By: Allyson Mower
Many American journalists, reporters, broadcasters, librarians, and individual citizens celebrate March 16 as National Freedom of Information Day. The day honors James Madison’s birthday and his role in drafting the Bill of Rights. It was journalist and broadcaster Jim Bohannon who championed the creation of the event in 1979 within his professional association of news reporters. According to a newspaper article from 1994, Bohannon saw it as a way for journalists to “celebrate their freedoms under the First Amendment,” what the Newseum and others have come to label the Five Freedoms.
The day has since expanded into a weeklong celebration of transparency and openness in the U.S. Government, often called Sunshine Week, organized by the American Society of News Editors. As such, Freedom of Information Day also commemorates the passage of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which stipulated ways for journalists and citizens to obtain existing information from federal agencies associated with the executive branch, including the Office of the President, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of State and other agencies.
As a librarian, I certainly see the importance of sunshine laws like FOIA, but I also like that Bohannon’s original idea focused on celebrating the First Amendment, which has perhaps lost some focus. In the 1994 interview linked to above, Bohannon also discusses the importance of reading newspapers and editorials, a task that he sees as essential for Americans to engage in on a daily basis. He even suggests “sacrificing” (Bohannon’s word) one’s TV time to read headlines and the first few lines of news reports and editorials.
This seems like a great activity to foster and celebrate because reading not only keeps you informed, it also helps you generate new ideas. In the end, that is exactly what the five freedoms of the First Amendment protect. Creating a demand for knowledge and supporting the generation of ideas is at the bedrock of American librarianship and without journalists, editors, and newspapers, it would be much more difficult to do our jobs well. Join me in thanking our professional allies–journalists and reporters–for their service in uncovering and producing quality information that furthers new ideas and for continually engaging in the freedoms of the first amendment. Happy National Freedom of Information Day!
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.