President-elect Obama has been very vocal about embracing an open government policy, and so far the signs are promising. See, for example, this page linked off Obama’s public transition Web site, which lists resources reserved for incoming presidential teams — it is both interesting and amusing to read texts discussing these essential change-of-governance issues along the lines of “Helping make your transition into government as easy as possible.” It’s historically rare to get a glimpse of national government continuance aided, as it must inevitably be, by the institutional bureaucracy’s production of documents akin to a special issue of Make on “How to be President of the United States.”
Equally interesting is the set of images of Barack Obama and his family backstage on election night, and proceeding into his acceptance speech. What’s notable is that the images are fairly informal — and they are on Flickr. This kind of photostream — not unique in itself — would previously, a generation ago, have been highly curated, entitled “The new presidential family waits for news,” and published the week following in Life or Look magazine. However, the Obama pictures appear less curated (or at least have that air), were published nearly instantly, and do not involve the mediation of traditional media. In fact, whether these are eventually printed or not as official administration photos is secondary, because they are available freely and publicly online.
Without benefit of any mainstream media publicity, the pictures were so popular that they brought down Flickr. Thus, this is an event worthy of notice: an expectation of democratic transparency in a federal government combined with a mere decade plus-old publishing infrastructure jointly craft a community around the globe. In a sense, the limited access of the photographer on that election night make this a callback to the effect of TV in the 1950s, when monolithic media broadcast a culture that was shared and discussed in the conversations of millions. Yet the means of this publication, and the premise of sharing, are profoundly different.
I think there’s one other interesting point to note. Up until this presidency, documentation such as the photoshoot routinely went en masse into archives, where it later established the basis for the Presidential Library. However, existing Presidential Libraries such as LBJ’s or JFK’s are faced with the challenge of reaching back into their collections to digitize materials and make them widely accessible, and they face significant policy, logistical, and funding challenges in doing so. The Obama administration will be publishing a great deal of material outbound — a digitally native presidency — at a magnitude far beyond any of its predecessors.
When archives are built incrementally on top of access, instead of access being born of hard labor from accumulated storage, the nature of the archive is transformed. The possibilities for an Obama Presidential Library — built from today and onwards — are transformative.