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Open Data at Your Library

Data Equity for Main Street


More than 16,000 central and branch libraries dot rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States. These are more than just buildings and more than places to check out a book. Often, they are inextricably bound to local civic life, offering a trusted space for digital literacy classes, community meeting spaces, job training, literacy programs, maker spaces and citizenship information and training. Of Americans 16 and over, 46 percent have visited a library in the last twelve months. Today, most libraries offer digital literacy training that helps community members find and evaluate the information they discover online. In doing so, these libraries are responding to public demand: 78 percent of Americans think that libraries “should definitely” “teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones and apps” and roughly the same percentage believe that libraries should “should definitely” “teach patrons about protecting their privacy and security online.” Expanding the resources of libraries so that they can help patrons unlock the benefits of open data is a natural extension of the decades-long commitment by libraries to increase digital equity.

Our Challenge:

As the open data movement matures, it is critical that we do not create greater digital inequities by assuming that everyone and every organization will have the same time, skills and resources to invest in learning how to find and use this data. Because open data can have transformative impacts on communities and governments and can spawn new, profitable businesses, we must ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the benefits that it creates. Organizations with large budgets and individuals with advanced technical skills will know how to find and use this information to their advantage. Without a sustained effort to train those without skills in finding and using open data, we risk creating even greater information asymmetry than exists today between those organizations and individuals that are digitally included and those that are digitally excluded. Given that public librarians are the only group of information science professionals consistently embedded in urban and rural, large and small communities across the country, and that the public views libraries as trusted institutions, it makes sense to integrate open data training and knowledge in these important community institutions. By empowering librarians with the knowledge to find and use this data, and creating tools for libraries to teach everyone in their community to find and use this data, this project builds the foundation for communities in which everyone - not just a select few who are already knowledgeable and skilled - shares in the benefit and promise of open data.

Our Solution:

Together with a diverse team of public librarians and civic technologists across California and Washington, our project team at the California State Library and Washington State’s Technology Services Agency will develop two open data curricula:

1. Train-the-Trainer: A train-the-trainer approach for professional librarians will enable them to develop the skills they need to help patrons find and use relevant local, regional, state and national open data resources. This curriculum will also underscore the importance of providing feedback to government agencies that produce data in order to help improve the quality and relevance of data they release. In addition, the curriculum will serve as a collection development tool, helping libraries identify and maintain these free resources.

2. Class Training Materials: Libraries can add these hands-on open data lesson plans to existing digital and information literacy programs or offer them as stand-alone classes or workshops. These lessons will help members of the community and community organizations learn what open data is, how to find it, easy ways to use it, and why it is important to provide feedback to the governments and organizations that created the data. These lesson plans focus on where to find data, how to leverage existing tools and where to find potential partners that local organizations can contact if they need help analyzing or visualizing data in different ways.

To achieve these objectives we will create "Open Educational Resources" (OER) modules that local libraries, governments or states can customize and we will facilitate enhanced relationships between the libraries and the local government officials engaged in open data. To ensure that these resources are fully scalable across the country, three state organizations in California, Nevada and Washington are collaborating to lead this grant. Local and state open data initiatives and libraries are different across all three of these states and we will work with a team of librarians and civic technologists to create the OERs. By integrating a diversity of library, technology and policy environments from the beginning, we will be better positioned to create OERs that any region can customize and use.  While much of the curriculum will concentrate on finding and using resources online, we will also reach out in a targeted fashion to local governments and statewide professional organizations to coordinate initial meetings between the local library and local, regional and state governments.

We will develop the "Open Educational Resources" (OER) in stages, first creating the modules for librarians and then the ones for patrons. For the first iteration of both modules, we will leverage as many existing materials as possible. We will then test these out in the libraries that are participating on the project team and refine and add new material based on feedback. Once expanded, we will test the materials out in libraries that have not been involved in the project. We will use this feedback to further expand and improve the modules. We plan to use Knight funding to support the curriculum use and testing in these first two phases. In the third iteration of the material, we will channel resources to fund implementation grants to libraries using state, federal or private resources. Throughout the course of the project and afterwards, we will make the modules publicly available for others to share, reuse or personalize for their needs. The project team will also work with open data publishers to implement changes based on user feedback from early cohorts that use this curriculum.  

Results may come in a number of forms: open meetings in small towns that use open data to ‘set the table’ for discussions; community organizations in cities that use a combination of local, state and federal open data resources to advocate for their neighborhoods; and libraries that maintain a collection of open data resources for patrons to access. All of our curricula will also include lessons in how to provide feedback to the governments and non-profit organizations that publish open data, many of which need a more comprehensive way to include all communities in their open data release policies. For example, Washington State’s Open Data Initiative has made available over 900 free datasets with over 158 million rows, but has had difficulty fulfilling a statutory mandate to develop processes to provide the information that people most want and need. This project will provide the opportunity for local libraries to become a key part of the open data feedback loop, increasing the diversity and relevancy of the types and formats of information that publishers release. 

We are incorporating and building on one method, train-the-trainer, and one movement, digital inclusion, particularly the advanced skills people need to leverage civic technology. Train-the-trainer is a well-documented method to disperse information across a wide network. With digital inclusion, for example, people adopt computers and technology when they see it as relevant to their lives, and open data is likely no different. In building curriculum, we will first focus on connecting librarians and patrons to data sources that are relevant to their community. We will also build on similar information science work taking place in libraries today. For example:

  • The local libraries in Carson City, NV and the Las Vegas valley have been helping local residents build business plans by first identifying open and proprietary data and then using it to mash business and demographic information together.
  • The California State Library and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Pacific SW Region created a program and governance structure to produce Finding Health and Wellness @ the Library: A Consumer Health Toolkit for Library Staff, which helps public libraries become providers of reliable health promotion and wellness information.  
  • The Washington State Library created a statewide virtual reference service for its citizens, enabling patrons of small-town libraries to chat with reference librarians to find information resources, and ensuring that smaller, more rural library patrons have equitable access.


Libraries are not community centers, but they are centers of our communities. As John Palfrey describes in BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, libraries have an intellectual/educational mission - led by trained information professionals - that differentiates them from community centers. This is precisely why they are the right organizations to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to take advantage of open data.

Project Team

  • Anne Neville (Dir., CA Research Bureau, CA State Library): Built and led open data program, (National Broadband Map); builds partnerships across sectors, 15 yrs of digital equity work.
  • Will Saunders (WA State’s “Open Data Guy”): Expands open data across WA; as State Broadband Manager, created program for students to use open data.

Briefings and Presentations