One of my favorite parts of the school year is the hooding we do for newly minted MLIS grads in the spring and fall. I’ve gotten into a tradition of giving one last little lecture at each. I created a video of this year’s for those who couldn’t make it, and am sharing it widely.
First the video, then the script.
Congratulations on this great step into your future… we just have time for one last little lecture. Because this moment is no doubt not how you imagined it. A zoom’ed hooding was not a normal thing just a year ago.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about – what is normal. Because like it or not, it is a question that will be at the center of your job for the next several years. In your classes you have been taught skills to organize information, to find information, to use information to help people find meaning in their lives and for communities to make smarter decisions. All of those skills, however, are ultimately about creating normality. How the world organizes itself, the data it collects about its operations and the choices it makes based on that data is what we come to see as normal.
Things that we take as par for the course today – opinion polls, economic numbers, credit scores – are information creations of the past century. And we see the often grim new normal of data and collected information being formed around us today: positivity rates, mortality numbers, public acceptance of disinformation. This information can be used to enlighten such as exposing the outsized effect of the pandemic on communities of color. How information is organized and disseminated can also be used to blind: attacks on our very democracy masked as benign legal maneuvers.
Make no mistake, what is and will be normal, is a choice. Not just a choice as to what people expect or accept, but in what you will do and advocate for. It is the librarians, information professionals, educators, data analysts, and researchers that you are now that will shape the new normal. It is your unique combination of skills and ethical center that must fight disinformation and reweave the connective tissue of our communities and our very democracy.
You will do this person by person, neighbor by neighbor, student by student. You will do this by never accepting that people – children, mothers, brothers, flawed and glorious all – can be reduced to a stream of data or flattened to consumers. You will do this through difficult conversations in person and in print and in Zoom. Conversations on race, on ideology, on the very nature of truth. You will do this not by being neutral, but by being transparent and an example of knowledge informed by data and information, but more importantly by your humanity.
Today we celebrate – tomorrow we begin the work of forging a new normal where Black Lives Matter. Where the fate of a student in rural South Carolina is never determined by the zip code of their birth. Where the access to life saving medical treatment is not tied to the size of a bank account, and where borders never limit the span of our imagination or friendship.
This is your last lesson then. The true value of your degree, and your education is never determined by the diploma you receive, but by the communities you improve.