Libraries and Open Data

7 March marks the 10th Open Data Day, an annual international event to promote open data and explore the ways it can be used to address societal challenges. The goal is to push for more data – whether cultural, financial or scientific, data on the weather or the environment, or data produced by statistical offices – to be available in convenient and usable (machine-readable) formats for anyone to use, reuse or redistribute.

Data can be conceptualised as “the lowest level of raw material from which information and knowledge can be derived”, and opening access to data means that more and more people can make meaningful use of it – whether for societal benefit, self-empowerment, innovation, or other valuable ends.

Libraries have a natural affinity with the goals of the open data movement. One of their key aims is to provide access to information – as widely as possible, to as many people as possible. Libraries’ expertise in helping people find and access the information they need – as well as their efforts to promote citizen engagement and digital inclusion – makes them a natural partner for open data initiatives.

Libraries as stewards, educators, publishers and partners: from traditional functions to new roles

Given this affinity, more and more libraries are supporting various open data initiatives. More governments are developing open government plans, moves towards Open Science entail support for Open (research) Data as one if its key pillars, and the OpenGlam initiative seeks to ensure open access to cultural heritage – also a source of data. Libraries can play an important part in realising the full benefits of open data in all these spheres, often simply through traditional library tasks and services.

Consider for example the role libraries – particularly academic libraries – can play in promoting Open Data. As the materials prepared by the EU FOSTER project point out, libraries can support Open Data, inter alia, by training and supporting researchers in their institutions to help them make wider use of and contribute to Open Data.

There is also a large scope for impact through libraries’ Research Data Management (RDM) practices: they can play an important role by improving the availability, findability, re-usability and curation of research data sets. Both of these roles can be seen as an evolution of the traditional roles of academic libraries, but crucially, FOSTER points out that libraries could need to develop new processes and skills to assume these new functions.

Libraries as educators

More broadly, providing inclusive learning opportunities for the public is also a role that many libraries (especially public libraries) traditionally take on. Here, too, libraries can draw on their experience to promote Open Data understanding and awareness in their communities. Robinson and Mather (2017), for example, point out the importance of supporting the demand-side of Open Data – engaging the wider public and non-expert users in Open Data initiatives and helping them make meaningful use of the available data. They make the case that libraries can be well-suited to act as intermediaries and support this demand.

We can already see such initiatives in practice: there are several libraries and library organisations working to raise awareness and equip people with the skills needed to engage and make use of Open Data. For example, in the United States, the Kinder Institute and the Rice University Fondren Library have worked together to deliver a data literacy training for youth in two under-served communities.

Meanwhile, California State Library and the Washington State Office of Privacy, with the help of public and academic libraries in California and Washington, have developed a curriculum to teach open data literacy and awareness to both librarians and community members. Such initiatives are key to generating engagement among the broader public and making sure that a lack of skills is not a barrier for engagement and use of open data.

Taking on new roles

Government and civic data, generated by national, regional and local government and other civic organisations, are at the heart of the Open Data movement. As pointed out in a 2017 White Paper prepared by Temple University Libraries, libraries have often assumed the task of collecting and preserving local government data, beginning with paper formats. Building on this role, some libraries have partnered with various agencies and organisations to curate, host or otherwise improve access to their data.

For example, the Chapel Hill Public Library manages the Chapel Hill Open Data site, providing easy public access to datasets released by the local government departments. The web portal encourages community engagement – users can download, use and reuse data, build chats, maps or visualisations with the build-in tools.

Libraries’ unique competencies could help them effectively assume such roles. Their expertise with metadata, preservation and curation can be very valuable for such undertakings – and so is their expertise with ethical handling of data and information – as pointed out, for example, by Throgmorton, Norlander and Palmer, 2019.

Cultural heritage and open data

And of course, libraries themselves can be sources of valuable open data as well. Consider, for example, the experience of the Hamburg State and University Library with ‘culture hackathons’. During the 2016 Coding da Vinci Nord, software developers and engineers and culture institution specialists came together to create new and inventive ways for the public to access, interact with and make use of digital cultural collections, from interactive mobile city tours to quiz apps or social media tools.

In short, the roles libraries can play in open data are truly diverse: from community engagement and capacity-building to curation, publishing new data, supporting local organisations and agencies and more. The Civic Switchboard Guide has developed a classification of different roles libraries can take, and offers advice , inspiration and resources for each of them!

Celebrating the Open Data Day

Given the important roles libraries can play in the Open Data movement, their continued participation in the Open Data Day comes as no surprise! This year, two recipients of the Open Data Day mini-grant are from the library field: a Malawi librarian at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources is organising a training for librarians about open data and its benefits, and the Zimbabwe Library Association will host an event focusing on the ways open data can be used to support and empower women and girls.

Other libraries – for example, in Finland and Canada – are hosting events and taking part in the celebration. Open Data Day is an opportunity for your library to highlight the work you are doing around access to data, get inspired to take action, and find likeminded partners to cooperate with.

Take a look at the map of planned events around the world, Open Data Day event resources, and share your work!

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