When the World Changes on You

I was asked to give a lecture to our introduction to librarianship class on advocacy and leadership. The following are my written remarks.

I’ll be honest with you. Giving you this lecture, writing these words for today kept me awake last night. What do I say to you who are now terrified there will be no jobs? How do I give you tips on leadership and advocacy in a time of pandemics, of economic crisis? Of Increased partisanship when the country needs unity more than ever?

Here’s the thing. I’m the guy who tells people to change the world. No change is too big, none too small as long as we are seeking to improve the lives of our communities…but what happens when the world changes on us. No rousing speech or touching anecdote can change the course of the novel corona virus. No leadership or strategic process plans for shutting down society for a few months. No one plans on a society shaken to its core. Where national guard troops are called up to confiscate and redistribute medical supplies. No one works for a society where even looking down a 20% unemployment rate can’t stop political posturing. No one plans for a society where the mere touch of a stranger can endanger your family.

 What do we do when the world changes on us? It is a question that has be gnawing at me for these weeks at home. There are obvious answers. Those of us privileged to work from home can make sure the school is functioning. We can reach out to ensure students are OK in these “challenging times.” But the height of our brave action is, well, no action at all. Stay home, wash our hands, social distance. Yes, we change the world through flattening the curve, but it is frustratingly passive.

Then I realized…when the world changes on you, your job – our job- is to ensure that that disruption should be used as a tool for our larger mission – the improvement of society. Unlike the systems we build through code, law, or institution, this virus does not display bias. It works its way through society as an ahistorical force. In its wake, though, it lays bare the decisions we have made as a community, as a society, as a species.

In US cities, people of color have been disproportionately affected – not because of biology, but because of systemic inequity in housing, in health care, in economic opportunity. Too many of the most vulnerable in our society cannot social distance because they are dependent on income from low paying jobs, dependent on mass transit, dependent on physical services unable to afford telehealth or expensive home delivery.

When our schools closed, when our universities closed, when government and businesses sent people home to learn and to work, they assumed that the internet would keep us connected. Yet the internet is not a utility – that status was stripped by an FCC driven more by ideology than social good. The internet is seen as another commodity. The results are both urban and rural students unable to continue learning without connection. It will result in performance gaps already wide from inadequate access to good schools and needed social services. The Summer slide will become the pandemic avalanche. The virus has clearly shown the digital divide widening with no public library or school wifi to fill the gaps. It is commendable that some telecommunication companies have volunteered to lift bandwidth caps, but social good should not come solely from charity, and an unpayable bill with unlimited data is still an unpayable bill.

As our libraries- school, public, academic -shuttered their doors and went to serve online they ran into a copyright system designed for profit – no emergency contingencies to speed access to vital scholarship and story times alike. For all of our talk about community-centered libraries, the closing of doors left our publics with ebooks, but little vital social connectivity. To be sure there are some amazing exceptions – public libraries calling up their regular members to check in and provide a friendly voice – but too few.

The world changed. That fact, that reality, is hard to comprehend. The scale of what has happened over the past two months – 9% of the US Gross Domestic Product channeled into checks and loans, and programs meant to simply allow people to pay the rent, hundreds of millions of people ordered to shelter at home – those that have homes. Borders sealed millions unemployed, including health care employees because high profit elective procedures have come to a halt – showing how even our health care system is out of balance.

The objective actions of the virus have shown us the reality of our current surveillance economy. In China, South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, and Israel governments used mobile phone location data to enforce quarantine and monitor the infected. What’s remarkable about these systems is not the speed they were put in place, but the fact that they had been in place for more than a decade. In the US it wasn’t the phone companies that set up social distance monitoring systems, but advertisers. Advertisers sold the data they collected from us back to governments to locate hot spots and large groups congregating against emergency orders. Once again, what is remarkable was not the speed with which they set this up, but it showed how the exact same data and systems just two month ago were used to influence our buying and pollical behaviors.

In Wisconsin a pollical brawl endangered lives in the supposed name of democracy when a desire to hear the voice of the people became entangled in politicians seeking to pick which people’s voices were heard in a gordian knot of self-interest. Astroturfed protests called to liberate communities fly under a false flag of liberty – economics and the health of the population presented as a false choice. Conspiracy theories and miracle cures fly across the internet as people seek someone to blame.

What does a person seeking to change the world do when the world changes on them? They seek to ensure that the aftermath of the pandemic is not a rush to recreate what was before, but to reinvent a society for the better. As knowledge workers, our job is to fix the data and media landscape people use to learn and make meaning in their lives.

My big biggest fear is that in a month we are all going to be rightly centered on the economic fallout of this crisis. And then in a year a drift back to “normal” not having learned anything.

How do we avoid wasting the very human price of this pandemic? My answer to you is leadership and advocacy.

Advocate for libraries certainly, but advocate for responsive and equitable health care for those who can’t shelter at home because they have no home.

Advocate for better systems of education and more accountability for government officials in times of crisis.

What we have now seen clearly is that the basics for survival in a crisis are food, medicine, and meaningful, trustworthy information. Knowledge sharing that includes accurate data, but more importantly, accurate reflection on the human condition.

Librarians should be mobilized in times of crisis like medical workers to tend to the knowledge needs of our communities. Not to ensure there are enough ebooks to go around, but to provide comfort in knowing and understanding. Librarians with expertise in reference should be building fact sheets and infographics for our communities. Youth librarians should be doing story time and helping parents explain the crisis to children. School librarians should be helping parents provide distraction and growth. Our systems librarians should be transforming catalogs and social media sites into community forums.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina citizens of the flooded wards were seeking accurate information. Dispersed across the country or living in squalid conditions citizens sought out guidance for housing, loans to rebuild, relief of all sorts. They were met with contradicting statements at the local, state and federal level. The systems intended to provide relief instead provided confusion and anxiety after the waters receded. A local newspaper transformed their online comment system into community forums focused on individual wards. In those online sites citizens became the experts. They shared not what was being told, but what worked. In a time of confusion, the newspaper provided a platform for communities to take charge and find clarity. That’s what our libraries should do now.

We should be briefing mayors not only on the latest news and research, but the work and concerns of the people. Medical librarians and academic librarians should be mobilized to help the world sort through the millions of new scholarly papers and studies being shared well before peer review.

After the virus passes, we need a workforce dedicated to the workforce. We need librarians trained in not just finding jobs and helping write resumes, but in applying for the labyrinth of new programs to support small business and gig workers. Our public librarians and school librarians must partner with our community colleges and universities to provide a true university of the people. Our academic libraries need to reach out and continue connection to academic workers laid off.

A key to emerging from this pandemic will be contact tracing. We need to identify who is sick and who they have interacted with in a way that preserves privacy and values the individual. Every librarian who is laid off instead of re-tasked to build and staff that contact tracing system is worse than a lost opportunity, it is a failure of leadership.

Every hole we discovered in our social safety net during this crisis, every crack in our response, has a knowledge component. We have seen how data on infections and mortality can be misreported, misinterpreted, and ignored. We have seen how the perennial underestimating of the importance of teachers and professionals dedicated to education cannot be remedied with a few packets and additional load on overstressed parents. We have seen how our elders can be not only quarantined, but isolated and ignored – their plight underreported. We have seen how state and federal responses instead of bringing clarity, bring division. Librarians and the whole of the information science domain must take these failures as an agenda, a grand challenge.

To be sure there have also been bright spots in these past few weeks. We have learned community and companionship can continue in Zooms and FaceTimes and Facebook Lives. We have seen librarians read and council youth. We have seen through people’s backgrounds and video conferences interrupted by children and pets a humanity to our collogues. Your mission now, our mission as librarians and information professionals is to fix the broken systems, heal the shattered psyches, and help our communities find meaning in a time of pandemic and the aftermath.

You are powerful, you are instrumental, you are the future in this regard. It is a large, and frankly, unfair burden to put upon your shoulders. But know you will not be alone. I am here, your professors are here, your fellow students are here. This mission is not for a few, it is for all. We got this.