Celebration Through Action: The Obligation of Information and Communications in a Time of Alternative Facts

Three years and a day ago a nurse injected me with a lethal chemical cocktail designed to kill any remaining cancer cells in my body, destroying my bone marrow in the process. Three years ago a doctor pushed harvested stem cells directly into my heart where they were pumped to the rest of my body to regrow my marrow and save my life.

For my third birthday I was going to post an inspirational missive on moving forward and on the  obligation to use the gift of life to improve the lives around us. Then I realized actually working to improve lives is more important than talking about my experience. So today, to mark my third birthday I want to talk about action.

We scholars and academics in the information domains have a special obligation in these days of alternative facts. We academics working with both information and communications have an even more urgent obligation. That obligation is to work with communities around the country and around the world to actively build knowledge and a common framework for evaluating the work of politicians, scientists, activists, and the citizenry.

Some will say that this is a function of better education. If we could do a better job of building literacy in our communities – information literacy, media literacy – then the natural result would be a more unified view of the world. The problem with this argument is that the current political separation is not the result of a lack of information or access to the media, or a naivety around information. The increasing ideological divide is not because our communities have too little information, or even a general gullibility. No, the increasing divide and introduction of alternative perspectives is rather a result of sophisticated and conscious information behavior.

Remember that the filter bubble problem we now face was a solution to the problem of information overload. It is the result of information scientists and communication scholars studying the idea of matching information seeking behaviors, tuning search engines to user preferences, sentiment analysis, hyperlocal information needs, hyperlocal news, that has shifted agency and decisions to the individual. We saw the flood of information and in a deliberate attempt to buffer a “fire hose” of information we built data science and interfaces and algorithms and newspapers of the future to lower cognitive load and better meet the needs of the user/reader/citizen/patron.

We are not facing a gullible public overrun by the algorithms of the greedy and the manipulative. We are facing citizens engaged with tools built with the best of intentions that, yes, can be (and are being) manipulated, but ultimately allow people to view knowledge as simply an information problem. That is, what one believes to be true, like information, is to be managed, tailored, and individualized without the necessary social responsibility to connect, debate, and develop consensus.

The danger is not seeing truth and meaning as contextual; it is in not proactively working to shape that context. This is not about alternative facts, propaganda, nor misinformation. These concepts have always been at play. The fake news of today is the yellow journalism of a century ago – defined more by profit motive than ideology. The problem is not in construction of meaning or in agreeing on facts, but rather the necessary social component of defining what those facts mean.

Librarians and journalists alike have been about helping communities make better decisions through access to knowledge. We both hold to a code of ethics and principles that favor rationalism and both at their core require an internal motivation to seek out the truth. But – and this is vital – we both also believe that such motivation must include a social knowledge aspect. That is, both believe that communities must act together as well as individuals within a community. It is not simply speaking truth to power; it is understanding that true power comes from common effort. Librarians and journalists must be part of moving people to action. Exposing corruption in the news must be met by editorial calls for consequence. Teaching information literacy must also mean teaching information activism. It is not about highlighting inequities; it is about fixing inequities. It is not just about calling for diversity; it is about empowering diverse voices.

And so I come back to action.

Our goal must be to be knowledge schools. Pushing forward our different fields of information, librarianship, journalism, and communications, yes. But also working together around a common mission of impact. A knowledge school must seek to not only document society, but to improve it. Not to be neutral, but to be truthful and to actively work with our communities to knit a common and ever-evolving worldview. In this worldview there will be disagreement and argument, but it will serve as a common framework for debate and ultimately learning.

I am alive today because scholars in the fields of biology, chemistry, medicine, nursing, public health, pharmacology, information, and communications strived not just for knowledge, but impact. The same scholars that developed deadly chemical weapons in World War I later saw that mustard gas could be used to stop the uncontrolled replication of cancer cells and would develop life-saving chemotherapy. I am here today because information scientists built technology to transfer billions of points of data into journals and clinical trials. I am here today because journalists, and public relations experts, and communication scholars helped transform cancer from a shameful scourge to a noble curable fight in the mind of the public.

We have seen the power of scholars in information and communication coming together to save lives by fighting the misinformation campaigns of big tobacco. We have seen reporters work with librarians to uncover corporate malfeasance where carcinogens pollute the environment. We have seen those same reporters and librarians then hold those responsible accountable.

We all stand at an inflection point with the current national political climate. We have seen a resurgent press seek to hold politician and policy accountable. We have seen librarians stand up for the rights and voices of all community members. In the halls of academia, we must also seize this moment with our research and our teaching and our service. We information and communication scholars need to develop a response (systems, theories, courses, graduates) that replace walls of isolating code that encircle ideological factions, with platforms of community knowledge building. We must model that strident argument and sincere disagreement does not have to result in factions and fractures, but in a clearer understanding of the world. That has been the cornerstone of scholarship since Socrates, and it is our responsibility to promote that throughout society.

* Thanks to Professor Ernest Wiggins for his feedback

Light the Night with Mission Remission

Hi! If you are reading this right now it is because folks like you, and thousands more who support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at events like Light the Night. It is through their work and your generous support, that I survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Funding supports research and service that lead to treatments and stem cell transplants. It has transformed what was once a death sentence into cures.

This year my family is once again going to Light the Night to raise funding and awareness of blood cancers. Please join them as they walk Thursday the 27th here in Columbia (at the State House). If you can’t make it to South Carolina there are walks all across the country, or donate to support our team, Mission Remission.

Thanks again for your support and, you know, my life.


I Bleed Orange

Today is graduation day at Syracuse University. I have been called upon from time to time to give remarks or thoughts to graduates. These follow some version of “you’re not done yet, keep learning,” or “change the world.”

Today’s ceremony will be different for me. In a very real way I am graduating. I will be graduating from an education that started 28 years ago as a freshman, through a masters, a doctorate, and through tenure and promotion. While I got paid for the last part, it was very much a continuation of my education. With my move to South Carolina, it is now time to truly implement what I have learned.

I have learned about the importance of a mission in your life that sustains you through international flights, shady motels, ad hominin tweets, and journal rejection letters. I have learned about the importance of colleagues, and that rank and title are in no way an indicator of value and importance. I have learned that all ideas improve when they are shared. I have learned that family is always first and that true scholarship is the seamless entanglement of research, teaching, service, and advocacy. I have learned that success is not a mountain to be climbed and summited, but rather a wayfinding exercise in the jungle of possibilities. And now I am learning the hardest lesson – sometimes you have to leave.

I have had the great privilege of sitting at the table with mentors and heroes and calling them friends. Syracuse has been for me, and for many, a special place that has indeed shaped the world we live in. I have seen scholarship in action where great scholars know that a study or an answer or a project is untested and incomplete without impact in the everyday lives of those you care about. I have had the great honor of working with students at all levels and ages who have shown me that a good professor is one who listens and learns as much as speaks and teaches. All of that is hard to leave.

The toughest question I get when I talk to librarians is about what to do when you realize the place you are is no longer the place you need or want to be. When a supervisor lacks vision, or a community becomes intransigent, or co-workers become hostile, or, as with me, you just need something different. Maybe it’s getting a degree, or taking up a leadership post, or moving to a bigger institution, but somehow you just feel it’s time.

My answer is normally a smattering of tactics and examples of changing the place you are, but in the end I always say, “sometimes none of that will work, and you will have to leave,” adding “and I realize that it is not that easy, because you have a house, and kids, and a paycheck.” And now I am taking my own advice and it is indeed hard.

It is hard because of the kids and the house and friends. It is hard because I am comfortable with where I am: I know the streets, and I the tricks for dealing with the snow. I am not just leaving a house, or a job, but in some ways I am leaving a scaffolding of place that I built up as part of my identity – part of me. Yes, I know in my head all those tactics and the mottos about an opportunity to rebuild and discover and to be challenged. But that scaffolding-sometimes creaky and teetering, sometimes cemented and robust-is still a part of me and building a new one will be work. Yet I have to. It is time.

To my new colleagues in Columbia I say thank you for being welcoming, and I look forward to working with you. But today I need to say thank you to my colleagues and friends in Syracuse. Thank you for helping me grow up. Thank you for the lessons, sometimes painful, that have shown me the way forward. Thank you for the laughs and the food and the jokes. Thank you for taking a chance on a young arrogant kid with skills, and seeing that in there was a scholar of worth. Thank you SU for the basketball games, the final fours, the strawberry festivals, and the frosted brownies in Schine. Thank you for bringing my wife and I together.

To my friends in Syracuse I say thank you for teaching me what a roof rake is, and for Wegmans and the State Fair. Thank you for helping to raise my sons. Thank you for apple orchards and cows, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

Thank you all. It is time for me to leave, because you all shared so much time with me while I was here.

Lankes to join the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science as Director

SLISI am very pleased to announce that I will be joining the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science as director and associate dean in the College of Information and Communications. My appointment will take effect July 1, 2016 subject to the university’s approval process.

I make this move with a great deal of excitement, and a healthy dose of sadness. I have been affiliated with SU for nearly 28 years in one capacity or another but now is the time for me to apply what I have learned in a new environment.

While there will be more details to follow, I did want to say that it has been the greatest honor and privilege to be part of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. I also want to extend my thanks to the faculty, staff, and students at SLIS and the College of Information and Communications who have been so welcoming and supportive.

My Last Cancer Post…I Hope

Today is my second birthday.

Two years ago yesterday nurses were shoveling ice chips into my mouth to minimize oral blisters from a Melphalan injection. The Melphalan was the last ingredient of a toxic chemo cocktail that would kill my bone marrow, and thus my ability to make blood or muster an immune response. In essence, two year ago yesterday I received a lethal dose of chemo as a salvage attempt to rid my body of cancer because the preceding 6 months of chemical warfare was insufficient.

Two years ago today a doctor slowly pushed six syringes of my own frozen stem cells into my heart. The now thawed cells would find their way back to the not decimated core of my bones and, slowly at first, begins to make the cells to feed, defend, and repair my body.

Yesterday I received six shots as my second year vaccinations, completing a two year journey of recovery and a suppressed immune system. Two years of fearing colds, only eating hot processed foods. Two years of regrowing muscle, and weaning myself from drugs that modulated my pain, my blood chemistry, even my sleep. Two years from 42 steps in a hospital ward to going home to going to work to going on airplanes to visiting the world.

Since that day of ultimate peril I have been to the Tower of London, down the Italian boot swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, to the resort coast of Belgium, to the flower markets of Amsterdam, enjoyed a November Spring in New Zealand and a February summer in Australia. I have ridden a Segway through an historic garden in Rome, examines 1,500 year old illuminated manuscripts in the archives of Bruges, toured the Vatican Library, and three days ago plunged to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico to scuba among the fish.

I did all this with the love and support of a wife who never lost faith. With a mother who shared her faith with me. With two boys who make me more proud than I ever thought was possible. I have done it with co-workers who picked up the things I dropped and a community of colleagues who now truly span the globe. By my side have been doctors and nurses and medical technicians that healed my body and fed my mind.

I pray that you never have to learn what you are capable of by facing cancer, but there is nothing inherent in recovery that makes us challenge ourselves. Travel, fellowship, love, risk is ultimately a choice. A choice to say yes and know that you will fall. But also know you will get up. And if you can’t get up at first know that you can ask for help. A choice to see the world, even if your world is only as far as the street corner.

Not everyone recovers from cancer or a stem cell transplant. Not everyone will regain his or her strength or mobility. I am lucky. Cancer no longer defines my life or the confines within it. I choose to move beyond being a survivor to simply being a person. A person faced with decisions, tragedy, and triumph. I choose to engage, to attempt, to plan, to move forward and to face the barbs and pain that comes with that choice. What do you choose?

ALA Press Release on Haycock Award

Here is the official press release on the Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship. Thanks to Teri Switzer for her very kind words:

For Immediate Release
Mon, 01/25/2016


Cheryl Malden
Program Officer

CHICAGO — Dr. R. David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar for New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and 2016-2017 Follett Chair in Library and Information Sciences at Dominican University Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Chicago, has been selected to receive the 2016 American Library Association Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship. This prestigious honor is given annually to an individual for a “significant contribution to the public recognition and appreciation of librarianship through professional performance, teaching, and/or writing.”

“It is a privilege and an honor that the Award Jury recognizes Dr. Lankes for his distinguished achievements in the field of Library and Information Science over a career of more than 20 years,” said Teri R. Switzer, chair of the Ken Haycock Award Committee and dean and professor emerita at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “David has spent the majority of his career advancing librarianship and making us all think about our profession in different ways. David’s commitment to the profession is clearly evident in his teaching, his presentations, his writings, and his service.”

Lankes holds a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, School of Information Studies, and an MS in Telecommunications, also from Syracuse University. In addition to being a faculty member at Syracuse University, Dr. Lankes has also served as a visiting fellow at the National Library of Canada, an adjunct instructor for the OCLC Institute, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Education, and was the first OITP Fellow at the ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy. Dr. Lankes’ professional successes, publications, grants and service achievements all support his receiving this award.

As noted in the nomination submitted on his behalf, supporters mentioned, in particular, his 2011 The Atlas of New Librarianship and his leadership of the I LEAD U, a three-year continuing education initiative that addresses the need to expand librarians’ leadership abilities to use technology to effectively engage their libraries’ constituents, as only two of the several librarianship projects in which he has been actively engaged. One supporter stated, “ His presentations, teachings, curriculum development, and writings supporting the growth and development of our esteemed profession not only address technologies and infrastructure, but also re-articulate the core role of librarians in the learning process. In today’s world of databases, electronic resources, intellectual property concerns, digital rights management, and efforts of cross border cooperation, it is easy to lose sight of the vision and motivating principles that drew many of us to the profession. David steadfastly draws his readers and listeners back to the core.” Another letter summed up Lankes’ broad achievements by saying, “Having worked with him in various settings, I see the many ways he has taught, inspired, and challenged librarians – those still in their graduate programs, those new in the profession, and those who have been in the profession a long time – all have benefitted from David’s unparalleled methods of teaching and inspiring us al to greatness.”

Members of the Ken Haycock Award Jury are: Nancy Bolt, Nancy M. Bolt & Associates, Denver, Colorado; Nicolas H. Buron, Dorothy M. Persson, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa; Thomas T. Suprenant, Queens College, Graduate School of Library & Information Studies, Flushing, New York; and Teri R. Switzer, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

The Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship will be presented to David Lankes at the ALA Award Ceremony and Reception on Sunday, June 26,, during the Annual Conference in Orlando.

The deadline for submission of applications for the 2017 Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship is Dec. 1, 2016. Guidelines and application forms are available on the ALA website.

Lankes Receives 2016 Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship

ALA-MGwebI am very proud to announce that I have received the 2016 Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship from the American Library Association. From ALA’s award page:

The Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship was established in 2004 and recognizes an individual who has contributed significantly to the public recognition and appreciation of librarianship through professional performance, teaching or writing. Former award recipients include Nancy Kranich (2015), former ALA president; Wendy Newman (2011), former Canadian Library Association president; Michael Gorman (2010), former American Library Association president; and Mary Dempsey (2007), former Chicago library commissioner.

That is some humbling company. My thanks go out to the award committee and those who nominated me. Also a special thank you to Ken Haycock who will always be one the profession’s greatest champions.

Award Home Page