03 August 2015

Defending Information

I know I was only in Uganda for two months this summer but I still have so much to process. This time was shorter and different than my last time in Uganda in 2011-2012. But it was just as meaningful and has given me so much to think about. As I settle back into the US, I'm thinking back over conversations and experiences, trying to remember it all.

Every day KEST gets a copy of the local newspaper. It gets passed around campus until it lands in the library. Several weeks ago there was an article about Uganda’s transition from analog television stations to digital, which prompted an interesting conversation with Ivan, the librarian.

I asked Ivan about this process and what was happening. I had been seeing lots of headlines and ads saying: don’t lose your TV! Don’t get turned off!, etc. He explained to me how the government was making the switch from analog to digital TV stations and if people wanted to continue to use their older TVs, they would need to purchase a converter for about 150,000 Ugandan shillings ($50), give or take.

This prompted a discussion about the impact this would have on people. While the TV channels themselves might be continue to be free, the converter box is far from free for people who don't have much money. And for many of those people, the TV is a main source of information and news. Some people do not have the money or ability to buy and read a newspaper or books. The TV they saved up for years ago is their main source of information.

Anyway, Ivan was saying that it's not the change in technology that is the problem but rather making people pay so much for the change. It might very well limit their access to their only source of information.

It was interesting to me in so many ways. I confess, I do not own a TV here in the US, nor did I have one in Uganda. I often see a TV as a needless piece of technology. I honestly hadn't thought much about it being someone's main source of information. And as I thought about it, I remembered in 2011, going outside to watch the Royal Wedding in the UK on a TV at a small shop. It was sort of a shared, neighborhood TV. And I crowded around that old TV with my neighbors, trying to see the big event. That memory sticks in my mind as a clear picture of how a TV (and the programs on it) could impact people thousands of miles away.

But as Ivan and I were talking a few weeks ago, he said something that has stuck with me: Librarians are defenders of information. And issues like this should concern us.

I love that image. Defenders. Any one of my regular readers knows that being a librarian is not about passively sitting in a room of books. It's about information and people. And I think what Ivan was saying is that we also need to defend the ways in which people access that information. Information is different in different places but, regardless, we can and should defend people's ability to access that information. And, ultimately, we provide access so that people are empowered.

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