Dana M. Walker
PhD Candidate, University of Michigan School of Information
The themes of "Beyond Books" -- Democratic engagement, community information, and citizen-focused information professionals -- all align well with my academic research and professional interests. As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan?s School of Information, my research has focused on democratic practice, community information and new media. Early in my graduate career I had the opportunity to work on an Institute for Museum and Library Service funded project which looked at how local residents provide, use and make choices about information. In this particular study we focused on Hartford, Connecticut ? interviewing both the leaders of some of the city?s primary community-led organizations and members of the Hartford Public Library community-focused staff. The goals of the research were twofold: (1) to determine how information professionals, especially librarians, can better anticipate the civic information needs of local organizations, and (2) how the everyday problem-based activities performed by citizen groups is fundamentally influenced by the way in which these groups seek out, interpret, distill and reframe information.
That research has continued to frame my own dissertation work in which I use data collected from a multi-sited ethnographic study of online urban forums in the city of Philadelphia. In the dissertation I explore the nature of public talk as actually practiced in an online setting where content is produced by local citizens. The motivation behind the dissertation is to examine how and in what manner city residents use online forums to discuss matters of public concern within the context of their everyday lives. As such, the project redirects questions away from political discussion for the purpose of organized deliberation, mobilization, or education. Instead, I analyze the ways in which informal, online discourse operates at a moment in political life in which everyday issues of urban living are articulated, contested, or brought into focus as public concerns. I call this networked public talk. The term is meant to suggest an informal but publicly-oriented discussion that emerges through internet-enabled discussion spaces as participants reflect upon their own experiences and share observations: sifting through their own opinions and those of others, comparing experiences, forwarding ideas, and pointing others to what they think is important, worth notice and at issue.
I see my research as having theoretical, methodological and pragmatic implications for the way we understand how new media technologies can be leveraged but also can inhibit democratic sense-making and community life. My work addresses a kind of emerging socio-technical literacy, that of civic literacy or understanding, finding information about, and coming to understand civic issues. But my work is practical and empirically-grounded in that I focus specifically on people?s everyday political lives: the locations in which people talk about their day-to-day concerns and needs. So instead of viewing the internet, community information, or public discourse as utopian cures for all political problems, my interest is to investigate how new participatory technologies are actually being used today and how the nature and design of the forums both support and constrain publicly-oriented talk.
I am particularly interested in how to better link the locations where ordinary citizens talk about their own communities to existing institutional structures?in particular information-focused organizations such as libraries and citizen-focused media institutions. While I commend current work that organizes whole new locations for public talk, citizens are already talking about, sorting through, and trying to find information about their communities in all sorts of forums. I believe there are opportunities for information professionals to link to, become embedded within, and actually augment these already existing sites of public talk. I have pursued this line of thinking in two primary ways thus far. First, I was a fellow at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. The foundation looks at the relationship between public discourse and decision-making in local communities and has been focused on research and practical efforts to provoke public deliberation. Second, I continue to be involved in pragmatic efforts to connect civic organizations with public life and am currently serving as an advisory board member for the American Library Association?s newly developed Center for Public Life which will train librarians to convene and moderate deliberative forums and frame issues of local and national concern.