One Last Lecture

At Carolina’s School of Information Science graduate hooding ceremony to I give one last lecture:

I will not be the first nor the last to point out that you are graduating at a unique point in history. A time when people are talking about a reopening. A sometimes halting, undoubtedly uneven, and often inequitable reopening of society. It is easy to look ahead to this reopening, to the time after you graduate, to the time of vaccines. This is good, and you have certainly earned it. But I ask you to also reflect on the year that has just passed. I ask you to do this because it will be a time that will drive this nation in the coming decade and as librarians, as information professionals, you form the vital memory of our nation.

For all this past year has been one of loss. For too many the loss of a loved one, friend, or colleague. But for all a loss of certainty. In this past year a pandemic made us question the safety of our neighbors, the choices of our community, and the tenuous nature of health care in this nation. In the past months an insurrection at the Capital made us question the strength of our democracy, of our own ideals, and of the intention of our leaders. The murder of black men at the hands of police have made us question our own role in eliminating racism, in our privilege, and in the foundations of our civic institutions.

It is understandable to not want to dwell on loss and uncertainty, and to look at the promise of tomorrow. But if there is one thing that this past year has shown us, it is that the promise of tomorrow is not given to us, or waiting for us, it is us. You, my friends, are the promise. In your classes, in your interaction with faculty, in your internships, and your late night study sessions, you were forged into a force to make the world a better place.

You, the promise, must now comfort those who have lost friends, family, and colleagues. One of the last accomplishments of a great librarian and my great friend Nicolette Sosulski, was to create programs in public libraries to support the bereaved. She developed this program after a widow came to her seeking resources on coping with the death of a spouse. What many who now use the resources she developed was that while Nicolette was building the resources she was dying of brain cancer. When she sought to make the world a better place it was not to ignore her pain, but to use that pain and that struggle to help others.

You, the promise, must now bring together communities polarized into ideological camps that are seeking to have their own realities. Communities increasingly populated by narratives of distrust in government. When the Kansas state government entered a rapid reduction in government services accompanied by rhetoric that made out the public sector as inept or unnecessary, it was Gina Milsap, executive director of the Topeka Public Library that demonstrated the power of local government. She had the public library team with businesses and nonprofits to put together a literacy effort for her city. She worked across the ideological spectrum to find common ground and train her librarians to be literacy coaches. When too many people needed the service for her librarians she trained volunteers. When people in need couldn’t be met in the library, she sent the volunteers into the streets of the city to work in the homes of the community. She didn’t do this because she was a republican or a democrat, she did this because she was a librarian and a neighbor.

You, the promise, must recognize that racism is not only in the language we use, but in the laws that we pass, and the very foundations of the institutions we build. Augusta Baker was a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. She saw the power of literature to inspire children, and the power of fiction to unlock the potential of all. And she saw how racism throughout society limited black characters and representation in published works. She worked tirelessly throughout her career to diversify the genre of children’s literature and to make books for children and young adults more reflective of the young people who read them. It was her inspiration that led to the creation of the Augusta Baker Chair here in the school and inspires the amazing conversations, scholarship, and student support of the Baker Chair today.

There is no doubt that this past year has been trying, and extraordinary. But the grief, ideological division, and racism are ongoing pandemics that have been around long before COVID. The cure for these will not be a vaccine…it will be you. It must be you. You in your individual work. You as a class leading to new practice and redoubling of efforts. You as a discipline that for millennia has worked to improve the world through knowledge and compassion. It was the promise of the past that unchained books, that built public libraries for all. It was the past promise that democratized access to information, that made literacy a basic human right, and that sought to connect the world. This is your foundation. This is your inheritance.

The way that you honor that inheritance, is not just to only look ahead, but to critically examine what has come before, acknowledge its imperfections, and then to build it better. Today, you are ready to fulfill your promise.