The Washington State Library supports open data activities at libraries statewide. Please contact us if your library is interested in help with the following:

  • Publishing: Open data about library operations provides transparency to the public and comparative information for other libraries. Publishing is also a terrific way for a library to learn more about open data generally. Any public library in Washington State can publish open data about its operations on, as long as it works with State Library staff to do so.
  • Instruction: Libraries can put on open data classes for the patrons or staff, or provide just-in-time instruction to patrons at the reference desk or drop-in hours. The State Library can connect you to excellent curriculum resources.
  • Advising: Public libraries statewide are working as partners with local government to launch or improve open data portals. The State Library can provide direct support for your partnership, and connect you to other partnering libraries.

Interested in learning more? Watch this recent First Tuesdays webinar about library open-data activities.


Open Data Resource Guide for Libraries


What Open Data Is

Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose, according to the Open Definition from Open Knowledge International.

Two large sources of open data are governments and scholarly researchers.

Open data is generally meant to be machine readable; it can be processed by a computer.


Why Open Data Matters for Libraries and Their Patrons

Information that empowers communities  

Open data is a large, powerful information source that can connect communities to issues they care about, streamline government services, or serve as a foundation for helpful apps and tools. The examples below exist because governments and scholars have opened data they collect, for anyone to use for any purpose:

  • WalkScore uses data sources including the U.S. Census, U.S. Geological Survey and public transit agency information to rate neighborhoods for walkability, transit and bike-friendliness.

  • Broadband Now provides information about local broadband coverage, by cross-referencing open government data about broadband service with open scholarly datasets, as well as proprietary data.

  • The Civil Rights Data Collection, gathered and organized by the U.S. Department of Education, allows users to compare aggregated demographics, equity and discipline outcomes for students in particular schools and school districts nationwide.  

  • Chicago’s Food Inspection Forecasting GitHub site explains how the city combined various data from its own open data portal to catch serious food safety violations earlier.

  • New York City Street Tree Map uses data from a regular volunteer-driven census to identify nearly 700,000 trees under the jurisdiction of the city’s parks department. The site also allows users to track care of the trees and connect to other tree stewards.

  • Eastern Washington University’s Community Indicators projects pull together mostly federal and state open data, to clarify public life in each region and track progress on community-selected issues.

A growing influence on public life

Library patrons need strong data literacy skills, as government, business and researchers use more data to make significant decisions about public life. Libraries can be the trusted advisors who champion privacy, equitable participation and democratic data governance.

A chance for libraries to demonstrate value to funders and influencers  

As governments at all levels open data, they can benefit from partnerships with libraries -- institutions with expertise in open information culture, user experience, and excellent information and metadata standards. (See “Help Your Community Open Data.”)


Where to Find Open Data

Open data can serve as a standing collection item or a just-in-time resource.

Open government data portals

Government is a massive, powerful source of information about itself (budgets, staffing), its activities (e.g., issuing permits, setting boundaries), and data it gathers about natural phenomena and human activity. Government at all levels publishes open data through online portals, but open data may also be published directly to a government webpage.

Scholarly open data

Open data can also mean scholarly research data, available to be inspected or re-used. Explore these repositories for open data in various disciplines.

Data resources for preK-12 schools

Data search engine

  • Google Dataset Search (Beta), launched in 2018, searches for datasets by keyword and returns results in an uncluttered format listing source, currency and a short abstract.

Open data about libraries

U.S. public libraries report annual statistics about budgets, staffing and outcomes such as circulation and internet usage. The statistics can be downloaded from most state library websites, as well as IMLS’ open data portal. A handful of U.S. libraries also publish more detailed open data about themselves on local open government data portals.

Citing open data

Open data publishers generally choose the least restrictive licenses, in order to make data as free to use as possible. But citing sources is still a good idea! Use Open Washington's Attribution Builder to create a citation for openly distributed content:

Teach and Learn about Open Data


Below are open-data curricula developed and pilot-tested by librarians. Use them to educate patrons, train fellow staff -- or teach yourself more about open data.

  • Data Equity for Main Street was developed by public and academic librarians in Washington State and California, through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Its four modules and activities cover open data basics, metadata, visualization and common data analysis errors.

  • Data 101 curriculum was developed by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. The four modules cover open data basics; visualization, including detailed exploration of maps; and data storytelling. Activities use paper, pens and other offline materials.

Learn more about data analysis and visualization

  • Academic and government employers often offer workshops in software or coding languages that help you clean, analyze and visualize data. 

  •, available through some public and other libraries, offers online courses in various coding languages, software tools and technology infrastructure.

  • DataCarpentry develops data workshops for scholars and includes lessons on Python, R and geospatial data.

  • Esri, a leading vendor of geospatial mapping tools, provides some free tutorials at its Learn ArcGIS site, as well as GIS resources for teachers. (See if your institution has an ArcGIS organizational account, which gives you access to more support.) For an open-source alternative, explore Open Street Map, a collaborative map of the world.

  • Don't learn alone! Meet up with other civic technologists to reinforce your skills and apply them to real-world problems. Look for a local Code for America brigade, search “hackathon” or “civic tech” along with the name of your city or region, or search for technology-interest groups at local colleges and universities.

Keeping up to date

While you identify your favorites among the dozens of excellent open data blogs and Twitter accounts, try these solid starting points for open data news and commentary.

  • Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities reflects a partnership among open data and open government leaders, including Sunlight Foundation, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence and the Government Performance Lab at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This is a reliable source on innovations and best practices, as well as policy issues such as data privacy and equitable participation.

  • Code for America blog tracks developments in user-centered government technology services. This influential nonprofit has helped open data in cities across the U.S., and spearheaded public-interest data project such as easier access to government benefits or clearing marijuana-related convictions after legalization.


Help Your Community Open Data

As technology-friendly experts in community needs and user experience, libraries are natural partners in any effort to open data. They can help identify the data most in demand, and ensure open data publishing follows best practices. They can even host and curate open data portals.  

Library-community open data partnerships

Below are examples of U.S. libraries that have collaborated with their local governments, communities and institutions to improve open data publishing, access and use.

  • Open Data to Open Knowledge allowed the Boston Public Library to create a digital catalog of city open data, and generate instruction and other events to connect the public to its data.

  • Local public libraries manage open data portals for Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

  • Civic Switchboard, a collaboration among Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh libraries and the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, has fostered library leadership in improving open data ecosystems.

Guides for identifying and opening data

If your library is advising its local government or institution about opening data, consult these sources for best practices in community-centered data collection development.

Equity in open data initiatives

  • The Digital Inclusion Start-Up Manual, from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, provides short, clear guidelines for ensuring widespread digital access and includes links to model programs in U.S. cities. NDIA is an alliance of more than 300 governments, nonprofits, libraries, schools and businesses who support broad public technology access and literacy.

  • The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative toolkit documents a four-year project to harness data for the benefit of low-income residents in major U.S. cities. The toolkit includes methods, frameworks, case studies and blog posts from participating cities, including Seattle/King County. CTDC was a joint project of Code for America, the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and Living Cities.

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Funded in part by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).