Today is the last day of a semester that often felt like a sprint. We all nervously watched the COVID-19 Dashboard in August and read the stories of pool parties and thought for sure we would close the campus. But the numbers fell, the mitigation procedures worked, and we carried through. The school has had a few close calls, but we remain healthy. As we come out of Thanksgiving and into the holiday season, we do indeed have much for which to be thankful.
We can be thankful for growing applications and enrollments in the MLISprogram. The investments of the past year in our reputation, our curriculum and in marketing the program are paying off. We can be grateful that our BSIS program enrollment has remained steady despite worries of dramatic reductions in on-campus enrollment. And we are seeing our BSIS grads getting high-paying jobs. We can be thankful that our Ph.D. program has just undergone a long developed program policy revision.
And our academic programs have not simply maintained but are growing. We approved significant changes to our gradate certificate, allowing students to get a specialized certificate along with their MLIS. The first specialization is in equity, diversity and inclusion and starts in the spring semester. Development of specializations in public, academic and data science are all underway building on our commitment and continued investment in the school library certification. The faculty also approved the creation of a new joint master’s in data communications with our colleagues in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. This will be the first college-wide joint degree.
We are thankful to begin a search for a new faculty position, focusing on the intersection of race, data, media and society. The new professor will join a faculty with a growing track record in research productivity and funding. This year we have multiple faculty awarded grants from IMLS — including the prestigious Early Career program at IMLS — and the Library of Congress.
New efforts in public scholarship like a podcast and regular column with Publishers Weekly join an impressive array of grants, peer-reviewed articles, book publications and conference participation. According to Academic Analytics, we rank ranked third among our peer iSchools for total number of books published by faculty and fourth in terms of the percentage of a faculty having published a book. That success continues with new projects under contract with MIT Press, Rowman & Littlefield and ALA Editions. And our works have been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish, with Arabic and Chinese on their way.
Our faculty continue to work internationally. We are part of an ERASMUS+ grant in the European Union and a British study for the World Intellectual Property Association. Our faculty have presented at conferences like ALA, ALISE, ASIS&T, the iConference and IFLA. We have presented to bodies such as the Advisory Group for the National Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland, and the National Library of New South Wales in Australia strategic planning group.
We are thankful for a public scholarship agenda always seeking to increase an already impressive impact within the South Carolina community. Even in a pandemic, the South Carolina Center for Community Literacy has brought Cocky’s Reading Express to thousands of children online, with a mayor, a university president and even “trombone guy” demonstrating the importance of literacy. SCCCL has secured tens of thousands of dollars to continue to distribute books, provide professional development in diversity in literacy, and even deliver mental health training to the citizens of the state.
We can be very proud as well as thankful that this semester we put real action and resources behind the school’s standing commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. The work of the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair, with public lectures and conversations, is joined by new Spectrum scholarshipsto recruit and support diverse MLIS students and the development of new diversity fellowships with the Thomas Cooper Library.
To end this update, let me say how I am personally thankful to be a part of the iSchool community. This age of pandemic, racial awakening, divided politics and an economic downturn has been hard on all of us. Isolation and anxiety exact a toll. We all worry about our loved ones as well as ourselves. Yet through it all I have seen students be resilient. I have seen faculty and staff devoted to student success. And I have seen alumni, students, staff and faculty rededicate themselves to making a better society through knowledge and service.
Each week The Skillset Podcast will feature conversations with librarians and other key players in the information world seeking to illuminate the complex issues facing libraries and other institutions in these unprecedented times. New episodes will post on Fridays and will be featured in Publishers Weekly’s Preview for Librarians e-newsletter
“This podcast began with a problem,” says podcast co-host R. David Lankes. “Here at the University of South Carolina School of Information Science we had just added a course on Community Engagement and Service to the core of our library science degree. And suddenly, in 2020, with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and a long overdue racial and social justice awakening, everything we thought we knew about the subject went out the window. These massive disruptions have shaken the library world to its core. Libraries have long rested on their virtue, and their connection to the community. And suddenly, libraries were separated from their communities as their physical buildings were forced to close. And as a profession, librarians are finally committing to addressing their own issues, including the legacy of systemic racism, vocational awe, and the safety and well-being of our workers.”
Season One of The Skillset Podcast will focus on libraries in the wake of protests and the pandemic, and will feature conversations with an array of library directors, activists, and educators exploring how libraries are changing to meet the needs of their communities amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement for social and racial justice. And each season will be aligned with the academic semester, giving listeners an opportunity to explore the issues and themes being addressed by library science students today.
“This podcast is an amazing opportunity for us to continue building those bridges between theory and practice,” says co-host Nicole A. Cooke. “It is an opportunity for us to connect with library professionals who are actually ‘walking the walk’ and using their expertise to educate our students about the true meaning of community literacy, and to expose new ideas and practices to a wider audience.”
Greetings and thank you for giving me time to talk about the importance of library and place at this unique point in time and moving forward. I have had the good fortune to observe and speak with librarians around the globe, including in Scotland, and see a very bright future ahead for public libraries if we invest now. Libraries have been and will continue to be vital social infrastructure for communities. They provide safe physical and digital spaces for citizens to explore dangerous ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an intimidating prospect thinking about the role of public libraries over the next 5 years. The world is changing, it seems, minute by minute. How do we forecast 5 years ahead? Well, there is good news. It turns out that in this pandemic, the process of evolution in libraries over the past decade have served us well. Today we know the library as a platform, physical and virtual, that helps communities make smarter decisions, and to help citizens find meaning in their lives.
There is a lot I could talk about, and advocate for, around the next 5 years of Scottish public libraries, but for today, let me limit my comments to the library as a place. A place online and on the ground that is part of a community crafting a new normal post pandemic. I start with a sample of how world-class public libraries have begun creating a new normal in communities globally.
In the suburbs of Oslo a branch library acts as a community living room hosting live music and an annual comicon. Meanwhile downtown the new central library has just opened with half the books as the previous main library to make room for meeting rooms, theaters, maker spaces and lecture halls to host community conversations. The role of library as convenors and facilitators of vital conversations comes from the fact that in Norway, as in Finland, the library law mandates public libraries support and promote conversations around democracy.
In Aarhus Denmark the central library has an enormous bell at its center that rings with the birth of every new child in the city. It is an auditory reminder that the library is connected to the citizens from the moment they are born. The librarians have such a strong relationship with their community that there are buildings they simply leave unlocked afterhours – allowing the community use of the library 24 hours a day. The library there is seen not as a place or a building, but as a movement where librarians work with local community organizations and businesses to advance the needs of the community.
Here in the states Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have made public libraries the cornerstones of economic and urban revitalization plans.
In Charleston South Carolina the community is turning to the library to help lead the city in increasing diversity, addressing social justice issues, and facilitating a conversation on a more just and equitable future.
Before I go farther, there is a point I cannot overstate – though I will try – all of these places may have beautiful architecture, a fine collection of materials, but none of them would rate a mention without the people that staff them. Librarians, community organizers, volunteers, all are what make a library great.
If all you do in the next 5 years is install WiFi, and loos while adding a few dollars to the collection budget, it will be 5 years wasted. What Scotland needs is a network of connected professionals dedicated to not only serving local needs but connecting local expertise to national aspirations and impacts. We are in the middle of history. Yes, the pandemic, but also a point as a world of growing xenophobic nationalism, a growing wealth gap, racial awakening, and shifting international alliances. An inflection point where democracy being tested. Scotland deserves a public library service that tends to our damaged certainty in the world and one that will knit together a social fabric that uses the diverse brilliance of her citizens to lead the way to a better tomorrow.
That may seem like a tall order, but we know how to make it happen. First, I beg you, do not think of libraries as buildings or collections. Don’t even think of them as originations and institutions. Think of them as platforms.
In technological terms, a platform is a set of functions and systems that are not only integrated tightly together, but can be used to create new services. The internet, for example, is very much a platform. It dictates how data can be shipped around a network, and defines certain features like how much data can be funneled down wires, and how to find a given computer or phone. But on top of that infrastructure, all we think of and love – or hate – about the net is built by the community. Search, social media, video sharing, train ticketing are all services built by the internet community on top of the internet platform. If you get a platform right, you can never anticipate the future, but you make it easy for communities to innovate and meet their own needs.
Now think of the public library. It should be a platform that allows local communities to build a whole host of services and experiences – both digital and physical. From something very traditional like a book group that uses a collection and a physical meeting space; to supporting entrepreneurs with things like 3D printers for prototyping and video studios for marketing their inventions. The value of a library as a platform is not measured in things like books circulated, shelf space allocated, or gate counts, but in the success of the community it supports.
The library platform consists of spaces and online catalogs (which should absolutely be linked together) and services like training. Once again, given the limited time, let me focus on the physical aspects of the public library platform, particularly, as some may question the need for an investment in bricks and mortar in these days of Zoom calls and virtual conferences.
Right outside of Florence Italy is the town of Pistoia. As a bedroom community for a large city, it has grown, and eventually a picturesque renaissance city has become a modern suburb, with no central square or piazza to congregate in. To reconnect the cities residents the city built the San Georgio public library as the new piazza. It had a café, and a large indoor and outdoor space to gather. On the weekends the library sponsors 50 different programs from iron working, to movie discussions, to cooking demonstrations. These programs are not run by the librarians however. They are run by the true collection of any library: the community.
This is the new vital role for librarians: community management. Just as professional librarians maintain, organize, and advise on a collection of books – now they are organizing, advising and connecting the community together. Librarians ensure that people feel welcome in the space, but also challenged to learn and grow. Professional librarians facilitate learning of citizens and the community as a whole.
How librarians do this? By ensuring the library platform is responsive and is truly co-owned by the community. This can and should take very different forms that embrace what is unique about a local community.
The British Library, for example, realized that if the goal of the library in terms of supporting business, was to grow new business, it had to change its physical space. In place of stacks of business books and periodicals, it installed group workspaces. It provided a stage for speakers, and a social space for networking. It filled the space not with stuff, but with specially trained librarians with certifications in business development. It created a mentoring program. These services also extend beyond the physical space and continue even in the current pandemic online.
In Philadelphia a library wanting to support local music within the city sat down and asked musicians what they wanted in a library. The musicians didn’t say more music databases or loanable scores, but two grand pianos on a stage. Musicians seek to perform. While popular bands used the local pubs to network and play, there were no venues for those interested in classical and experimental music. Musicians wanted that venue to be the library.
The plan was to have musicians meet and collaborate and then perform original music at the library. The library then recorded the music and streamed it to the globe. Instead of going to the local library to hear the music of the world, the world could now come to a citizen’s local library to hear them. Libraries around the world are loaning out instruments, and then building recording studios to put the instruments to work. They are becoming publishers of the community sharing the talent of the local globally.
In other communities libraries are using their physical spaces to build community gardens. They are taking the harvests and building farmers markets where there were none, including in food desserts where inner city families don’t have ready access to healthy produce.
In rural areas librarians and the libraries they manage are loaning out fishing poles and working with town elders to create hyperlocal wifi hubs on walking trails to share the history of the region.
All over the globe library buildings are going from quiet buildings with a few loud rooms, to loud buildings with some quiet spaces to read. This isn’t instead of traditional missions in literacy, but to extend that mission. Children find joy and excitement in reading through shared story times. One library even started a yoga reading time for parents and their children. The library also had pop-up story times that weren’t scheduled, they just happened when a critical mass of kids were in the room. Rather than ask the community to conform to the schedule of the library, the library, as all libraries should, shaped itself to the community.
At my university we pack our undergraduate students and the school mascot into a bus and drive to the poorest schools in the state to do read alouds that show all children that reading is the path to a better life. In the Netherlands a maker bus drives from school to school bringing WiFi, 3d printers, laser etchers, and other technologies otherwise unavailable to the students.
The physical space of libraries also ensures the success of the digital. The ALMPub project out of Norway examined the role of physical cultural heritage institutions like libraries and museums in an increasingly digital age. They asked the question – do we still need the physical footprint as government and businesses alike are going all digital with their services. They examined citizen uses of public spaces in Norway, Germany, and as far as Hungry. What they found was that as so much of life, particularly public life, was digitized, people needed physical common spaces more. They needed a place not just for training and service, but to be a community. To be together.
You’ve no doubt felt this same need in these days of COVID. Stuck at home, interacting through screens, cut off from colleagues, we crave connection and time to simply be in the same place at the same time. Now imagine before or after the pandemic when it is not disease that keeps you away, but long hours at multiple jobs, or inadequate access to public transportation that leads to over long commutes, or simply no place to actually go. People don’t want to hang out at the police station, or the fire house, or city hall. What other civic institution is left that can serve all citizens regardless of their income, their race, their religion, or their age? And if you don’t see that place as a library, you expect far too little from your libraries.
Please understand that I am not advocating a laundry list of prescribed hardware, services and floor plans for every library in Scotland. I am proposing the exact opposite. Yoga story hours, music studios, and traveling makerspaces are not going to meet the needs of all communities. What you must do in this five year plan, is to set up what the platform is. Then, local needs and aspirations drive the services on top. Some services built by librarians, but an increasing number built by other community members.
The core of the library platform must be a shared mission. Local libraries are going to look and act very differently – they are going to look and act like the local community. It is the job of the librarians, with a shared mission, to gather the best ideas from across the country, and then contextualize and adapt them to local needs. And that shared mission? The mission of a librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Or put more simply – librarians and the libraries they build, make the world better by helping people learn.
How does that play out in real life? Well, take the horror that is this current pandemic. We know this virus has caused change, death and uncertainty throughout the globe. What are we doing to learn from it? Are our libraries gathering local stories, articles, oral histories? When I think about this challenge I think of Tilburg, a town in the Netherlands, that was once a thriving train town.
The citizens of Tilburg built and repaired trains for systems across Europe. Yet as manufacturing shifted to Asia, the train industry all but disappeared. Several years ago Tilburg’s economy was rebounding with a new emphasis on small business startups and education. They decided to turn an abandoned train maintenance warehouse into the new public library.
However, before they laid one new piece of steel, they had pop up events in the warehouse to try different layouts and different programs. They invited the community in. Around the warehouse they set up enormous touch screens with photos and videos showing the history of the train industry in the town. Retired rail workers would come in and tell librarians about where they worked and what they did. The librarians would guide these workers to the touch screens and help them record their story, adding to the history. The building, the place, became a memory palace that the community built and owned. Not just with their tax dollars, but with their life experience.
I will end my remarks today with one final story, and a bit of self-interest. A small community in New Zealand was building a new public library. It was in a neighborhood called Ironwood, named for the fact that 150 years earlier the trees of the region were cut down to run iron foundries. The community wanted to commemorate this past and so on a 3 story interior wall they placed stencils of trees. Then they built a scaffolding allowing the community to climb all three stories. On the scaffolding the library placed buckets of paint mixed with soil from the site. Community members would climb the scaffolding, dip their hands in the paint, and mark a handprint on the wall. When the library was complete the scaffolding and stencil come down and what was left was a mural of a forest made up of the hands of the community.
My family traces its roots back to the McDowalls of the lowlands and the reign of Kind David the first of Scotland. Some of the libraries you are building and planning are on the soil of my ancestors and nothing will make me prouder of my heritage than knowing that Scotland supports a thriving network of public libraries dedicated to learning, rooted deeply in the local community, and with a corps of professional librarians dedicated to healing a people and empowering citizens to dream.
Yesterday was my 2nd transplantiversary. The first thing I would like to do is thank Rebecca Friedman for that term.
You see I used to use, and many do use, the phrase new birthday. After all, my new blood system turned 2 yesterday. But here’s why I am no longer happy to call it a birthday (though I am still welcoming presents). For me it is not a remembrance of when my blood system started, or that some new life that began two years ago. For me it is a time to remember, appreciate, and recognize all those that made this new lease on life possible.
I would not be alive today if it was not for my son whose first day of college was spent face down, anesthetized as 50 probes extracted over a liter of bone marrow. I would not be here without my transplant oncologist Dr. Horwitz, his amazing nurse practitioner Kristi Wiggins, or the entire care team at Duke.
But just as important to my recovery was my wife who was my constant advocate, memory, cheerleader, drill sergeant, and ultimate reason to go on living. Also, my mother who was with me the first week before the transplant, stayed with me for weeks during the transplant, and who, with my step-father Bob, uprooted their life so that my sone Andrew could stay at home, at school, and cared for.
When I unveiled the beautiful cake Nikki Gilbert made for the 2nd anniversary, Andrew, my youngest son, said that this was really a celebration for me and Riley – he didn’t do anything. It was a great opportunity for me to explain just how wrong that statement was. Knowing he was doing well in school, having him send me jokes and memes, knowing what a great man he was growing into was essential to me persevering. I also wanted to acknowledge the toll this took on him. The uncertainty, the stress, the trauma of a parent in with cancer is a very real cost to be paid, and his contribution to that cause is equal with a donor and a doctor.
TO this list I have to add my sister who supported me the whole time and did time as a caretaker. Her life was in the midst of major change, and she took the time to lift me up. This anniversary is very much a remembrance of my work colleagues that covered my responsibilities at the university and advanced the school while I was in treatment. From classes covered, duties accepted, and meals delivered, I can never express how much their support mean to me.
And this support extends to friends and colleagues that sent notes, and cards, and simply let me know that I mattered, and they cared.
A birthday is a time for celebration, a transplantiversary is a time for gratitude and reflection. It is a time to remember earnest talks with my wife about what my funeral arrangements should look like. It is a time to be glad that after months of chemo and treatment I was unable to climb stairs, and now go for (nearly) daily 3 mile walks with my dog. It is a time to be grateful for good health care that paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars and the recommit to advocating for health care for all as a right. It is a time to recognize that cancer will always be a part of my life, has shaped my life, and deepened my appreciation for life.
Celebrating a transplantiversary is an easy thing to do, and I invite you all to join in. Donate blood. Give to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Hug the ones you love. Write a person you know wrestling with cancer just to say you were thinking of them.
I’m sorry I didn’t get a cake big enough for all. But do know that you are in my thoughts and you have my thanks. Next year we’ll celebrate outside of our house and without masks.
Many folks have asked how the first day of classes were last Thursday. The University of South Carolina decided to have in-person classes (as well as virtual and hybrid at the faculty and student’s discretion). Here is a letter I wrote to the alumni:
Yesterday was the weirdest first day of classes I have encountered in 22 years as a professor. Normally the first day is all about a packed campus – and grumbling over waiting for that bagel that had no line the week before. It is about students coming into the office looking for classrooms. It’s about too many seats or too few seats in those classrooms. Online it’s last minute phone calls about registration, or a bill, or needing Blackboard access. It is a bit of endearing chaos filled with expectations of a great new year.
Yesterday I talked to two students who didn’t realize a course had been moved online and I thanked a class for wearing masks and keeping us all safe. That was it. Good lord it was even a productive writing day.
This oddly quiet day was a sign of success. While the chaos is endearing, it also can demonstrate gaps in planning or poor information sharing. A quiet opening day in a pandemic is about a prepared school. It is a testament to new all online orientation. It is about revised syllabi and a faculty taking the time to reach out to their students. It is about the often invisible labor of scheduling and budgeting.
The iSchool, your school, was ready for yesterday, just as we were ready to face the challenges of the pandemic last Spring. Through the work not only of today’s faculty, staff, and students, but those throughout the history of the school we are perfectly situated to respond in these days of crisis and need. We were already either online, or ready to use our long experience in online instruction to make sure all of our students met their learning outcomes. That’s thanks to folks like Dan Barron, Sam Hastings, Fred Roper, Charles Curran, Linda Lucas Walling, and Sarah Keeling that built the school over our 50 year history.
Our school is perfectly situated to help our society in these times of need. Active research and advocacy agendas in equity, diversity, and inclusion have provided valuable insight in the form of funded research, published scholarly articles, state-wide workshops, and online high-profile speaking events. We have an engaged alumni base that ensures attention to issues of racial justice. Our innovative graduates are defining a new normal in library service in the age of COVID. We are the hub of an international network of librarians, scholars, and information scientists sharing best practices and innovative projects.
All of our 50 years of history shows brightly now in dark times. This semester while our peer programs are dealing with a substantial reduction in graduate enrollment, ours Is up over 30%. We have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal research grants. We have hosted national events with the leaders in the fields of anti-racism. Our graduates are leaders of school libraries throughout South Carolina and in cities like San Francisco, Columbia, Spartanburg, Charleston, San Barbara and states like Vermont.
At the end of the day the lack of endearing chaos might have been odd, but the fact that the smooth surface of the day belied the amazing dedication and expertise of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni was nothing new at all.
It has been my honor and joy to be the director of iSchool these past four years. I wake up knowing that I am part of a community seeking and building a better, more just society. Thank you all for your help in making this a reality. I ask you to continue to support the school.
I am so happy to announce that I’ll be publishing my next book with Rowman & Littlefield. I am also thrilled to be working with Charles Harmon as my editor again.
The book should be published in 2021 and is about how the data and media landscape we live in has been shaped by a century of conflict and war. I am writing for a general audience and unlike my last books this one is not specifically about librarianship (though you know I’ll be doing my best to promote them).
The following is from the book proposal:
The first battle of World War I was not on land and not fought with battleships. It was cutting the telegraph cables that connected Germany to the rest of the world. With this action Britain not only launched the first information war but set in motion a series of events and ideas that shape our world. From the internet, to Google, to filter bubbles and Russian election interference, Lankes explores how we ended up in a society that values data over personal liberty and commerce over the public good. How our ideas of information and knowledge reflect the century of war that has militarized our worldview.
Using a series of trips through history from World War I until today, Lankes explores concepts from encryption and how it can be used to change our understanding of ownership to artificial intelligence and the wide scale adoption of software we don’t truly understand. He uses these grounded ideas to argue for a new humanism that focuses on how we find meaning in life and for an agenda to take back control of the world’s knowledge infrastructure. From Nazi espionage to smart appliances that spy on us in our homes to the COVID-19 pandemic this book is a clarion call for new polices in copyright, facial recognition, privacy, and in managing the trillion-dollar data/technology industry.
The University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science community strongly condemns the systemic and systematic oppression of Black people, indigenous people, and all people of color. We stand with everyone who is actively fighting against repressive systems and we offer our support to those organizing proactive ways to combat racism. We stand with Black Lives Matter.
As scholars, educators, librarians, students, information scientists, and those who support educating the next generation of knowledge professionals we must instill great empathy in our students and equip them to directly fight racism. We seek a world where difference is sought out, the vulnerable are actively protected, and service is listening and learning more so than teaching and telling.
We pledge to not only promote equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in our curriculum, research, and servicework but to reach out and purposefully include and promote the work of people of color. We pledge to hire, support, and promote people of color on faculty and staff. We pledge to protect in these challenging economic times community literacy centers and diversity laboratories. We pledge to support and encourage faculty with research agendas in uncomfortable and “challenging” topics like microaggressions, service to the LGBTQIA+ communities, and the refugee populations. We pledge to defend faculty who are active on social media and give presentations on #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality. We pledge to double our efforts to recruit and retain students of color in our programs and in the profession.
We must use diversity, inclusion, and acceptance as the guiding principles in the fight to end acts of prejudice, racial bias, threats of violence, and even blatant killing based solely on a person’s race or ethnicity.
The Faculty and Staff, Diversity Leadership Group, and Library and Information Science Students Association School of Information Science, University of South Carolina
I woke to news of tear gas and riot gear in the streets of Minneapolis, an arrested Black journalist, and a presidential tweet threatening to mobilize the military and violence against citizens. This comes on top of police killing an innocent Black man over a $20 bill and a white woman in Central Park calling 911 in a racist attempt to use police against a Black bird watcher because she felt entitled to have her dog off leash. This all comes on top of an executive order seeking to undermine the first amendment even as it purports to uphold it.
It seems that rather than bringing out the best of us this crisis enables too many to embrace their worst nature. But of course, that’s too simple. The crisis may be the backdrop, but the institutional racism that kills Black men and calls out troops against Black protestors instead of gun wielding white ones has nothing to do with a virus. It is part of the country and institutional racism and discrimination in housing, in policing, in education, in all aspects of life.
I want to do something. I want to fix things, and I will do what I can. Which is the purpose of this post. Not what I can do as an individual, but as a director of an information school, as an educator of librarians, as a scholar. You see, a week ago, I was worried about a contentious debate in the library community around safety and reopening. I was worried about neighbors not wearing masks and folks partying on beaches as the deaths of the coronavirus passed 100,000. I now see these as connected.
As a director, professor, and scholar I must instill radical empathy in my students and information institutions and equip them to directly fight racism. I often talk about democracy and community. Yet do I do enough to connect those concepts to responsibility, equity, inclusion, and mutual support? The true participatory community is one that is culturally competent and anti-racist, where difference is sought out, the vulnerable are actively protected, and service is listening and learning more so than teaching and telling.
The pandemic has exposed how fractured and inequitable our information infrastructure is in this country. It has exposed how health outcomes disproportionately affect people of color. It has demonstrated how economic inequity furthers a digital divide and too often a racial divide. It has demonstrated how misinformation and propaganda can lead to censorship through noise and promote stereotypes and conspiracy theories. It has shown the privilege of the majority in how we choose which data we disregard. It has shown, once again, that willful ignorance is a destructive force and antithetical to the values of our field making the elimination of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny an active target of our work. A goal we may never reach but must never tire of attempting.
The easiest thing for me to do starts with my own work. I need to not only promote equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in my writing but reach out and deliberately include the work of people of color. I need to not only use the phrase “vocational awe” in its true nuanced and complex form, but also acknowledge that it is a phrase created and developed by librarian Fobazi Ettarh, a queer, and disabled woman of color .
The next thing I can do as a director is hire, support, and promote people of color on my faculty and staff. It means not stereotyping or tokenizing them and not letting anyone else do that either. It means putting in place a concentration and soon a formal certificate in diversity at the graduate level. It means protecting in these challenging economic times community literacy centers and diversity laboratories. It means supporting and encouraging faculty with research agendas in uncomfortable and “challenging” topics like microaggressions (inside and outside of the profession), service to the LGBTQ+ community, and the refugee population. It means supporting and defending faculty who are active on social media and give presentations on #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality as they impact LIS. It means supporting the work of my associate dean of diversity Dr. Shirley Carter in connecting with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to create joint programs. And it means recruiting and retaining these students of color in our graduate program and in the profession. I present this list not as a self-congratulatory check list, but as a public commitment to continue this work.
The information discipline has greatly benefited from the explosion of technology investment and growth. Our programs are growing as more people seek to be part of the knowledge industries be it at Google or the local library. We must acknowledge that the growth of our programs and the industry came at a cost. We must also acknowledge that this growth comes with greater responsibility as well. A lack of diversity, and liberal amounts of sexism, classism, and ableism, in the tech industry and libraries alike are our shared responsibility and we share the blame. We must not only critically self-reflect and improve, but actively advocate on issues of social justice, diversity, and addressing systemic racism in our society and in our own academic houses.
Higher education is granted a unique position in society. It is set aside through public funding, through concepts like tenure, through accreditation, and legal authority to grant credentials to be a place of ongoing debate and investigation. It is an investment beyond the immediate return of product for the promise of a better society in the long term. This unique and privileged position is to be used to pursue knowledge and further a meaningful society outside of the normal market. To be sure we often undervalue this mission to the business of education and the very real pressures of the economy, and even more the negative impact on the debt of its graduates. However, in the face of global pandemics of a virus and racism, it has a duty to take a stand and act.
I would like to thank Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Chair at the University of South Carolina for keeping me honest and holding me accountable on this post and in my role as director.
Photo by Lorie Shaull https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/49943807607