is answering in the states of Washington and California. 



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The New York Public Library shares a patron’s question from 1949


As Will Saunders, Washington State’s Open Data Guy, puts it, “Reference librarians are good at meeting citizens where they are, and understanding what they’re looking for (and not just what they said they’re looking for). And, there’s at least one reference librarian in every small town in Washington.”


“Libraries are a nice public-private space, where anyone is welcome. Librarians help anybody, with anything they need.” —Will Saunders, Washington State’s Open Data Guy


Librarians’ natural propensity for research and probing precise questions isn’t the only thing that makes a library a natural fit as a source of open data. Many libraries already buy commercial datasets, such as offerings from Carfax or datasets that can help with business planning and development. And, location is everything: many of Washington and California’s libraries are either in the same building as city hall or nearby. Seattle’s public library, for instance, is just down the street from city hall. “Libraries are a nice public-private space, where anyone is welcome,” says Saunders. “Librarians help anybody, with anything they need.”


A Pilot Program to Bring Data to Citizens Through Libraries

In 2016, Saunders and Anne Neville, Director of the California Research Bureau at the California State Library, were awarded a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support their project, Data Equity for Main Street: Bringing Open Data Home Through Local Libraries. A main goal of the project is to ensure that government’s public data can be used by everybody — and not just the tech-savvy. Again, libraries, which often have classes teaching basic computer and technology skills, are a great fit for this mission.


data equity for main street logo


To accomplish these goals, Data Equity for Main Street will train librarians on how to find and use data to answers questions from their customers. “This project allows us to offer open data indirectly to citizens through librarians, who can help them find and understand the data,” says Neville.


“I’m hoping to get a cadre of small town super-users in libraries around the state, and be able to go to them to ask who’s using the data, and for what?” —Will Saunders


Ideally, Saunders believes, this will result in a positive feedback loop for data providers. “I’d love to have small-town librarians use the data rating features on to star or critique datasets. Rather than knowing hits or download rates, I’d like to have stories attached to datasets. I’m hoping to get a cadre of small town super-users in libraries around the state, and be able to go to them to ask who’s using the data, and for what?” 


Training the Trainers: Going on a Treasure Hunt with Librarians

In spring 2017, the Data Equity for Main Street team started its first experimental sessions with librarians: a session with San Jose State University library school students in Sacramento then sessions in Seattle and Yakima, Washington. In August, the team did a full dry run with a group of alpha testers from California and Washington. The first public use of the curriculum will be at the San Jose public library on September 23.


data equity for main street
Will Saunders and Debbie Faires of the Data Equity for Main Street team at LearnLocal Yakima


The training introduces librarians to the basics — defining open data, showing off practical applications, and providing information on where data can be found.

The session includes a treasure hunt filled with question librarians will find very familiar, such as, “What’s the average temperature at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in December?” Attendees were instructed to use open data to discover the answer.

These initial training sessions, say Saunders and Neville, have been a success. And they are excited about the opportunity for community members to “find and use open data in ways that will improve their own neighborhoods.” They can also visualize the program expanding. “Once the program is in place for public libraries, I think there will be interest from community colleges as well. If data winds its way into students’ history and accounting papers, helping them to graduate from college, that would be a pretty good outcome from Washington State publishing and popularizing open data,” said Saunders.

To find out more about the program or get involved, email Will Saunders.

If you’ve got an innovative idea for how to spread open data in your community, we’d love to help. Reach out to our team at Socrata or send us an email to discuss what’s possible.


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